The buzz in BookLand is almost always about new releases or bestsellers. A bookseller gets a bazillion emails from publishers with links to lists of new titles, plus magazines and promotional materials in the mail. New is fun and shiny and pretty and we love to arrange tables with the latest stories and histories, all crisp and fresh looking in their gorgeous covers. When I’m excited about a new release it’s fun for me to tell about it and hope you like it too, and let’s face it — it’s so easy and profitable when I can simply say: “There’s a new David McCullough out!”
Three years into this biz though I’ve come to cherish my “backlist” even more. By backlist I mean our precious rows of paperbacks that in many ways define who we are. Have I ever told you how a beginning bookseller buys her first say, 5,000 books before opening day?? It is one of the most daunting things I’ve ever done, way more so than studying for the Bar exam and almost akin to childbirth. The way we did it, me and Jenny and Lisa and Heather – was we ordered a list of independent booksellers’ best selling books over the most recent 5 month period. The number of books in each section of the list (fiction, picture books, biography, cookbooks etc.) depends on how many titles you want in that section of your store; for example, if I wanted to have 300 cookbooks I’d get a list of 1,500-1,800 or so bestsellers according to the sales of participating indie stores reporting. Then, pen in hand you read every single title on the list and if you don’t know it just from the title, you look up every single one on your laptop. Or at least we did. Multiply that task by about 35 other sections – the fiction list alone was about 2 inches thick) and you have yourself about five 15-hour days times four people of work. I know, it sounds fun and it was – or it would have been more so if we were at leisure, but we had a deadline. I remember texting each other with fraught comments like “this page of general fiction has taken 2 hours already and I have 10 more books to look up!” or “I’ve decided not to circle any books by authors whose names I can’t pronounce,” then an “only kidding I just needed coffee.”
All those hours paid off because in those early days we bought many wonderful paperbacks for our first inventory, but really those were other stores’ bestsellers. An excellent start for sure and some have become our bestsellers too. But when you tally up Prairie Path Books' top sellers, they are always books we have read and loved so much that we take them down reverently from the shelf, hold them to our hearts while we describe them, and then hand them over for your admiration. Many of our favorite 2014–2017 hardcover new releases have come out in paperback: it’s our biggest compliment when we continue to carry a title after that. Me and Jenny sometimes remember a title we’ve loved and don’t have yet, plus, very often if one of you gushes to me about a great book I order it on the spot, enriching our shelves all the more. Now that’s a backlist!
Last week I decided our backlist needed a boost so I polled all of our employees (even those gone to college) and PPB readers for their favorite authors. Some shot me back their list in seconds, others had to kanoodle a while. It made me laugh to remember that when I came upon the title “Old Filth” on that long, long list three years ago I scoffed “what a stupid title,” to myself and breezed by. Luckily I felt guilty and went back and read its staggeringly great reviews and bought it for the store. A year or so later I bought it from myself and cherished all three in the Filth series and Jane Gardam is now tops of my author list.
So, long story short (“TOO LATE” as my husband often says to me), I’ve put our PPB personal favorites at the very front of the store for you. In a while we will nestle them onto our shelves for you to find, or just ask us. See, we‘ve found our own way to our very own personal bookstore backlist. It took some time, and not a few drops of blood sweat and tears, but I’m really proud of it. Come see. We’d love that.
— Sandy Koropp