Independent shops share their favorites
Published: Dec. 10, 2021
By: Lawrence Specker | LSpecker@AL.com
People had a lot of time to rediscover the love of reading during the height of the pandemic, and books continue to be a popular Christmas gift choice.
It’s a good Christmas for book lovers, judging by word from some of Alabama’s independent bookstores.
From Snail on the Wall Books in Huntsville to Thank You Books in Birmingham to the Haunted Book Shop in Mobile and Page & Palette in Fairhope, owners and buyers were more than happy to talk about books that are popular gift selections this season. You’ll find those below.
But they also hit a common theme: Business is good.
Maybe that wasn’t to be taken for a granted. In 2020 people were forced to spend more time than usual alone and at home, so it makes sense that many of them read a lot. In December 2021 the actual end of the COVID-19 pandemic remains uncertain -- thanks a lot, Delta and Omicron -- but people have options again. For many, activities such as dining out or going to concerts and sporting events are once again options.
But business at these stores hasn’t dropped off. It has increased. There seem to be several reasons, starting with the simple fact that the Christmas gift season drives business across the board.
“These past couple of weeks, we have seen an uptick in our traffic, as folks start their shopping in earnest,” said Kristen Iskandrian of Thank You Books. But that comes at the end of a good year, she said: The young store is expanding to “help us accommodate our growing community and in-person events for 2022 and beyond,” she said.
Based on 2021 business, Snail on the Wall might expand its shop too -- if it had one.
As always, popular Christmas-season gift books include some set in the Christmas season. "Once Upon a Wardrobe," "The Santa Suit" and "The Usual Santas" are displayed at Page & Palette in Fairhope.
Lady Vowell Smith opened the shop in 2018 with an unusual business model. She didn’t want the overhead of a bricks-and-mortar store, but she did want to have real-world action with the community.
“It’s always been an unusual business model,” she said. “I’ve been doing delivery to doorsteps locally since Day One. I call it a bookstore without a store, because we are out in the community, doing pop-ups, doing author events, things like that.”
“Really it was the author events that got me started,” she said. “Huntsville was really missing out. … It’s just kind of morphed from there.”
“During COVID it really exploded because people were not only looking for a delivery option, but they also were really wanting wanted to support local,” she said. “Last year, when were still kind of in the pandemic, my business … it sort of quadrupled in profitability. It really did well. I would say we’re at that level again this year. People really love to support a local bookstore.”
She gets “the best of both worlds” by opening a seasonal pop-up store. It’ll be open through Dec. 24 at Roosevelt & Co. on Clinton Avenue, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday.
Angela Trigg, owner of The Haunted Book Shop, said she used the initial pandemic shutdown to improve her online presence, adding automated features such as an order-by-text system. She kept her staff of three working, and this year added two more positions.
March was a record month, she said, and business since then has been strong. “I’ve blown 2019 out of the water,” she said.
"Mobile's Porch Parade" documents the way Mobilians adapted to the dearth of Mardi Gras parades in 2021 by decorating their homes. It's shown on display at The Haunted Book Shop in downtown Mobile.
“I think there’s been more disposable income,” Trigg said. “I don’t know what that’s about. I’m not complaining. And then I think the pandemic highlighted for people the importance of shopping local.”
Anderson McKean, a buyer at Page & Palette, seconded the idea that the pandemic prompted many people to buy local. But she had a couple more insights into what was driving traffic. One is that people have spent so much time in Zoom meetings and other electronic interfaces that they crave an alternative. And people who rediscovered the pleasure of reading during the worst of the pandemic aren’t letting go of it,
“People are wanting physical books, both for themselves and their gifts,” she said.
Every year there are a few popular books that people want to share. Smith and McKean zeroed in on a couple of 2021 standouts: “The Lincoln Highway” by Amor Towles and “Cloud Cuckoo Land” by Anthony Doerr.
