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Sept. 11-related books on high-demand

By Carole-Anne ElliottSpecial to the Daily Planet
Wednesday October 31, 2001

Attention, customers: terror and germs are now in stock. 

After weeks of delay in receiving highly publicized books on the Taliban, Islam, biological warfare and terrorism, Berkeley booksellers are receiving their shipments and reporting strong sales. 

“This is all people are buying right now,” said Rose Katz, manager of Black Oak Books on Shattuck Avenue. 

Of Black Oak’s 20 bestsellers for October, seven are directly related to the Taliban, Islam or the Middle East. Ahmed Rashid’s “Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil & Fundamentalism in Central Asia” is the store’s best-selling title, and Karen Armstrong’s “The Battle for God” is No. 2. 

“We’ve sold close to 200 copies of the Taliban book,” said new-book buyer Nick Setka, “and we’re selling 10 times as many (than usual) of the other books that we’ve gotten in.” 

In contrast to Black Oak and Cody’s Books on Telegraph Avenue – which are displaying a staggering 60 related titles on one table – tiny Collected Thoughts on Euclid Avenue has just a few titles immediately visible. 

“We don’t have the space for a comprehensive selection,” said manager Peter Palmquist.  

But a bigger problem for booksellers has been the wait for book orders. 

For four days after the Sept. 11 attacks, customers bought nothing but newspapers, Palmquist said. Owner Lorraine Zimmerman used that time to figure out what books she should have on hand.  

“I just closed the store one night and perused the history sections,” she said. “I took out everything I had and it went really quick.” 

Zimmerman and other booksellers used their own knowledge plus lists compiled by newspapers, book distributors and industry associations to create their orders. Customers listening to media reports came in with specific requests, too. 

But copies of books like “Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire” by Chalmers Johnson were nowhere to be found.  

“The stocks had just depleted from all the warehouses,” Palmquist said.  

Collected Thoughts was able to get in “Taliban” only by asking University Press Books for some of theirs.  

All 10 copies were sold within a week, Palmquist said, “which for us is pretty good.” The store has 40 more on backorder. 

One store that was prepared – if not with quantities, then with selection – was University Press Books on Bancroft Way. The store sells new and used scholarly books from 100 different university presses.  

“It’s not like we had to scramble to find something,” said manager Christine Creveling. “We just went upstairs and brought it down.” 

Rashid’s Taliban book is published by Yale University Press. Copies on hand were gone in a week-and-a-half, Creveling said, and the store made a rare request that its reorder be shipped directly from the bindery, instead of through a distributor.  

In all of 2000-2001, the store sold four copies of the book. Since Sept. 11, 31 copies have gone out the door.  

The store is having similar success with Mark Juergensmeyer’s “Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence,” published by the University of California Press.  

“We couldn’t give (that) away a year ago,” Creveling said. 

“At a time like this, people are really struggling for informed answers and that’s what these books are providing them with,” said Amy-Lynn Fischer, sales manager for the University of California Press. 

Unlike more mainstream titles that have print runs in the tens or hundreds of thousands, most scholarly books get printed in quantities of just a few thousand. The hardcover printing of “Terror in the Mind of God,” Fischer said, was just 2,000 copies. The first paperback edition – 5,000 copies, printed in August – sold out soon after Sept. 11, and another 12,000 copies were immediately reprinted and sold. The press already has “substantial backorders” for another 20,000. 

Jeanne Guillemin’s “Anthrax: The Investigation of a Deadly Outbreak” is the publisher’s other “bestseller,” its initial 4,000-paperback printing giving way to a 12,000-copy reprint, of which, Fischer said, about 5,500 are already spoken for. 

“We don’t often see sales like this,” Fischer said. “It’s a whole new ear in bookselling; nobody really knows how to do this in university publishing. We’re not used to bestsellers.” 

Fischer said it was hard to get excited about book sales at a time like this.  

“I had a very hard time sending out that e-mail to all of our vendors,” she said. “To announce: ‘“Terror in the Mind of God,” it’s available and you should put it on your bookstore shelves.’ It’s a tough thing to feel like you’re taking advantage of in a way.” 

Clay Banes, manager of Pegasus Books on Shattuck Avenue, agreed. While the store, which sells mostly used books, is still waiting for copies of “Taliban” and Judith Miller’s “Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War,” it has purposely kept its Sept. 11-related offering small.  

“We didn’t want to just cash in,” Banes said. “We thought, ‘let’s do a little research and find out’” what’s good. “We wanted it to be something that we felt we could be behind.” 

“Germs,” “Taliban” and Yossef Bodansky’s “bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America,” are selling at Barnes&Noble. But not doing too well is John Pynchon Holms’s “Terrorism: Today’s Biggest Threat to Freedom,” a mass-market paperback with the World Trade Center’s twin towers on the cover. 

“That’s the only insta-book I’ve really seen,” said store manager Joe Battaglia, adding that “sensationalism and exploitation” of events surrounding Sept. 11 seem to be absent. “I think publishers are being respectful.” 

Other titles selling in Berkeley are on bestseller lists of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, but not necessarily on national lists. Pema Chodron’s “The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times” and Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames” are No. 4 and No. 7, respectively, on the association’s Oct. 22 list. Neither appears on the Oct. 29 bestseller list of the publishing industry’s trade magazine, Publishers Weekly. 

“We’re probably the strongest independent market in the country, and I think those books are selling better in the independents than they are in the chain stores,” said Hut Landon, the association’s executive director. “I guarantee you (the Hanh book) is on the list as a result of what happened.” 

Many booksellers said customers come into their stores as a way of coping with such tragic events. Creveling remembered one man who didn’t buy anything.  

“He said, ‘I just want to know that all of this is here,’” she said. “‘I can’t deal with it now,’ he said, but when he was ready, he would. 

“It was funny,” Creveling added. “We all understood.”