A Petworth reading list with Walls of Books and Upshur Street Books

A collection of books awaits you at Upshur Street Books and Walls of Books.

by Sarah Yacoub

Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff’s account of the Trump White House, has spent five weeks on The New York Times bestsellers list and has sold more than 1.7 million copies. Washingtonians, at the epicenter of many things Trump, have been especially eager to read the book, regardless of its mixed reviews. Kramerbooks, in Dupont, reportedly sold out of its copies 20 minutes after midnight on the night of the release.

With DC home to many avid readers, myself included, I wondered if the Fire and Fury fanaticism spoke to wider trends in what my neighbors were reading. Katie Presley, buyer for Upshur Street Books in Petworth and Pablo Sierra, owner of Walls of Books in Park View, provided a look at what tops our neighborhood bestseller lists, and what 2017 trends might shape reading lists for 2018.

Walls of Books at 3325 Georgia Avenue NW in Park View and Upshur Street Books at 827 Upshur Street NW in Petworth are two of the best places to find a great book, whether it's a new classic or a classic older book.

“We sold The Handmaid’s Tale hand-over-fist all year,” said Katie. “Our top five [bestselling titles] perfectly encapsulate the neighborhood: A is for Activist, Michelin Guide 2018, We Should All Be Feminists, Ada Twist, Scientist, and The Underground Railroad. We sold a lot of dystopian fiction, a lot of children’s books, many, many copies of Antifa: The-Anti-Facist Handbook, and a lot of backlist by authors that won major awards or released new work this year: Jennifer Egan, Kazuo Ishiguro, George Saunders, Jesmyn Ward, and Carmen Maria Machado especially.”

Walls of Books, a used book store whose inventory is largely dependent on what people bring in, also saw many requests for and purchases of The Handmaid’s Tale. “The book incorporated not just the idea of the near future and rights being taken away, but themes about women and the environment…each person had a different focus of conversation on that book,” said Pablo.

Pablo observed that 2017’s most popular books followed a pattern. “[After the inauguration] in January so many things changed and the psyche of readers changed. In the beginning of the year, people were asking for books to help understand the ‘other’ like Hillbilly Elegy. I tried to supplement those with political books you maybe should read. Books like The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984 were books people used to just have for summer reading but people were suddenly coming in asking for Margaret Atwood or George Orwell.”

He believes with so much weekly change, people sought books to help them interpret the national conversation, or books to simply help them get away. By summer, people were asking for what Pablo calls the “Netflix-type stuff” – Big Little Lies in particular. “As things got even crazier, we then saw a hope for nostalgia and people asking for Obama titles.”  

Walls of Books just celebrated its 2nd Birthday.

Both local bookstores have a role in shaping what the neighborhood reads, by virtue of what they keep in inventory or what they feature prominently on shelves.

“From the very first time opening the bookstore I recognized you provide information, and people take that information, so you are helping to feed their thought process already going on,” Pablo said. “It’s a huge responsibility. We want to be a place where there is a free flow of ideas and curate based on what we think people want.”

He explained he might bring out classics and put them next to something new or different or try to give a voice to both sides of an issue by putting authors with opposing viewpoints together. He recognizes that because much of DC is left-leaning, many of his books may also be, so he actively curates to provide balance. For example, with #metoo trending, he reminds me that feminism is not a new issue and we should go back to how writers have addressed the topic for years, not just seek out new writers’ perspectives.

“It’s a dance between reading the community, no pun intended, and suggesting books customers might not know about,” said Katie. “Local bookstores are so much lighter on our feet when it comes to making small changes to the stock that reflect local, national and international happenings. We’re also able to take into account the individual tastes of our booksellers in ways that bigger companies can’t. Local bookstores have so much more rapport with their audience. We know our customers, and our customers know each of us by name, and often by the shelf-talkers we write to recommend specific books throughout the store. We reflect the neighborhood, and the neighborhood trusts us to recommend even more of what they love.”

Looking ahead to the next Fire and Fury best seller, Pablo said, “For us, we love having a bookstore because society keeps giving us ideas and we are always curious. Zadie Smith is always a big deal for our clients [Zadie Smith’s Feel Free was published February 1, 2018]. Women writers and stories of or by people of color will continue to be big.”

“NEW. ZORA. NEALE. HURSTON,” wrote Katie to me, with all caps emphasis, in an email. She, like Pablo, is excited for Zadie Smith’s new essay collection and also anticipates continued interest in women writers. “Leslie Jamison’s new memoir on addiction and recovery… Mallory Ortberg, co-creator of the beloved The Toast website, wrote a collection of fairy tales made feminist! Also can’t wait to hand-sell Red Clocks by Leni Zumas and Heart Berries by Terese Mailhot.”

Katie Presley from Upshur Street Books.

With 2017 trends carrying over into 2018, readers may be feeling Trump – or responses to Trump – fatigue in new material. I asked Katie and Pablo about advice for readers seeking something new. “Instead of five titles you’re looking for, walk into a bookstore with five adjectives. They can describe you, describe the person you’re buying for, or describe the type of book you’re looking for. Bookselling challenges are our catnip.”

“There are not too many risks for reading,” Pablo says. He explains that because Walls of Books’ inventory comes from so many people in the neighborhood and the city, they offer a lot of what people are looking for, plus things they may not expect. He tries to keep aware of what is happening politically, economically and socially and features books that resonate with wider trends. He explains that his inventory also includes many titles and authors that people may have forgotten about. “A lot of the books we already have have a staying power and have been through the power of public opinion.”

If you’re finished Fire and Fury or looking for the next Hillbilly Elegy of 2018 to rocket up the bestsellers list, consider visiting your local bookstore. Hearing Pablo talk about his “constant adventure” owning a bookstore and his love for building a place where people want to come and exchange ideas is inspiring.

“More advice," said Katie. "Keep reading. Get off of Twitter every once in a while and pick up a book. Your blood pressure will thank you.”