Notebook: Summer Reading (Part I)

by Ann Kjellberg, editor

I’ve often noticed that there’s a special charm about the libraries and bookstores of vacation towns. Maybe because of the infusions of visitors looking forward to putting free time to pleasurable use; maybe because their own locals have sought out them out as places of natural beauty or some other marvel, an arts center, a piece of history, so they have that extra dollop of commitment to community life that always nourishes bookstores and libraries. Vacation towns are often (by design) miles away from metropolitan competition. For resort town bookstore owners sometimes two dreams have come together: running a bookstore and moving to a cherished place. (A consortium of nonprofits bought Aspen’s Explore, housed in a gingerbread Victorian, to keep it going.) The customers are also enthusiasts of what the community has to offer. Says Steve Crane of Rehoboth Beach’s Browseabout Books, his store is “an emporium of good times.” Jamie Layton, of Duck’s Cottage on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, points out that a paperback book can be more adaptable to vacation life and less adventure-sensitive than a $200 digital device. Listing beach-adjacent bookstores from Alabama to Greece, BookBub’s Emma Cubellis suggests checking their online recommendations for vacation-friendly reading ideas.

Some dedicated readers travel in search of “destination bookstores”: the novelist Ann Patchett, who founded Parnassus Books in Nashville, says that every time she’s “in the back room signing special orders or meeting with staffers to pick a book for our First Editions Club, Bill, the tall Englishman who works the front, comes to tell me a book club has just arrived from Omaha or Bangor or Sweden.” A web site recommending retirement destinations observed that “If a town has a great bookstore, it’s probably a wonderful place to retire,” and identified a few, like Madison, Connecticut (R. J. Julia), Key West (Key West Island Books and Books and Books), and Portland, Maine (Longfellow Books, Letterpress Books, and Sherman’s). Indeed, studies have show that reading actually contributes to health and well being (‘“Book readers were shown to have a 20 percent ‘reduction in risk of mortality’ over 12 years, compared to non–book readers in a 2016 study”), so, migrate accordingly.

The publishing industry is of course trained like a laser on the prospect of armies of readers unleashed from their day jobs for vacation reading. The publishing year pivots around the twin bonanzas of summer reading and winter holiday shopping. As we might expect, bookstore employees in resort towns report that summer reading tends to the light side. With summer populations sometimes five times a vacation town’s usual size (Cannon Beach, Oregon), summer buying is more diverse than at other times of the year (Molly Coogan of Bunch of Grapes on Martha’s Vineyard reported wryly that winter reading on the rugged northly island tends to dark). Vacation bookstore buyers generally seek out and display books that are “unputdownable”; vacation readers like to be gripped, but they also value having time to linger. Island Bookstore in North Carolina reported selling more poetry in summer than at other times of the year. Vacation town booksellers speak of a “sense of immediacy”: what a short turnaround time they have to read the moment and to respond to the year’s enthusiasms.

The Guardian had a fascinating article recently by Alex Preston about how until summer blockbuster novels have tended to be pretty commercial, but more challenging literary fiction has been increasingly visible among summer sellers. Preston credited effective marketing to the summer reader and the impact of book prizes and book club choices during the hardcover year preceding a book’s spring release in paperback. Such a bump can hoist a writer into the level of sales at which they can actually make a living. What Preston calls “the definitive summer smash of the past decade,” David Nicholls’s 2009 novel, One Day, sold 5 million copies. On the heels of a depressing Author’s Guild study of current writers’ incomes, commentators noted that even nominees that year for Britain’s distinguished Booker Prize had sold under a thousand copies before the being singled out for the prize. A strong summer bump can lift a book’s sales into the tens or hundreds of thousands. The Guardian lists a decade’s worth of summer hits, some quite unexpected, concluding this year with Sally Rooney’s Normal People (reviewed for Book Post by Elaine Blair). And, as we’ve had occasion to notice here in the past, publishing is currently seeing, for reasons unknown and probably multiple, a relative rise in nonfiction sales, with comparable strength for more challenging nonfiction in summer. Helene Atwan, director of Beacon Press, which publishes only nonfiction, says they no longer expect serious readers to “turn off their brains when it gets warm”; their current bestseller, White Fragility, is going strong these weeks.

Danny Caine, proprietor of Book Post’s current partner bookstore, the Raven in Lawrence, Kansas, confirms that spring-released paperbacks of books that got attention the preceding year are powerful in the summer: “The two warhorses for us this summer are A Gentleman in Moscow and Little Fires Everywhere, and to some extent The Overstory. These are all pretty long novels, which tells me that people want to be immersed in a vivid fictional world during the summertime.” Among hardcovers, he reports that “Colson Whitehead's lean and wonderful The Nickel Boys is also doing quite well.” Several booksellers interviewed for stories we’ve linked to above mentioned Nantucketer Elin Hilderbrand’s novel The Summer of ‘69 as a frequent summer choice this year, and Delia Owen’s durably popular Where the Crawdads Sing (which reminds us that Laura Miller, this week in Slate, resurfaced Owens’s unresolved connection to the murder of a poacher in Zambia, a story with some parallels to the novel) …

[Stay tuned for Part II!]

Ann Kjellberg is the founding editor of Book Post. See our archive to read more of her “Notebook” posts about the book world.

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Photo: Atlantis Books in Oia, Santorini, Greece