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If you're holiday shopping at indie bookstores, you'd better start now

Moira Macdonald
Seattle Times

Seattle — If you typically do some of your holiday shopping at an independent bookstore, it's time to start that shopping. Now.

The holiday season is typically a highlight of the year for bookstores, with customers swarming in to support local businesses and check off the names on their shopping lists. But this year will be different. Booksellers are anticipating shortages of popular books, and delays in getting shipments. And pandemic restrictions mean that very few customers can enter a bookstore at a time — which might mean that if you show up at the last minute, you'll be waiting in line outside.

Booksellers are anticipating shortages of popular books, and delays in getting shipments due to COVID-19 pandemic. (Hollie Adams/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

Local booksellers say that the issues with book production have been known for a while, but have been exacerbated by the pandemic. "I've been hearing it beginning in 2018," said Christy McDanold, who this year celebrates 25 years of owning Secret Garden Books in Ballard. "The printing capacity has gone down, the number of printers has diminished."

Large printing companies in the U.S. are under financial strain, made worse by shutdowns due to the pandemic and subsequent reopenings with fewer employees. Fewer books printed means fewer books going to distributors — who themselves have had pandemic-related issues with staffing their warehouses. Add in a paper shortage, and a publishing schedule in flux because many spring/summer books were pushed to fall, and you have a perfect storm of supply-chain gridlock.

All this doesn't necessarily mean that you won't get the books you want this holiday season — but if you have your heart set on a specific title, order it now. "If we tell you that a book is going to take a while to come in, that's going to be the same across the board unless another bookstore has it in stock," said Annie Carl, owner of The Neverending Bookshop in Edmonds. Carl said she's willing to call other bookstores if a customer wants a book that isn't on her shelves. "That's the really great thing about the book industry, especially the indie book industry — we're all in this together."

Tom Nissley, owner of Phinney Books and Madison Books, remembered the fun of bookstore holiday shopping before he was in the business, "spending half the day at Elliott Bay and choosing all my books for people." Sadly, that sort of leisurely browsing will be more difficult this year. All bookstores now have limits on how many customers may be in the store; for a small store, that number might be in the single digits. This puts booksellers in a painful situation: No one wants to turn away a customer, or ask one to wait outside in the cold, but it's necessary if the store is at capacity.

So how can customers help their local bookstores at this time of year? Shop early, shop early, shop early. Visit the store during quieter times; take advantage of store websites and phone ordering; know what genres your local store does and doesn't carry. And, when you do show up at the store, mask up and be kind.

"We're all really tired," said Carl. "We've hit this point in the year and we're exhausted and we don't know what to expect, we don't know how long we've got to hang in there for, hopefully not a long while. But the big key thing is kindness and patience." She, McDanold and Nissley all noted that the overwhelming majority of their customers have been thoughtful and considerate. McDanold said she's been especially touched by the number of customers who, upon hearing that the book they want isn't immediately available, will say "we want to buy it from you, so we'll wait."

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And, should you be needing recommendations for what to buy when you shop early — well, that's what indie bookstores are known for. Here are a few titles that local booksellers are excited about — and that you might need to order ASAP.

"A Promised Land" by Barack Obama (Crown). The new memoir from our 44th president — the first of two, focusing on his political life — is sure to be the biggest title of the season. Nearly every bookseller mentioned this one, which comes out Nov. 17; order it now if you want it.

"Pieometry: Modern Tart Art and Pie Design for the Eye and the Palate" by Lauren Ko (HarperCollins). "It's drop-dead gorgeous," said McDanold of Secret Garden Books of this dessert cookbook, noting that the author is local. "We've been notified that it's going to be big."

"Emerald Street: A History of Hip Hop in Seattle" by Daudi Abe (University of Washington Press). This book, complete with a foreword by Sir Mix-A-Lot, would make "a nice local gift for family members into music and the local music scene," McDanold said.

"The House in the Cerulean Sea" by TJ Klune (Macmillan). This contemporary fantasy novel, from a Lambda Literary Award-winning author, is "phenomenal and the perfect comfort fantasy" said Carl of The Neverending Bookshop.

"The Starless Sea" by Erin Morgenstern (Penguin Random House). Carl thinks this literary fantasy/love story from the author of "The Night Circus" will be a big holiday seller: "it's a big, beautiful book, and she's a stellar author."

