Books in the Time of Covid

At the start of the pandemic I was thankful for the 750-some books I have on my TBR shelves. It certainly seemed like a good hedge against however long it would be before I could get to a bookstore again. But after about two months, a combination of missing bookstores and wanting to help keep some indies stay afloat had me thinking about what I could do. It seems like a no-brainer, just go online and order some books. However, given that my reading tastes are, shall we say, slightly antiquated, this wasn’t as easy as it might seem.

First, although I love buying older fiction (lots of early- to mid-20th century), the hunt is so much a part of the experience for me that going to or and just ordering titles I want didn’t really appeal too much. (I have since spent a dollar or two with the likes of those worthy used booksellers, but that was the result of different needs.)

Second, I had a bit of a challenge trying to figure out what in the heck I wanted to order from book stores selling new books. As you will see in the pictures below I mainly filled in back catalogs of authors I already knew that I enjoyed.

Third, once I had my list of books to order, I didn’t know where to order them from. Certainly there was my excellent neighborhood indie Politics & Prose, but I wanted to extend my efforts a little further afield. (Plus I asked a bookish friend who knows my reading tastes to pick out five books I should order from P&P, more on that in a future post.) So I thought about indies I had been to and also took to Twitter and asked people for suggestions.

Fourth, about a week after I placed these orders, George Floyd was murdered. Among the many worthy threads on Twitter about Black Lives Matters and racial justice in general, I was made aware of a Black-owned indie here in DC that I didn’t know existed. So I added that one to the list and ordered five more books.

The result was that after two months of no book-buying, I bought 35 books in one fell swoop.

Interestingly, the book store that provided the quickest turnaround was the tiniest, and the one whose online presence is charmingly reminiscent of 1999. I sent Three Lives & Company an email and they followed up within a day or so with a phone call. They couldn’t get two of the books I wanted so I told them to just send me two novels they were recommending. They asked for my preferences but I told them just to surprise me. Having been to their delightful shop in Greenwich Village many times before, I knew they would send something worthy and thoughtful. Those turned out to be the Murata and Jacobson.

Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Vermont was next on the list. I’ve always wondered about the Towles and a friend on FB lately raved about it so I thought I would give it a go. I also combed the websites for both Europa and NYRB Classics to come up with titles I might want.

My crowdsourcing on Twitter for suggestions for indies also netted Old Town Books in Alexandria, Virginia which I had no idea existed. I had no idea there was an indie in Alexandria. Seems like something I would have known about once upon a time. #Hermit

This looks like seven books, but the Sebald were part of a set that came as one unit, so, you know, it counts as one. These I ordered from the truly delightful Blue Hill Books in Blue Hill, Maine. We stumbled across it a few years ago when vacationing in the area. I wrote about that trip here. I had also asked them to fill in for two books they couldn’t get and they chose the Offill and Kinsky. Both of which look very interesting. I have since read Clifford’s Blues by John A. Williams. A fascinating story of a gay, African American musician who survived Dachau.

In case you haven’t noticed I bought a fair amount of Modiano, Sebald, and MacInnes.  This stack from Boulder Books in Boulder, Colorado also includes The Angry Ones by John A. Williams. I read this years ago and have never seen it since. I read it again and am amazed that it is not more widely read. Story of an African American man in New York in the 1950s who gets a job at a vanity press because they know they can pay him a pittance. It is tragic and fascinating.

I made a joke about McConnell Music on Twitter (a Mork and Mindy reference) and someone from the shop chimed in and said that their storefront was the one used for the show. I mean what child of the 1970s can hear ‘Boulder’ and not think of Mork and Mindy?

The stack from Malaprops in Asheville, North Carolina is slightly shorter because they couldn’t get one of the titles I ordered.

And finally, this is the stack I ordered from Mahogany Books in DC. A Black-owned indie that I didn’t know existed. So far I have read the Kendi and the Mask. The former was enlightening and helpful and the latter was fascinating in so many ways. I also got about 100 pages into the Wilkinson and had to put it on the DNF pile. I was willing to overlook its MFA-ish qualities, but then there were too many sloppy details that stretched credulity. I was no longer willing to suspend my disbelief.

17 thoughts on “Books in the Time of Covid

  1. Su Clift August 3, 2020 / 1:03 pm

    This was a fun journey you took us on. Thanks!


