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Independent bookstores gear up for the release of 'Go Set a Watchman'

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Harper Lee’s long-awaited second novel, Go Set a Watchman, is set for release on July 14. In response, independent bookstores around the country are preparing for the biggest book release since the golden days of Harry Potter.

BookPeople in Austin, Texas, for instance, ordered 300 copies of Go Set a Watchman as soon as it was announced in February, according to retail store manager Bryan Samsone. Since then, 100 of those copies been set aside for preorders.

“For a front list order for an independent bookstore, 300 copies is not something that we usually request unless we’re doing an event, so this is quite unusual,” Samsone said. “There’s a lot of anticipation for folks. Customers have been coming in the last couple of weeks asking, ‘Is it out yet? Is it next week? Is the 14th still the date?’ I’m expecting it to definitely move off the shelf next Tuesday, which is why we placed such a big order: So we didn’t get caught short-handed.”

Other bookstores around the country are planning parties and events to celebrate Go Set a Watchman. Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts is staying open past their typical close time Monday night for a midnight release. It’s the first time they’ve done that “in quite awhile,” according to Alex Meriwether, the marketing and events manager at Harvard.

“It certainly reminds us of Harry Potter days. It’s been awhile since there’s been this sort of anticipation for something,” Meriwether said. “One of our staff is organizing a read-along, just of favorite passages from [To Kill a Mockingbird]. One of our staff members, who is well-known for his cookie recipes, is doing homemade cookies for the night. A few people are making sweet tea.”

Meriwether said Harvard is also partnering with Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square to screen the 1962 To Kill a Mockingbird film on Monday night. Harvard booksellers will be on hand at the theater to distribute copies of Go Set a Watchman to customers, many of whom preordered a copy as part of their movie ticket purchase. In fact, Meriwether said that preorders make up more than 10 percent of the store’s total order of 500 copies, a demand “much higher than anything else in recent memory.”

Not even the blockbuster Fifty Shades of Grey franchise, whose success has dominated the publishing world for the last few years, can compare to anticipation for Go Set a Watchman, said Lyn Roberts of Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi.

“We’re very excited about it, and I can’t think of anything in my lifetime to compare the publication of this book to,” Roberts said. “It’s so special. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the very few books that everyone in this country is aware of and most everyone has read. To have a book like that meant so much to so many people, now to have this one come out is definitely extraordinary.”

Like Harvard, Oxford’s Square Books is planning events to celebrate Go Set a Watchman. On Saturday, the bookstore will host a live marathon reading of To Kill a Mockingbird, modeled after the events around the 50th anniversary of William Faulkner’s death in 2012.

Months after Go Set a Watchman was first announced in February, Roberts said it has continued to be a topic of conversation with customers. The many mysteries surrounding the book – did Harper Lee really consent to it? Why is it coming out now? Will it be good? – add another element separating it from known quantities like Grey.

“That’ll be another interesting thing, to see how people react to it once they have a chance to read it,” Roberts said. “Since the book has been so heavily embargoed, no one has had a chance to see it. This book is a complete mystery, so it’s exciting. Everything’s going to happen on Tuesday.”

Whether or not Go Set a Watchman lives up to its legendary predecessor, its aura has already done a lot to reinvigorate interest in fiction at smalle retailers, and could provide a boon to independent bookstores beyond its own mammoth orders.

“Books kind of get shunted off to the side when everybody’s talking about blockbuster movies or TV series or bingeing on Amazon or something, so it’s great when somebody’s talking about a book,” John Valentine, co-owner of The Regulator Bookshop in Durham, North Carolina, said. “Libraries are showing movies and having discussion groups, and so there’s a lot of good interest in Southern fiction. Hopefully that’ll bring people into bookstores. It’s a great way to start the summer.”

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