"Snowy Owl: A Visual Natural History" and "Great Gray Owl: A Visual Natural History," both by Paul Bannick (Mountaineers Books). From a Seattle photographer and publisher, these two books are "extraordinary, for any bird lovers on anyone's list," said Georgiana Blomberg of Magnolia's Bookstore.

"Migrations" by Charlotte McConaghy (Macmillan). "It's a gripping story of the female protagonist's quest to follow the last flock of Arctic terns to their nesting ground," said Blomberg, praising the book's "powerful feeling for Irish and Arctic land and seascapes."

"Lightfall: The Girl & the Galdurian" by Tim Probert (HarperCollins). "A beautifully illustrated fantasy graphic novel for readers aged 8-12," said Suzanne Selfors of Liberty Bay Books.

"Mabel: A Mermaid Fable" by Rowboat Watkins (Chronicle Books). This book for very young readers tells of a mermaid who is different from all the others — because she doesn't have a mustache. "For picture books, we love anything funny," said Selfors.

"What It's Like to be a Bird" by David Allen Sibley (Knopf Doubleday). "He's kind of the authority these days on bird guides," said Nissley, of Phinney Books. "This one is a fun guide to bird behavior. It's oversized, you won't take it out when you're out bird-watching in Golden Gardens, but it's one to sit around and read."

"Solutions and Other Problems" by Allie Brosh (Gallery Books). Nissley noted that both the Sibley book and this one are going to be potentially difficult for printers — "they're not traditional 300-page books of text that are easy to reprint, they're bigger, more beautiful books, on really nice paper." Brosh's book, newly out this fall, is an illustrated memoir in the vein of her bestselling earlier book "Hyperbole and a Half." "It's one people have been waiting for," Nissley said.

"The Lost Spells" by Robert MacFarlane, illustrations by Jackie Morris (House of Anansi Press). Mary Kay Sneeringer of Edmonds Bookshop called this one a "beautifully illustrated book of animal poems by the duo who brought last year's oversized bestseller, 'The Lost Words.' This new volume is compact with a ribbon place-marker and is one book you can give to seven different people and delight them all."

The staff of Island Books on Mercer Island all chimed in with recommendations. From owner Laurie Raisys: "Accidentally Wes Anderson" by Wally Koval (Little, Brown), "Five Marys Ranch Raised Cookbook: Homegrown Recipes from Our Family to Yours" by Mary Heffernan (Sasquatch Books), and "Good Morning Zoom: A Parody" by Lindsay Rechler and June Park (Penguin Young Readers). From bookseller Cindy Corujo: "Happy Half-Hours: Selected Writings of A.A. Milne" (New York Review Books) and "White Ivy" by Susie Yang (Simon & Schuster). From children's' book specialist Lillian Welch: "If You Come to Earth" by Sophie Blackall (Chronicle Books). From bookseller Caitlin Baker: "Shuggie Bain" by Douglas Stuart (Grove Atlantic) and "Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World's Largest Owl" by Jonathan C. Slaght (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). From bookseller Nancy Shawn: "The Cold Millions" by Jess Walter (HarperCollins). From bookseller Lori Robinson: "Hamnet" by Maggie O'Farrell (Knopf Doubleday) and "A Sky Beyond the Storm" by Sabaa Tahir (Penguin Young Readers).

Chris Jarmick, owner of BookTree Kirkland, had a number of suggestions: Ernest Cline's "Ready Player Two" (Random House, available Nov. 24), Anthony Horowitz's "Moonflower Murders" (HarperCollins, Nov. 10) and David Sedaris' "The Best of Me" (Little, Brown) will all be popular; order them as early as possible. He also recommends "Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents" by Isabel Wilkerson (Random House), "So You Want to Talk About Race" by Ijeoma Oluo (Basic Books), and "She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story that Helped Ignite a Movement" by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey (Penguin). For something lighter: the mysteries "The Searcher" by Tana French (Penguin) and "The Last Agent" by Robert Dugoni (Amazon Publishing), and the "witty, heartwarming, exciting romp" "Anxious People" by Fredrik Backman (Atria).

And, Jarmick said, remember that "your favorite bookseller will introduce you to some books you never heard of before. So if you can't get the first book you think you want, be flexible and let your bookseller make some suggestions to you."