At the conclusion of last week's column
, I asked booksellers to take a look at their religion/spirituality sections and tell me what they saw. I also included several questions about bookstore buying habits in this category, posed by Sharon Roth, sales representative for Loyola Press.
Before joining Loyola, Sharon "spent many years as a book buyer for a large book operation here in Chicago. I felt it was my responsibility to know my customers and their reading habits. I bought for their interests not my own--at times this was difficult. But I also felt it was my responsibility to have a selection of books that would broaden people's knowledge of the world. Ignorance is dangerous and knowledge is not. For this reason it was my responsibility to stock religious books from all traditions."
Moving from a general to a specific focus meant changing her approach: "Now I am on the other side as a sales rep for a publishing company that publishes books on spirituality and religion. We are a Catholic publisher but many of our books are appropriate for all Christians. For this reason, I have noticed the religious category in many bookstores. I see some stores with very good sections and others with almost no representation."
It is from this new perspective that Sharon first wrote to me, wondering "if there is a religious bias by bookstore buyers in ordering religious books--especially Catholic books."
That might be an easy question to dismiss and a tough one to engage, but I've found that booksellers love the call and response of such engagement. So we'll begin this week with a wide-angle perspective, then get down to specifics next time.
Patrick Covington, co-owner of Accent on Books, Asheville, N.C., describes his business as a general indie bookstore with "a specialty in religion/spirituality books. We tend to avoid carrying stock that you could find in a CBA store (of which there are several in our town), and instead concentrate on 'mainstream' or 'liberal' books dealing with Christianity, as well as books on other religions. In terms of our personal religious beliefs, we're a bit of a motley crew. Our buying choices are a result of both what we have decided to focus on and our own principles--that is, books that deal with faith in an intelligent, challenging, and non-discriminatory way."
At the Moravian Book Shop, Bethlehem, Pa., Stephanie Anderson said she and head buyer Susan Fisher select titles for the religion category "based on what will sell, especially books that are geared toward the layperson. We keep in some academic titles for clergy (there is a seminary nearby), but primarily for the layperson. Must be sure to carry controversial books, books about atheism, books about comparitive religions, etc."
Katie Glasgow, book buyer for Mitchell Books, Fort Wayne, Ind., seeks a middle ground: "We carry both sides of the argument but try not to promote the extremes if we can help it. I just think that, depending on the history of the store and the climate of the area, a bookstore is going to be a place of ideas and the majority of those ideas are not going to agree on any level. But isn't that the point?"
At Spotty Dog Books & Ale, Hudson, N.Y., co-owner Kelley Drahushuk observes that religious belief "really only comes into play because I tend to order things that I would be interested in knowing more about: i.e., I'm Episcopalian, and know very little about any other religions except those of the Christian persuasion. Hence I order books that might help me learn about the other religions in the world and where they are coming from. Not that I eschew Christian titles, I guess I just order the more exotic Christian titles that appeal to my sensibilities."
Carrying "as open and wide a religious section as possible" is the goal for Sheryl Cotleur, buying director at Book Passage, Corte Madera (and San Francisco), Calif.: "We devote several large shelves each to every religious belief system we know of. In our region, Christianity, Judaica and Buddhism do very well, as does some non-traditional spirituality. We do carry books on Islamic beliefs and interest and Sufism, too, and, yes, even books considered against religion. As the buyer, I look for small press and offbeat books in these areas as well as mainstream publisher books. Our philosophy section is next to religion and that does well, too."
Next time we'll wander deeper into the stacks. Feel free to join the biblio-pilgrimage. And don't forget to answer Sharon's question about Catholic titles specifically.--Robert Gray
(column archives available at Fresh Eyes Now