"The Lincoln Highway" and "Cloud Cuckoo Land" are two of the hits of the 2021 Christmas season, according to independent bookstore operators in Fairhope and Huntsville.
Each is radically different from the author’s preceding work. “Cloud Cuckoo Land” comes after Doerr’s hit “All the Light We Cannot See.” That was a World War II novel set in France; the new one is set “in Constantinople in the fifteenth century, in a small town in present-day Idaho, and on an interstellar ship decades from now,” according to the publisher.
“I can’t even call it a follow-up,” said McKean. Where “All the Light We Cannot See” is straight historical fiction, she said, “Cloud Cuckoo Land” is “this mishmash of fantasy and history … it’s just completely different. You’ve got to spend some time getting into it.”
“People just adored that book [’All the Light We Cannot See’] so I just continue to sell a lot of ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land,’ said Smith. “It’s a complete departure from ‘All the Light We Cannot See.’ But it gets rave reviews and it’s a big hefty book you have to spend some time with.”
In Amor’s case, “A Gentleman in Moscow” was set in Russia and concerns an aristocrat placed under decades of house arrest by the Soviet regime who becomes a sort of father figure to a young girl. “The Lincoln Highway” is an American road trip set in the 1950s.
“This book follows this cross-country odyssey, for lack of a better word, of two brothers and some other interesting characters,” said McKean. At its core, she said, is a relationship just as endearing as the one in Towles’ previous book.
“‘The Lincoln Highway’ is one that I could honestly give to a man or a woman of any age,” she said. “If you’re looking for a book to give someone and you’re not exactly sure what they might like, they’re going to find something out of ‘The Lincoln Highway’ for sure.”
The Haunted Book Shop has a reputation for the stock of fantasy and sci-fi that dominates its second floor. So maybe it’s no surprise that the hit of the season is something completely different.
“The biggest seller we have going on right now is ‘Dune,’ because of the movie,” said Trigg. People either want to re-read it, or see what all the fuss is about, or they’ve seen the film and they want to know what happens next.
Independent bookstores are usually more than willing to make a recommendation or two. Staff picks, with handwritten notes, cover a display at Page & Palette in Fairhope.
Smith said other hot sellers include Ann Patchett’s essay collection “These Precious Days” and works by youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman, whose new book “Call Us What We Carry” was getting a lot of pre-orders before its Dec. 7 release.
Bestsellers aside, one of the best things about independent bookstores is their willingness to make recommendations. Thank You Books has an extensive online gift guide broken down into categories, but Iskandrian boiled it down to a few picks:
“Bewilderment” by Richard Powers, “The Anthropocene Reviewed” by John Green, “White Bull” by Elizabeth Hughey, “Entertaining Race” by Michael Eric Dyson, “Atlas of the Heart” by Brené Brown, “Intimacies” by Katie Kitamura, “Angel of Greenwood” by Randi Pink, “Beautiful Country” by Qian Julie Wang, “Fight Night” by Miriam Toews, “My People All Glimmered in Gold” by the Woodlawn Writers Corps, “Harlem Shuffle” by Colson Whitehead, “Fight Songs” by Ed Southern, “Cheat Day” by Liv Stratman, “Reparations Now!” by Alabama Poet Laureate Ashley M. Jones, “Willodeen” by Katherine Applegate, “Once Upon a Camel” by Kathi Appelt, “Hornswoggled” by Josh Crute, “The Beatryce Prophecy” by Kate DiCamillo, “Come Clean” by Joshua Nguyen, “The 1619 Project” by Nikole Hannah-Jones and the NYT Magazine, “We Want Bama” by Joseph Goodman and “Shaking the Gates of Hell” by John Archibald.
“Having been amply warned by our publishing reps of potential supply issues, we have ordered accordingly, and are well-stocked for the season’s big titles, as well as our staff picks,” Iskandrian said via email. “Full-color books (such as children’s picture books and cookbooks) will be harder to restock, since they are generally printed overseas, so it’s best to get these early.”
