In the bookstore last weekend, I could almost hear titles screaming at one another. The Obama Nation had some terrible things to say to The Audacity of Hope; Faith of My Fathers was called out by The Real McCain. During a presidential campaign, August seems to enhance its languid Dog Days with insistent barking, and even the deceptive silence of book jackets can be measured in decibel levels.
"Those who love their own noise are impatient of everything else," wrote Thomas Merton. In that thought dwells the spark for this week's transition to a new conversation because it is August and because, at summer picnics, you should never talk about two things with Uncle Ralph or Aunt Pearl--politics and religion.
We will talk about them. Since it was the debut of a Countdown to President Obama Hope Clock that got our political discussion going, perhaps we can let it serve as a vehicle of transition here as well.
In a recent edition of her e-mail newsletter, Susan Weis, owner of breathe books, Baltimore, Md. wrote, "I have 'hope' for sale . . . not that I want to be overly political, but I decided to sell hope in the form of the official Barack Obama Countdown key chain." Susan hadn't carried the George Bush countdown clocks because they "seemed so negative, and well, I shouldn't really get into all that here. Suffice it say--I'm happy to have Barack's face looking up at me and to see the clock counting down."
In a subsequent post on her bookstore's blog, she noted that in spite of "a few e-mails expressing dismay," the general response had been quite positive: "Some bookstore owners say they want to remain neutral, they don't want to alienate customers or the community they are in. . . . That's not me. breathe books is a reflection of me. One of the reasons I opened breathe books was to deepen my spirituality, surround myself with books, music, beautiful items and other people--all that would help immerse me into a lifestyle of learning, wellness, wholeness, authenticity. That others wanted to come along too is a blessing and a thrill. So when I promote Barack Obama, it's the same as promoting Louise Hay, Jack Kornfield or Eckhart Tolle. It's another way of surrounding myself with healers. And I'm not ashamed to say it!"
Whether the issue is politics or spirituality--or both--booksellers make daily inventory choices that influence customer decisions and have the potential to incite reactions. I couldn't help wondering if religion presents even more of a challenge for book buyers than politics does.
And so I ask you: What about the religion section in your bookstore?
You may think the inspiration for this new direction came from Rick The Purpose Driven Life Warren's faith and politics interviews with the presidential candidates last Saturday, but the real catalyst was an e-mail we received from Sharon Roth, sales representative for Loyola Press.
"Your columns in Shelf Awareness made me think about another subject: religion and how bookstores handle stock selection, placement and display of this category," Sharon wrote. "I know religion, like politics, is one of those topics that one shouldn't discuss at a dinner party, but how do bookstores handle this category? Religion is something that is even more personal than politics. Interesting in this political year the religion of the candidates seems to be an important issue. I think especially in this day and age allegiance to a political party is changed based on a candidate and his/her position on particular issues. People are not as apt to change religions as quickly, although often it is done for the same reason. Religion affects our world view and our dealings with people."
Sharon offered her insights on the topic, which I'll share with you next week. She also asked a few intriguing questions. In fact, I think I'll just step aside and let her ask you directly:
- What role does a book buyer's religion play in ordering and merchandising?
- How do bookstores select books for the religion category?
- How do they promote and merchandise these titles?
- Does a bookstore feel its customers would be better served in a religious bookstore for their wanted religious books?
- For this reason, would they carry only religious books that are on the bestseller lists?
- Does a bookstore have any responsibility to the community to carry religious books?
- Should a bookstore carry The Koran and books about Islam?
- What about books that are anti-religious?
Please take a look at your religion/spirituality section and tell me what you see.--Robert Gray (column archives available at Fresh Eyes Now)