  2. kaggsysbookishramblings August 3, 2020 / 1:29 pm

    That’s an impressive haul! I have been buying books madly during the pandemic, from independent publishers when I can, and also from Hive, a UK online site which supports local bricks and mortar bookshops. It’s not that I *need* any more books, as such, but I just had to have them…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. BookerTalk August 3, 2020 / 1:29 pm

    Good idea to spread the power of your $ across several indie stores.


  4. lizzysiddal August 3, 2020 / 1:53 pm

    That, Thomas, is a lockdown well-spent! 😉

    Look forward to your views on the Koeppen. See if it winds you up as much as it did me …


    • Thomas August 3, 2020 / 4:46 pm

      Believe it or not I read it about 17 years ago and want to read it again. I wish I had the Penguin version I bought back then. Way more attractive than this cover.


  5. quinn August 3, 2020 / 2:03 pm

    Thank you Thomas as always. I luv me some book porn and this is delicious. Thanks and enjoy!!


  6. lizipaulk August 3, 2020 / 7:09 pm

    Wow. That was some bookish haul! Now -just need to read them… 😜


  7. Travellin' Penguin August 4, 2020 / 6:33 am

    I just finished Convenience Store Woman and really enjoyed it. Very unusual. Gentleman in Moscow is wonderful too. The hotel in that book is well and truly thriving in Moscow and we stood in front of it just last year talking about the book. Back in the day when we could travel. Enjoy your haul.


  8. Liz Dexter August 4, 2020 / 8:24 am

    Great piles of books! I ended up ordering quite a lot from Foyles, who are still sort of an independent, as they took book tokens and I’d gathered all mine up, and Hive, who make a donation to an indie bookshop of a percentage of what you spend.

    I’ve read and loved Convenience Store Woman and of all the millions of BLM and books by people of colour, I haven’t got the Kendi, mainly because i feel it is very US-centric and I feel the need to know more about what’s happening/ happened in the UK. Should I read it, though, do you think?


  9. Ti August 4, 2020 / 5:38 pm

    Convenience Store Woman is on my shelf too. Someone compared it to Murakami… saying the style of writing was similar so I was all for that. I totally forgot I had it until you mentioned it in this post.

    I could not read AT ALL the first few weeks in March. I could not read probably until April. Just too distracted and busy with moving our campus online. But not, a good two books a week. Still visit the store to buy. Mostly to support them not because I need more books.


  10. Geoff W August 5, 2020 / 9:41 am

    And now I have anxiety from seeing 35 new books! I don’t know how you do it.


  11. Esther August 5, 2020 / 2:14 pm

    Clifford’s Blues sounds really interesting. Years ago I read a terrific memoir by Hans Massaquoi called Destined to Witness about his experiences as a child in Nazi Germany. His father was African and his mother was a white German nurse. He moved to the U.S. as an adult and became a journalist and editor of Ebony magazine. Also, I loved A Gentleman in Moscow.


  12. Teresa August 7, 2020 / 10:15 am

    Old Town Books is a great little shop. They’ve haven’t been open very long, less than two years, and it’s teeny tiny–not a place where you could lose yourself browsing for hours. But it’s really nicely curated, meaning that they tend to stock the new books I’d choose if I had a tiny bookstore. I’m still more of a library user than a bookstore person, but I’m so glad to have a good indie nearby and I’ve made most of my purchases from them since they opened.


  13. Brona August 15, 2020 / 11:36 pm

    As an assistant manager of an indie bookshop, I thank you!
    One if the good things to come out of lockdown, is so many people rediscovering their love of reading, & for people like me (& you) yo have more time to read. Books will never disappear!


  14. Jenny colvin August 29, 2020 / 9:41 pm

    The Wilkinson felt to me like two books jammed together, like the author didn’t know what she wanted to write. A shame because it sounded good on paper!


    • Thomas September 3, 2020 / 10:32 am

      I can see that. What tipped me over the edge was too many implausible details that showed the author doesn’t have much knowledge of Washington or the CIA.


  15. Cal Gough September 2, 2020 / 8:39 pm

    I don’t know about the other 34 books you’ve bought, but you are going to love A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW. What a treat you have in store!


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