EW checks in with booksellers weeks after Harper Lee's second novel debuts
Brilliant Books, an independent bookstore in Traverse City, Michigan, made waves recently when they announced they would be offering refunds for Go Set a Watchman, calling it “an academic insight rather than a nice summer novel.” Owner Peter Makin told Melville House that he decided to offer such refunds after hearing disappointment from a loyal customer. However, managers of other independent bookstores around the country say they’ve heard few complaints about Go Set a Watchman, and even fewer demands for refunds.
“People are very happy with the book. We had to reorder it five times to keep the stock up, and we haven’t had to give out any refunds,” John Valentine, co-owner of Regulator Bookshop in Durham, North Carolina, said.
Valentine said that since most stores are discounting Go Set a Watchman (Regulator sells it for 30 percent off), it’s not as big of an investment. He also noted that the perception of the book is slightly different in the South.
“We consider Harper Lee one of our own, whereas in other parts of the country it’s just a flash in the pan,” he said. “Here, it’s more of a serious book so we have to give it its due. We would happily refund money but nobody’s come close to mentioning that.”
Bryan Samsone, retail store manager of BookPeople in Austin, Texas, said that he understands how love for To Kill a Mockingbird could make readers skeptical of Go Set a Watchman, but he also hasn’t gotten serious refund demands either.
“I’ve definitely heard some folks talking about how maybe they should’ve changed the characters’ names because it’s really a different book,” Samsone said. “People are really attached to these characters because it’s how they grew up and they want to justify how Atticus feels. But most people around here just want to figure it out for themselves. We haven’t had people clamoring to get their money back.”
Several bookstores held special events to commemorate Go Set a Watchman’s release last month, and Alex Meriwether of Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said customer demand hasn’t flipped much since the store’s release party.
“We had a really successful release event that night, and sold lots of copies that week. Expectedly it’s dropped off some over the last few weeks, but still number two on our store bestseller list,” Meriwether said. “I think expectations for the book were certainly set by a lot of the advance reviews and while it wasn’t what people expected initially, there was still interest in what this book had to offer and the perspective it gave to the writing process.”
Although most publicity around Go Set a Watchman made clear it wasn’t quite the masterpiece of To Kill a Mockingbird, not all readers were disenchanted with Lee’s second novel. Lyn Roberts of Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, said that far from demanding refunds, some of her customers enjoyed Go Set a Watchman for its own merits.
“I’ve had some people say they actually really liked the book,” Roberts said. “They didn’t think it was well-written or the masterpiece that To Kill a Mockingbird was, but I think a lot of that centers around your expectations. That’s really what we’ve said all along, if you expect this to be another Mockingbird, you’re going to be disappointed.”
Roberts said there’s been such interest in Go Set a Watchman that Square Books is hosting a community forum on Thursday, featuring a man who grew up in Monroeville and a researcher of racism in literature. Both Roberts and Valentine also noted that Go Set a Watchman has become the frontrunner for an exciting summer for books. Between buzzed-about new releases like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and other lost treasures like the new Dr. Seuss book, both customers and bookstores have done well.
“I still think it’s one of the most exciting things in the world that there’s been so much furor and excitement over a book,” Roberts said. “It proves not everything is lost.”