It is Book Store Quiet in here, a window-wrapped sanctuary of calm in a fancy shopping center with a Wegmans facing the front door. The children’s section is always busy, with Curious George and Harry Potter tales flying into the hands of suburban Philadelphia moms, dads, and grandparents.
But walk anywhere near The Wall Of Doom, as the political book section can best be described, and prepare to be bloodied.
There have been fights in the stacks. Shoppers fire verbal mortar shots toward assistant manager Sarah Danforth. (She dodges grenades by pleading political neutrality.) Aggrieved liberals and conservatives even attack Mr. Mild Mannered himself, owner P.K. Sindwani, a 60-year-old bespectacled former accountant who has run Towne Book Center and (soon-to-be) Wine Bar for a decade in the pharmaceutical corridor of western Montgomery County.
This is no way to live. And yet, this is life in the Age of Trump. In just the two-odd, very odd years since Donald Trump became president, even the once-dreary politics section of a suburban shopping center bookstore has become a war zone.
It is hard to imagine a more perfect microcosmic setting for our hyper-polarized American political culture. The store, which I first visited a decade ago as independent merchants were struggling to keep pace with Amazon’s e-books, is in Upper Providence Township. Despite a majority of registered voters being Republican in 2016, more voters here picked Hillary Clinton over Trump.
Just as Trump’s ascension to the White House blasted a deep schism into the body politic, so have spirits soured to extremes in this store. The merchandise is more incendiary, too, fed by a short-attention-span news cycle that has fueled a tsunami of quick-hit books from Washington-scandal-hungry publishers.
Before Trump, customers were content with a single table on which half the titles were fairly milquetoast conservative-leaning scholarly reflections, and the other half suitably vanilla offerings from the left.
Today, customers demand titles being churned out with sometimes only a few months’ lead time: a tabloid-and-Twitter-like smorgasbord of here-today, gone-tomorrow salacious bestsellers, each forecasting either deliverance or doom.
House of Trump, House of Putin: The Untold Story of Donald Trump and the Russian Mafia, sits alongside HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE, The Deep State, FASCISM, and a book whose title is simply spectacular, LIARS.
Sindwani and Danforth say they pick the books based on what customers seem to want and what they think might do well in the store. The extreme-sounding stuff has sold best, bringing customers with sometimes unbridled passions to the checkout counter, too.
“I get yelled at,” Sindwani said in his characteristic near-whisper, during a visit a few days ago. Mind you, he is hardly some fringe-provocateur; Sindwani walks around in a tweed jacket and is always fretting about how to keep the store profitable against click-and-buy competitors like Amazon. (He is opening a wine bar a few weeks from now, which will make his the first store in Pennsylvania to offer booze with books.)
There was pretty nasty talk at his old bookstore, in nearby Trappe, back during the Bush v. Gore presidential race that ended with the Supreme Court declaring George W. Bush the winner in 2000. But the latest incivility, begun after the 2016 election, has been exquisitely pitched.
"I had people come in and get mad at me for even having Hillary Clinton’s book,” he said. His stock answer: An apology and, “We have Trump books as well. The Trump ones sell quicker.”
Another example: “Alec Baldwin came out with a book, and I had his cutout — you know how he’s dressed up [as Trump] in Saturday Night Live?” Sindwani said. “Somebody actually got mad at me for having that.”
“A guy yelled at us for not having a poster of Melania Trump, while we have a poster of Michelle Obama for her book, Becoming," Danforth, his right-hand-woman, added. "I had to straight-up tell a guy I was not talking with him about the president the other day when he came up saying a publisher should never publish something that goes against the president.”
What, exactly, might bring the warring sides together?
Danforth had hoped, when John McCain’s biography came out a year ago, it would be embraced by all. Instead, it went largely unsold. (If that’s not a perfect metaphor for the death of the pre-Trump Republican Party, I don’t know what is.)
There has been one book, though.
Michelle Obama’s memoir, which is now said to be on track to be the bestselling memoir in the world. It has been hugely popular with conservatives and liberals in the store.
“They’re people who come in, buy one copy of the Tucker Carlson book and at the same time buy Michelle Obama’s book,” Sindwani said.
“Amazing,” both say.
Another ray of hope? Political book sales have been on the decline in recent months, they say. Apparently even partisan anger can develop a short consumer shelf life.