Are more Americans reading during the coronavirus lockdown? Common sense would lead you to think so, and there’s some digital evidence suggesting it, too: The search term “books to read during quarantine” has been surging, according to Google Trends.
“They have to be reading more than they were, because it’s another option for them, and they have much more time and solitude,” says Mitchell Kaplan, South Florida’s preeminent bookseller, and founder of the Books & Books chain. “Our online sales, which are the only sales we have, have grown tremendously over this period of time.”
This confirms the durability of the Books & Books brand. Kaplan has a loyal patronage that will go out its way to support their local business in its time of need, rather than order from an e-giant. “They understand the importance of a local independent bookstore,” he says. “Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone. The fact that they can’t go to their bookstore is a big loss for so many people. The sense of community that a bookstore creates is a very important thing.”
Even with the spike in online sales, Kaplan says he’s only generating 5 to 10 percent of his typical revenue, and he’s had to furlough 80 employees. He’s trying to imagine what the stores will look like “after the new normal kicks in. Retail is getting hurt as hard or worse than anything else. … It’s a very difficult nut to crack. I’m very confident that Books & Books will survive this, but it’ll be a rough, rough, rough period.”
Kaplan says he may reopen his bookstore cafes for takeout “soon,” and some aspects of the stores’ appeal have continued online. Tonight, for instance, customers can purchase an e-ticket for a digital conversation with Madeleine Albright (author of the new memoir Hell and Other Destinations), which was scheduled to have been hosted in person.
And, while he’s figuring out how to make the business work today and tomorrow, he’s still reading. A lot. In our conversation yesterday, we asked Kaplan for his recommendations on recent books in various genres, and here’s what he suggested.
Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore
“It takes place in West Texas,” Kaplan says, following an incident of injustice during the Odessa oil boom of the 1970s. “It’s a bit of a mystery, but it’s also an amazingly well-written account of a community. You learn about what happens to the voices of all these women. It’s quite engaging.”
Code Name Helene by Ariel Lawhon
Lawhon’s fact-based novel explores the dramatic inner and outer worlds of Nancy Wake, an Australian socialite who became an unlikely spy for the Allies during World War II, where she famously killed a Nazi with her bare hands.
Deacon King Kong by James McBride
When a curmudgeonly church deacon enters the courtyard of a Brooklyn housing project and shoots a drug dealer in point-blank range in September 1969, it sets in motion consequences that ripple across New York City’s burbling melting pot, from the African-American and Latinx residents who witnessed the murder to their white neighbors, the local police, the deacon’s churchgoers and the Italian mafia.
Palm Beach, Mar-a-Lago, and the Rise of America’s Xanadu by Les Standiford
These days, Palm Beach’s most famous mansion is a political lightning rod, but controversy has long been embedded into Mar-a-Lago’s DNA. Standiford, one of South Florida’s most prominent authors, focuses his latest research on Marjorie Merriweather Post’s contentious property and its role in Palm Beach lore, while expanding his focus to include Henry Flagler, Addison Mizner, Paris Singer and the other larger-than-life names who helped transform swampland into a gilded hideaway.
The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson
Larson’s No. 1 New York Times best-seller is an absorbing account of Winston Churchill’s leadership during the London Blitz, capturing his daily life in cinematic detail over a monumental year. Declassified intelligence reports, personal diaries and original archival documents, some never seen before, lend the narrative new insights.
Stay: threads, conversations, collaborations by Nick Flynn
An unorthodox self-portrait from this multitalented poet and artist, Stay is a self-described “mixed-media retrospective” that is profoundly hard to categorize. Kaplan calls it “very unusual, and I don’t know that anyone else is going to have it as one of their recommendations. It’s sort of an anthology of his work, along with art. It’s a reimagining of his different work with artists, and it’s beautifully arranged and done.”
A CLASSIC WORTH REVISITING
Kaplan recommends this contemporary classic, first published in 1989, which he recently reread to great enjoyment. It follows the Binewskis, a family of circus freaks—including Siamese twins and an “Aquaboy” with fins for flippers—who are bred by an enterprising matriarch and patriarch to complete their traveling road show through the backwaters of the U.S.
Hungry for more literary suggestions? Click here for our list of 5 Contagion Novels to Read While Sheltering at Home.