Part 1 (in case I decide to write more later. I’m not linking or doing anything because on thing that slows my desire to blog is the linking and adding images. Maybe I will some other time)
The other day I happened across a list of NY Times Bestsellers from 1989. It was particular interest to me because that was the year I began working at a chain bookstore. Six years later I would leave that job, but not before running into, and often reading, many great books. Almost everything Thursday was like Christmas, opening the boxes from the publishers, and pulling out the new, untouched and unread books. Some we expected, but there was always an unknown paperback or hardcover that would look interesting and, later, gain a readership (the Warners’ edition of The Celestine Prophecy, anyone? The book by Marianne Williamson called A Woman’s Worth was one of, if not the first, books to fly off the shelf because of Oprah’s discussion about it. The books below are a good representation of who populated the bestseller lists during the early 1990s. Stephen King, Danielle Steele, and Mary Higgins Clark were always on it.
At the store I worked at we stickered the bestsellers each week, which meant if a book fell off the list, we unstickered it. Yes, books costs too much, and our fearless company discounted the books at 40% off. If it climbed back onto the list, as often happened, we stickered it again. You tend to learn many of the titles and authors that way, by handling stacks of the same book over and over. Some books stayed on the lists for months, some over a year (Oh the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss is one example).
Finding this list again brought back a lot of memories:
Midnight by Dean R. Koontz (Putnam) – February 5, 1989
Star by Danielle Steel (Delacorte) – February 26, 1989
The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie (Viking) – March 26, 1989
While My Pretty Once Sleeps by Mary Higgins Clark (Simon & Schuster) – May 28, 1989
The Russia House by John le Carré (Knopf) – June 11, 1989
Polar Star by Martin Cruz Smith (Random House) – August 6, 1989
Clear and Present Danger by Tom Clancy (Putnam) – September 3, 1989
The Dark Half by Stephen King (Viking) – November 5, 1989
Daddy by Danielle Steel (Delacorte) – November 19, 1989
What stands out for me in the list above is The Satanic Verses, of course. Certainly a different type of work than the others listed, and certainly ‘the book’ that reminded many that some zealots and barbarics can’t take a joke. Being a Stephen King, The Dark Half was of particular interest. The original hardcover design, I thought, was ugly. Still think so. Story was okay, too, but was the beginning of those types of psychological mind f&ck stories he wrote thereafter (Gerald’s Game, Rose Madder, etc…). The Stand, unedited, rocked! And it is a fat, fat book. As someone who put the books on shelves, you would know that you could fit 5 to 8 Danielle Steele books to 3 of King’s The Stand.
The other title that stands out is Burden of Proof. I didn’t read it but it was a big deal because Scott Turow was a big deal then. I’m not so sure he is now, in terms of booksales. He has a new book out, but it doesn’t have vampires, so who knows how it will do. Similarly, what is not on the list below, because it had not come out, was the John Grisham book, The Firm. This book reset the legal thriller. Maybe not as smart as its predecessors (?), but it was whip-fast and engaging. By the time The Client came in, bookstores were holding midnight openings to sell it (at least my store was) – and people would show up? Not kids, but adults! Grisham was the man in the 1990s. Remembering that the paperback version of The Firm came with a bookmark attached to the cover.
Finally, the annoying fanbase that booksellers dealt with during the early 1990s were the Jean Auel fans. Today you have your vampire nerds. Then, you had your cavemen nerds. And could Jean Auel write any slower, we didn’t think so.
The Bad Place by Dean R. Koontz (Putnam) – February 4, 1990
Devices and Desires by P. D. James (Knopf) – February 18, 1990
Oh, the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss (Random House) – March 4, 1990
The Bourne Ultimatum by Robert Ludlum (Random House) – March 18, 1990
September by Rosamunde Pilcher (St. Martin’s) – April 22, 1990
The Stand by Stephen King (Doubleday) – May 13, 1990
The Burden of Proof by Scott Turow (Farrar, Straus) – June 17, 1990
Memories of Midnight by Sidney Sheldon (Morrow) – September 2, 1990
Four Past Midnight by Stephen King (Viking) – September 16, 1990
The Plains of Passage by Jean M. Auel (Crown) – October 21, 1990
The names on both lists bring back memories. Pilcher – her books always looked like what Grandma would want to read, of course. Book jacket designers for authors Sheldon, Koontz, and Ludlum had it made. Same font/style on each book, it seemed, everytime. In kinda of a random rambling, here are some authors and books and such that I recall from my time at the bookstore between 1989 and 1995 (more for my benefit, as I often think of these years and thought I’d type them out sooner rather than later).
Civil War book by Ken Burns – had everything going, right? Book, tv show, the audio book, the videotapes, the soundtrack. It helped that Shelby Foote had recently completed the three volume set on some of the battles of the Civil War. There was always a war-related book that was hot. We Were Soldiers Once and Young, and Bright Shining Star, and so on. That reminds me – remember Rogue Warrior by Richard Marcinko – a novel of the author’s adventures as a navy seal. With the author all badass on the cover – that sells books.
Then the first Gulf War happened and stores were flooded with gulf war books that told readers where Iraq and Kuwait were, who lived there, why they were fighting, and how we were gonna kick ass. Then books came in later about how we kicked ass. Wolf Blitzer wrote a book back then. What a nerd, but it was the first time I had heard of him. The other reporters all wrote their books. Desert This and Desert That. Gulf War books were huge.
Soon after, The Sum of All Fears by Tom Clancy came out and that was a big deal because Clancy had taken some time in between books. And this one kinda felt lighter than the previous spy books. But it was relevant (nuke bombs on US soil) so gotta hand it to him.
Other titles that come to mind as big deals: Forrest Gump, Bridges of Madison County, Wealth Without Risk, and who can forget The Frugal Gourmet (who turned out to be more horny than frugal). Computer books were behemoths – Running DOS 4.0, and a bunch of programming books on C++ and Visual Basic, each updated every month, it seemed, each required by college courses. Can’t forget 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (guess who didn’t read that one? me!), and Codependent No More and Feeling Codependent (by Lewis – HUGE bestsellers – sadly, America remained codependent). One that was on the bestseller lists and was bigger than God was All I Ever Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten (by Fuhlgum, or something close to that) and that was the gift you gave your old people at Xmas, and the gift old people gave you when you finished college or high school. Anne Rice finally got off her coffin and wrote a 4 Vampire Chronicles book (Tale of the Body Thief) and of course the goths were not totally thrilled, but stayed with it.
Probably the two most controversial books were Sex by Madonna, and Final Exit by Dr. Jack Kervorkian. Thank God it wasn’t the other way around. Anyway, one wanted the world to see her naked black and white body. Readers could then pick up Final Exit and leave the world, with Madonna’s bush as the last image on their mind, I suppose. Final Exit was a small book and sold millions. But I don’t think everyone followed the directions. But we all keep a copy around….just in case.
I may revisit this topic, because I find it interesting to go back and think about books that were so much in the public arena, and now are hardly remembered. I may write about books that I misjudged, or ignored, when I shouldn’t have, and books that I would have never read had I not worked at that bookstore.