Robert Gray, the bookseller who writes one of the most astute and engaging blogs in the book trade, has a wonderful post this week at Shelf Awareness on "The Shame List." The Shame List includes "those backlist books every bookstore would be 'embarrassed' and even 'mortified' not to have in stock when a customer asks for them." He lists a few titles--some you might not expect--that are on his personal shortlist of books he'd hand-sell without even looking at the shelf. And he asks readers what titles are on their own Shame Lists.
I can’t remember where I saw this, but I once read a piece by an author about her “Middlemarch test.” If she went into a bookstore and it didn’t have Middlemarch, she knew the place was not up to scratch. Maybe that’s setting the bar too low, but I would certainly agree that if there’s no Middlemarch the backlist pickings are going to be slim.
Me, I’m a history fan, and I often find that it’s harder to find a good selection of history backlist titles than a good fiction section. There are some otherwise good indy stores I won’t even bother going into if I’m looking for a history book. Here’s a completely off-the-cuff, random selection of titles I’d look for to see if a store had a good history buyer. This is not intended to be a complete list of essential titles, but all of these are important and enduring works that are also wonderful reads.
J. H. Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages
Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August
At least something by Richard Hofstadter (my vote, The American Political Tradition, far less boring than its title)
Jonathan Spence's The Death of Woman Wang
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale
James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom
David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing
Confession: Fischer and McPherson are authors I have published. Inevitably, as an editor, my first test for any bookstore is, how many of my books do they have? I don’t expect even a good shop to have every one of my titles, but the ones that have at least a few intelligent selections prove themselves to be smart and discriminating. Extra points for faceouts, double points if they have a couple of the new ones on the front table. If none of my books are well displayed, I might have to arrange a few faceouts myself while the staff isn’t looking....I'm just trying to spare the store some shame.