Literate for the holidays: Historical fiction, memoirs prove big Christmas sellers

Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, melancholy prostitutes, dead spouses, hiking, hangings and holy wars are only a few of the gifts folks can expect this holiday season - judging, that is, by what's selling at our neighborhood bookstores.

Seeing that Seattle is a big book-buying city, it should be possible to take something of a spiritual and intellectual reading of our liberal, latte-sipping populace by finding out what sorts of literature we're gifting each other with in this holiday season.

"There's a lot of really hot books this year," said Georgiana Blomberg, owner of Magnolia's Bookstore in the Village. Historical fiction, historical biography and memoirs seem particularly popular right now, she said. Leading that list are such titles as "The March," by E.L. Doctorow, a fictionalized account of Gen. Sherman's "march to the sea," as well as Doris Kearns Goodwin's study of Lincoln, "Team of Rivals," and "The Year of Magical Thinking," writer Joan Didion's account of the recent sudden death of her husband, novelist John Gregory Dunne.

Patti McCall, co-owner along with Cindy Mitchell of Queen Anne Books, said her store's also selling a significant amount of the aforementioned titles. "It seems like this year, the strongest seller is nonfiction," McCall said. "There hasn't been a breakout fiction."

She said she particularly enjoyed reading Doctorow's novel. "I was so impressed," McCall said. "A couple of us have read it and loved it. It's been selling like crazy."

To the previous list of nonfiction titles she added Simon Winchester's account of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, "The Crack at the Edge of the World," as well as Gabriel García Márquez's new memoir, "Memories of My Melancholy Whores," and the latest book by former president Jimmy Carter, "Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis."

"We're a pretty liberal and educated community, so Carter's book is selling like hotcakes," McCall explained.

Blomberg from Magnolia's Bookstore said she had a guess why non-fiction works tend to sell so well during the holidays. "It sounds kind of simplistic, but [customers] always buy the history, or biography of historical figures, for dad and grandpa."

McCall said a handful of newer books by local authors are proving to be popular gift items as well. Queen Anne resident and award-winning writer Jonathan Raban has a new one called "My Holy War," a look at the issues facing American society in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. There's also Jack Hamann's study of the 1944 riot at Fort Lawton in Discovery Park, "On American Soil: How Justice Became a Casualty of World War II," as well as longtime Queen Anner Peter Potterfield's "Classic Hikes of the World: 23 Breathtaking Treks. "It's always fun to sell local authors like that," McCall said.

Most of the fiction selling at both stores is by well-known authors with devoted followings: Amy Tan, mystery writers PD James and Sue Grafton, as well as Anne Rice, who's taken a detour from her bestselling vampire novels with "Christ the Lord."

"We always sell a lot of paperback fiction," Blomberg said, adding that new literary fiction in paperback is also one of "our biggest things."

McCall noted that the year-end list of favorite titles she and her staff compile and publish in a newsletter has proven a popular guide for Queen Anne's customer base. "People love our list," she said. "We're all voracious readers. We have the most amazing group of readers right now."

According to Blomberg, the Christmas season at independent bookstores is the busiest time of the year, by "a whole order of magnitude" busier, she explained. Nonetheless, with the rise in the '90s of such megastores as Barnes & Noble, coupled with the growth of Internet providers such as Amazon, small bookstores are find-ing it harder and harder to hang on. It's a matter of economic survival of the fittest; many of the independents simply are unable to compete with the warehouse prices and bulk discounts offered by the chains.

"It's a little bit slower this year," McCall said of holiday sales at the bookstore. She said she has a few theories as to why that's so, one of which is the high volume of Internet sales. Another reason for the drop, McCall said, might be the amount of money folks gave to charity this year. "There's been so many natural disasters," she said, with people donating their expendable income "to people that really do need it.

"It's hard for me to fault that," McCall added.

"I think a lot of independents are really struggling," she said. "We would certainly like to see a better holiday season, but [dropoff] isn't putting us into dire straits."

Blomberg characterized this year's business at Magnolia's Bookstore as "just kind of steady." She said because the business is in "this isolated little spot," the store doesn't feel as much of a pinch from the competing, bigger chain bookstores. And, in contrast to McCall's analysis, Blomberg said online sales don't appear to affect her level of business. "The online stuff is a whole different niche," she said. "People use online for different reasons. That's not a big competitor at all."

Both owners seem to agree that one of the ways the stores can compete with Internet and chain sales is by offering a more personalized and hands-on form of customer service. "It's such a cliché," McCall said. "The only thing that we can offer that might make a difference to people is customer service. We've created a lovely place to shop. Our mission is to reach out to our community, and in particular our children," she added.

Blomberg said her customers seem to appreciate the erudition of the staff, and the fact that workers are so prepared to offer suggestions and advice on books. "That's one of our strong points for sure," she said.

Blomberg said that, for now, she's just enjoying the excitement of the holiday rush.

"It's great that so many people want to give books at Christmas," she said.

"That's a thrilling thing."

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