Just two days after the death of Philip Roth, on Thursday morning alone, more than 50 customers entered the Strand, the bookstore just a few blocks from the novelist’s old East Village apartment, and left with copies of his work in hand. The most popular picks were Ghost Writer, Sabbath’s Theater, and The Plot Against America.
Over the phone, Leigh Altshuler, Strand’s marketing director, chuckled lightly. “By lunchtime…a young man came up to me and [said], ‘The Philip Roth section—all the books are almost gone!’”
Similarly, Sam MacLaughlin, store manager at the Williamsburg location of McNally Jackson Books—which opened earlier this year—reported that one of the first customers who walked in the store the morning after Roth’s death purchased three of the author’s more popular titles in one go: American Pastoral, The Human Stain, and Portnoy’s Complaint.
MacLaughlin, who intended to set up a display with Roth’s titles, had been on the phone with Random House the previous day, trying to order books before rival bookstores could swoop in and pilfer the stockpile. He noted that in times like these, indie bookstores serve as important places where fans and newcomers alike come together.
“It lets folks confront materially—and also in conversation with the booksellers—the author’s life and career. Even yesterday on the phone with Random House, I was like, ‘Oh, wow! What a prolific and lengthy, significant career this was.’ And you get to see that when…you’re confronting all the books on the shelf—in a way that you don’t get when you’re just scrolling through two-star reviews on Amazon.”
But not all stores received a barrage of customers following Roth’s death– some, in fact, experienced radio silence. Dylan Hoffmann, a store employee at Alabaster Bookshop in the East Village, said on Thursday afternoon that although they keep a number of Roth’s books in stock, such as American Pastoral and I Married a Communist, only one customer had purchased one of his works since the announcement of the author’s death.
In contrast, “[When] Tom Wolfe died, we sold all of our books in a couple of days,” said Hoffman.
Likewise, Spoonbill & Sugartown in Williamsburg said early Thursday afternoon that they hadn’t noticed any significant increase in customers inquiring after Roth’s titles. Store co-owner Miles Bellamy chalked it up to the location, which caters mostly to tourists and younger readers who may not be as familiar with Roth’s oeuvre. But Bellamy, who said he enjoyed Roth’s later and rather underrated works like Everyman and The Counterlife, ordered copies of these titles and a handful of others on the night of the author’s passing.
“I try to push some of the lesser-known works,” he said.
As far as how to deal with the somewhat controversial legacies of authors like Roth, who was critiqued for the traces of misogyny and fixation on women as sexual objects present within his books, Bellamy says he maintains open discussions about the topic with his store employees. However, personally, he feels that “in terms of Roth, people should just have a choice whether they should read something or not—and not [say] what other people should read or not.”
MacLaughlin’s tone was tinged with slight melancholy as he shared his admiration for Goodbye Columbus, which made a “big impression” on him when he was young. It was “sort of a perfect short novel, in as much as my twenty-year self has an opinion of it.” But he hadn’t revisited the work since then, and hence wasn’t entirely comfortable praising the author.
Although MacLaughlin stressed he wasn’t enough of an expert to take a definitive stance on the author’s legacy, he said, “I’m a conflicted Roth fan—the way that so many people are.”