Reading public tastes, Westport librarians keep circulation booming
Even after 32 years, Marta Campbell's system is imperfect.
"It's not really a science. It's an art," she says.
For example: When she left work at the Westport Public Library on Friday, April 30, nobody seemed to care about that new Tom Rachman book.
But when she got to work Monday morning, there were 53 holds for The Imperfectionists.
"It was on the front page of the New York Times Book Review," she says, referring to the newspaper's Sunday insert. Evidently, a fair number of residents read the review and already had tried securing a copy from the library.
So successful was the book's launch, that the library's distributor was short on The Imperfectionists, too. So Campbell went shopping at local bookstores to help satisfy readers' appetites. The appetites were fed.
That, says Campbell, who's charged with managing the Westport Library's collections, was the 2009-10 fiscal year's biggest surprise. So while her system is not perfect, it sure isn't bad.
Campbell has as good a read as anyone on what Westporters are reading. And with the economy sluggish, book-reading appears to be on the rise, she says. During the last fiscal year, 431,361 books were checked out of the Westport Public Library. That's roughly 1,182 books a day, or 120 a working hour.
And when movies, music and other things are counted in the mix, a record total of 949,256 items were borrowed from the library, she says. That amounts to 2,600 items checked out a day, or 264 an hour.
The undisputed champion of this frenzy? The Help, a debut novel by Kathryn Stockett, released in February 2009, about black domestic servants working in white Southern households in the early 1960s, according to Campbell. The Help was checked out 613 times during the last fiscal year, or once every five or six working hours.
Campbell can't recall how many copies of the The Help she originally procured. But she calls it unusual because she had anticipated it would be wildly popular.
"We purchased more at the beginning than we usually do," she says. Typically, for every four or five holds on a book, the library will get an extra copy. "Now we have 41 copies" of The Help, she says. "They'll probably find their way to the book sale. The request list has gone way down."
As for genres, Campbell says that thrillers are as popular as ever in Westport. She says that "good literature" has made recent gains, eclipsing nonfiction as the preferred read.
"That wasn't always true here," Campbell says. "My speculation is that there's a connection with the economic condition. I think there's an element of escapism with good fiction."
On that note, Campbell describes an abnormal spike in DVD checkouts during last winter. "When the economic news was most dire," she notes, "our DVD hold list went way, way up." She'll speculate on why -- maybe people are vacationing less -- but stops short of making an assertions.
Unsurprisingly, teenagers flocked to the Twilight series this past year, Campbell says. But The Red Pyramid, by Rick Riordan, is currently the most in-demand book among youngsters.
That book's about sibling teenagers who get kidnapped from the British Museum one evening and who must, using family-inherited magical powers, combat Egyptian gods from destroying mankind. One of the gods, Set, is building a destructive red pyramid inside Camelback Mountain in Phoenix, according to a School Library Journal review.
"That's really for older children," Campbell says. "Middle schoolers."
Some more of the year's other favorites-- The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows; Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout; The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery -- which Martha Stewart called her favorite book in various magazines, Campbell said -- Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay; Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel; Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann; and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese.
There's no mystery about last year's biggest flop. That was The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown, according to Campbell. "Everyone was waiting and waiting and waiting for it. But once it got here, people were sort of disappointed," she says.
So how does Campbell stay abreast of what Westporters want to read? By tracking the book reviews. For instance, the library usually receives an advance copy of the New York Times Book Review.
"We pretty much make sure we have everything in it every week," she says. "When people come in on the weekend looking for what they just read about, it should already be on order." She paused, perhaps considering The Imperfectionists. "That's my goal anyway."
Campbell also combs through Publisher's Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, the American Library Association's Booklist magazine and popular media outlets such as television shows, National Public Radio and magazines like The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek and People.
Asked about a recent novel -- Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart, released in late July -- Campbell immediately says the current waiting list is 16.
"We have six copies. One is express," she says, referring to a copy that can't be reserved and that can only be checked out for three days.
The hottest books of this year, for the record, belong to the Stieg Larsson trilogy, among them, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Many of the books that get checked out en masse go to book clubs, Campbell says. The library caters to between 60 and 70 book clubs. Demand for others often grows when the authors come to the library and speak.
Rebecca Skloot had success with that, drumming up interest for her novel, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Campbell says. So, too, did Westport's own Catherine Schine, who released The Three Weissmanns of Westport in February.
And nonfiction here is far from dead. Open, Andre Agassi's autobiography, was a smashing hit, Campbell says. The other top nonfiction works primarily were political or financial works, she says.
Westporters, it appears, have a wide range of reading interests. "We have readers who enjoy what's called `chick lit,' " Campbell says, "which is light women's fiction, and which you'll see in People (magazine). And that's just as important to have as something by James Joyce, which is also important."
There is, however, one discrepancy between Westport and the macro-literary economy.
"From time to time, the New York Times bestseller list will have something that I just know isn't going to go here," she says.
She's asked for an example.
"Years ago, there was a biography of a wrestler up there," she says. "I'll wait and see if someone asks for it. If they ask for it, we get it."