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What are your neighbors reading?
I sat down recently with Island Books’ owner Roger Page to find out what people on Mercer Island are reading.
Turns out it’s all very scientific and quantifiable; computer programs can generate statistics that track the numbers and titles of books sold. But knowing how to stock the shelves of an independent bookstore in a community like ours requires keen observation of one’s clientele, too.
“Somewhere between a third and a half of our sales are children’s books,” said Page. Blockbuster kids’ books like the Harry Potter series and a current favorite, The Titan’s Curse by Rick Riordan have contributed to this surge. “It can turn into a feeding frenzy of middle school and elementary school readers,” said Page. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was the spark that lit the fire, and the fuel was added by the media, publishers, and the pure enjoyment of children.”
Page, who has been at Island Books for 23 years, said both the publishing industry and parents spend more money on children’s books than in the past. “In the 1950s and 1960s, children read through the library,” said Page. “Now, children’s books are a line item in the family book budget.” He added, “On Mercer Island, books compete well with iPods, computers and the busy-ness of life for the attention and eyeballs of elementary and middle school children. It’s a little surprising, and heartening.”
Page noted that 20 years ago, 25 percent of his customers came from off-Island. Then, starting about 15 years ago, and lasting until about two years ago, only about 5 percent of his business came from non-Islanders. In the last couple of years, his off-Island clientele has grown by about 2 or 3 percent a year.
He attributes this, once again, to children.
“Options for thinking Eastside families are few and far between,” he said. “We’ve become a destination store. Our store represents a kind of shopping experience, both in scale and intimacy, that’s getting harder and harder to find on the Eastside and in America.”
Page said Island Books reflects its patrons. “Why do people live on Mercer Island? Ninety-five percent of them because of the school system,” he said. “That’s what this Island is all about, and it translates into strong children’s book sales.”
Page estimates that adult book groups generate about 15 percent of his sales. Many of the books on the tables in the front of the store, opposite the cash register, fit this bill. “Those tables are heavily salted for book groups,” he said, with about two-thirds of the fiction table aimed at book groups, and a third of the non-fiction table. He can often get a sense of how popular books are from sales of the hardcover version. “Then, when it comes out in paperback, I’ll buy a large batch and put it on the tables, and see if my instincts are right.” Two recent examples are Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, and Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Relin.
Certain seasonal events throw off the usual routines, noted Page. “In late spring and early summer, the whole Island takes off, so we switch the selection to thrillers and beach reading,” he said. And as for Christmas, said Page, “It’s a huge gift-giving time that reshapes all the numbers.”
Page described the typical Mercer Island family: “They have a child in middle school and a child in elementary school. They shop with a vengeance for those kids — books keep them happy, and educate them — it’s nutritious. One member of the family, usually a 47-year-old woman, has carved out a little time to escape her work and family, to be part of a book group. Another member, sometimes a male, reads where time allows for entertainment — history, biography or popular science. And finally, there are the grandparents. Retirees can be omnivores when it comes to reading.”
Page said that the typical Mercer Island family represents the “central current” of reading on the Island, but that there are “little eddies and whirlpools,” too. “The thing that is slightly unusual about Mercer Island is that, intellectually, there is an unusual variety. Thus the store is stocked with good selections of cookbooks, gardening books, graphic novels and poetry. Continuing his weather metaphor, Page notes that the occasional “storm” will erupt, and he’ll sell a lot of books on a particular topic. Currently, a hot topic is what he calls “the greening of the world.” Other “atmospheric conditions” are caused, said Page, when things happen in the wider world to drive sales: a big-name or local author comes to town, or Oprah Winfrey promotes a book. Recent examples are The Good Mood Diet by Seattle authors Susan Kleiner and Bob Condor and The Secret by Rhonda Byrne.
Page said that as a bookseller, he often feels a bit out of synch with what’s currently selling, because he’s always thinking ahead. When we talked in early May, he was already focused on the books that he’d be buying to stock his shelves and tables in the fall. Asked for some good suggestions of books available now, he pointed to Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life; David Baldacci’s Simple Genius; and Alexander McCall Smith’s The Good Husband of Zebra Drive.
And for the children? No surprises here. Come July, Page is expecting possibly as many as 1,000 people to show up to celebrate the release of the seventh and final Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Breck Longstreth can be reached at email@example.com.