Smith’s recommendations also are no secret: One of Snail on the Wall’s specialties is book bundles, each a trio of tomes packed for grab-and-go shoppers. “the Snail’s Favorite Fiction” includes some books that don’t fit easily into standard genres; one of them this year is “Small Things Like These” by Claire Keegan.
“It’s perfect, it’s set at Christmas time in Ireland,” said Smith. “It’s a little book that’s a one-sitting read, almost like a long short story, beautifully written, about a father, a family man in this small town in Ireland who makes a discovery at a local convent of some abuse that’s going on there and he has to decide whether he’s going to do something about it or look the other way.”
“The one that’s the most popular every year is history,” said Smith. This year’s history bundle includes “Agent Sonya,” “The White Ship” and the evocatively titled nautical tale “Madhouse at the End of the Earth.”
“People love to give books about food,” said Smith. Popular picks this year include “Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer’s Guide;” “Southern Grits” by Kelsey Barnard Clark, an Alabama author who won on “Top Chef;” “Taste: My Life Through Food” by actor Stanley Tucci; and “The Southern Entertainer’s Cookbook: Heirloom Recipes for Modern Gatherings.”
“That one’s been very popular,” Smith said of the last. “People just always love a new take on Southern recipes.”
They seem to love a new twist on Southern anything. “We do really well with books with a Southern setting,” said McKean. Page & Palette has an extensive display of regional authors, and one of her picks this year is “When Ghosts Come Home” by Wiley Cash. (It’s also in The Snail’s Favorite Fiction” bundle; in it, a sheriff in coastal South Carolina must sort out a situation involving a plane crash, an apparently unrelated body and a rise in racial tensions.)
Some other recommendations from McKean: William Kent Krueger’s “Lightning Strike,” a prequel to his Cork O’Connor mystery series; “The Santa Suit” by Mary Kay Andrews; “The People We Keep” by Allison Larkin.
And “Once Upon a Wardrobe” by Alabama author Patti Callahan. It follows her first historical novel featuring C.S. Lewis, the bestseller “Becoming Mrs. Lewis,” and concerns a student trying to learn whether there’s anything “real” about Lewis’ landmark fantasy fiction. McKean said it’s a tale suited to the season.
“It’s a great gift to give someone if you want a feel-good holiday read,” she said. “It kind of peels back the layers and weaves a story of, where did Narnia come from.” —Anderson McKean, buyer for Page & Palette
At The Haunted Book Shop, the local section prominently features an only-in-Mobile selection: “Mobile’s Porch Parade,” a hardcover retelling (and re-showing) the way Mobilians adapted to the COVID shutdown of Carnival 2020 by decorating their homes in a lavish manner worthy of Mardi Gras floats. Other popular local picks include “The Assault on Fort Blakeley by Mike Bunn and “Such a Woman: The Life of Madame Octavia Walton LeVert” by Paula Webb.
There’s also “The Last Checkmate” by local author Gabriella Saab. In it, a young woman in the Polish resistance, imprisoned in Auschwitz, depends on her skill at chess to give her a chance at life. “It’s ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ meets ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz, maybe,” said Trigg. (Publisher HarperCollins also references those two touchstones.)
In keeping with the shop’s specialty, some of Trigg’s recommendations lean strongly into the worlds of fantasy and science fiction. “The Atlas of Dark Destinations” invites readers to explore the world of “dark tourism.” Or perhaps you need a gift for someone who’d like a 42nd anniversary edition of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Or a signed copy of “Fan Fiction: A Mem-Noir,” the fictionalized memoir from “Star Trek” actor Brent Spiner. This is the place.
No matter what independent bookstore you choose, it appears you’ll have plenty of appealing options. And maybe that has something to do with the isolation of the pandemic, too. As McKean said:
“Authors have been in the same situation, so they have been putting out some really remarkable works of fiction and nonfiction. Because they don’t have anything else to do either.”