AJC Bookshelf: Pandemic influences book storylines

COVID-19 shapes topics that authors write, how independent bookstores sell.
Detail from "Viral Literature: Alone Together in Georgia," a collection of essays, stories and poems about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Courtesy of SFK Press

Detail from "Viral Literature: Alone Together in Georgia," a collection of essays, stories and poems about the COVID-19 pandemic. Courtesy of SFK Press

If you’re looking for something timely to give the bibliophile on your holiday gift list, you can’t get more relevant than the new SFK Press release, “Viral Literature: Alone Together in Georgia.” A collection of stories, essays and poems about life during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s written by dozens of writers with Georgia connections.

Janisse Ray, author of the memoir “Ecology of a Cracker Childhood,” applies her unparalleled gift for nature writing to the virus in the essay “Ephemerals.” She writes poignantly about her family circling the wagons, so to speak, at their organic farm in South Georgia in hopes of keeping the pandemic at bay. The virus is like a weed, she says: “like dandelion, like nutgrass, like cockleburs. It is an imperialist. It colonizes. It wants territory. It floats in, plants a flag, and flies on.”

In “My Mother Calls Me From Pakistan,” “Unmarriageable” author Soniah Kamal initially ignores her mother’s dire warnings to stock up on masks and gloves. But when the pandemic takes hold, she recognizes her mother’s wisdom and laments the things she didn’t do before having to shelter in place. “I wish I’d gathered my kids and their friends and taken them to the park. … I wish I’d gone more to write at cafés and ordered too many coffees and too much cake. I wish I’d gone yet again to the grocery store and wandered wide-eyed and open-mouthed through the aisles, like children at zoos.”

Columnist and humor writer Hollis Gillespie brings some much-needed comedy to the topic in “COVID Cover Letters,” written in response to job postings she found on Indeed.com. To the hiring committee for Rocky Mountain Chocolates, which seeks a “Chocolate Quality and Compliance Manager,” she boasts that her qualifications include watching the “I Love Lucy” episode where Lucy and Ethel work the conveyor belt in a chocolate factory “eleven hundred times.” To Grand Canyon Associates, seeking an assistant manager, she writes: “I see that heavy lifting is a desired qualification. I’m good at that. My ex-husband is a former professional linebacker, and I carried (him) for 11 years.”

The struggles of raising teenagers during the pandemic are captured by Nicki Salcedo in a letter to her child on her birthday, “COVID-19 Sweet 16,” and Anjali Enjeti in her essay, “When Senior Year Disappears,” that contains a bittersweet scene of a makeshift prom held in the high school parking lot.

Courtesy of SFK Press

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But perhaps most memorable is “Sally Carter,” a chilling ghost story by Emily Carpenter, author of “Reviving the Hawthorn Sisters,” that connects pandemic spirits across the ages in a surprising way.

One of the things that makes “Viral Literature” a keeper is that reading it today provides the kind of comfort you get when you realize you’re not alone during a time of hardship. And once the pandemic is over, it will always be there to remind us what life was like “back then.”

If you do buy a copy of “Viral Literature” — or any book this holiday season — consider purchasing it at an independent bookstore. Like all small business owners, they have scrambled to stay in business and keep employees on the payroll during the pandemic. And you can’t beat the service. For instance, A Cappella Books in Atlanta immediately started providing personalized, albeit touchless, home delivery for free when forced to close in March.

“When (the pandemic) first started, I was not very optimistic that we’d find any way to survive,” said owner Frank Reiss. “My wife suggested we do home delivery — this was when the stay-at-home orders happened. It was a brilliant idea. But we realized early on that we had to tighten up our delivery range. The first few weeks, it was crazy how far we were driving delivering books. We realized we needed to limit it to inside the Perimeter, and even then, to certain zip codes.”

Because of A Cappella’s petite size, the store has remained closed throughout the pandemic, but its entire stock of both new and used books is listed on the website. For customers outside the home delivery area, books can be shipped. And if a desired book isn’t in stock, it can be ordered and delivered within a day or two.

“We do regret we can’t have people in for Christmas shopping, but we kind of feel like we’re able to do everything we’ve always been about to do in terms of offering the same selection of books and access to them,” said Reiss.

After limiting operations to just curbside service in March, Eagle Eye Book Shop in Decatur reopened its store in June. But curbside service is still available to those who don’t want to go into the store, said owner Doug Robinson. And purchases of $10 or more are shipped for free.

A Cappella Books owner Frank Reiss offers free home delivery to select zip codes, as well as shipping services for his customers.
Courtesy of Jonathan Phillips

Credit: Jonathan Phillips

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Credit: Jonathan Phillips

Apparently, toilet paper isn’t the only thing people stock up on when they anticipate being stuck at home for a while. Robinson has noticed a recent uptick in people buying books in bulk.

“People seem to be loading up in case they get locked down again,” he said.

Both booksellers expressed gratitude for the sales boost they received from former President Barack Obama’s memoir, “A Promised Land.” Robinson said he sold nearly 100 copies within the first two weeks of publication, including a signed edition for $350.

“That book is kind of an unbelievable Christmas gift to all the independent booksellers,” said Reiss.

Other independent bookstores in the metro area include Bookish Atlanta in East Atlanta Village, FoxTale Book Shoppe in Woodstock, TallTales Book Shop in Druid Hills, Medu Bookstore at Greenbriar Mall and Charis Books & More and Little Shop of Stories in Decatur.

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. svanatten@ajc.com