WHAT'S hot besides the weather? Well, one "scorcher" continues to be Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October, named by almost every Washington area bookstore in an informal survey. This first novel from the Naval Institute Press was a sleeper that slumbers no longer, and from Capitol Hill to the Montgomery Mall, from Alexandria to Dupont Circle, its steady popularity has been boosting summer business for area shops. Comments Helen Ross, owner of Old Town's Ampersand Books, simply, "It's sold more than any other fiction for us for a couple of years." And, at Georgetown's Bridge Street Books, here's what owner Philip Levy has to say: "Usually we don't have that much overlap with other people, but this title never stops!"
Also cited by the majority of stores was the Bantam dynamic duo of Iacocca and Yeager -- two different kinds of high flying, each appealing primarily to male customers. Stephen King, both as himself (Skeleton Crew, Putnam) and as Richard Bachman (Thinner, NAL), is moving out in large stacks, as usual. And the good sales reports of Wake Us When It's Over, the 1984 campaign rehash by local stalwarts Jules Witcover and Jack Germond (Macmillan), show that Washington is greedy for its own bygone minutiae even in the dog days of August.
Of course, much of what booksellers notice as moving briskly reflects the best-seller list -- which, of course, already mirrors their sales. From a certain point, then, once a book has climbed on the list, self-perpetuation sets in. Yet a somewhat unexpected hit such as Marguerite Duras' The Lover (Pantheon), can catch stores off-guard. At the Spring Valley Waldenbooks, assistant manager Rebecca Clay, who'd herself read it in French last year when it was a best seller in Paris, recalls how surprised she was when her initial shipment of five quickly disappeared. Now she's sold over two dozen copies and anticipates demand will increase as long as it's visible in the top 10.
But, moving away from what's predictable and officially tallied, the fun is to look at some of the offbeat or lesser-known books which certain shops say are their own biggies. For example, at the Mazza Gallerie B. Dalton, manager Sheila Wise leads off her contenders with The Amateurs, David Halberstam's profile of a group of collegiate scullers (Morrow). And at Olsson's Books in Alexandria, Gary Carter mentions that they "just cannot keep in stock" Nina Graybill and Maxine Rapoport's The Pasta Salad Book (Farragut). Also selling well, he says, are Final Cut: Dreams and Disasters in the Making of 'Heaven's Gate' by former film executive Stephen Bach (Morrow) and Fay Weldon's Letters to Alice: On First Reading Jane Austen (Taplinger).
On Capitol Hill at Trover Books, staffer David Baldwin notes that Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, by Robert N. Bellah et al. (University of California) "is doing very well for us." Any particular reason? Not really. Or, rather -- "I've given up trying to figure out people's buying habits." He does, however, confess to attempting to steer prospective readers away from the paperback of Norman Mailer's Tough Guys Don't Dance (Ballantine). "A real turkey," he pronounces.
The Crown downtown on K Street, according to manager Judy Nellum, has sold plenty of Stansfield Turner's Secrecy and Democracy: The CIA in Transition (Houghton Mifflin), while those good old Beans of Egypt, Maine (also HM) are a Kramer Dupont Circle staple. Flipping through his mental inventory for "legitimately really, really big sellers," the night manager there, Ken Jozwiak, also picks Family Dancing by David Leavitt (Knopf) and Lucy Irvine's Castaway (Dell). "If we'd had more of them, we could have sold them!" ruefully notes Michael MacDonald, assistant manager at the McLean Crown, referring to his short supply of the June release, The New KGB: Engine of Soviet Power, by William R. Corson and Robert T. Crowley (Morrow).
Then there are the specific Washington- aimed or government career-oriented volumes such as the $45 Congressional Staff Directory (Congressional Staff Directory Ltd.), which gets a nod from Ann Kiuk, manager of the Trover's Connecticut Avenue location, or The Postal Clerk Carrier (Arco), cited by Audrey Fleming of Waldenbooks' Forestville store. Plus, many booksellers report being pleased to have the new 1986 edition of The Almanac of American Politics (National Journal) on hand, as it's a perennial sure thing.
Finally, here's a pair of local books flourishing at Ampersand which, according to Helen Ross, makes a specialty of "Chesapeake and regional titles." One, Guidebook to Virginia's Historical Markers, comes from the University Press of Virginia, and the other, The Official Crab Eater's Guide by Whitey Schmidt (Marian Hartnett Press) lists crabhouses, treats crablore and offers crab recipes. "It's a nice package for a self- published book," she comments, "and at $8.95, it's reasonable." Side Bets
A DIFFERENT sort of bookselling altogether takes place on the 9th floor of 180 Varick St. in lower Manhattan. That's where Dover Books, the much-esteemed and totally idiosyncratic paperback house, has its offices and also an on-premises bookstore. This latter, an outgrowth of the sales department, is actually a well-kept secret. "We're not even in the yellow pages," notes longtime manager Robert Masto. Every one of Dover's approximately 3,000 in-print titles is crowded onto the high bookcases, and there's also a large area where slightly damaged and out-of-print Dover books are shelved at reduced prices. Postcards and Dover's coloring books revolve on racks up front, and one might also spot used editions of Books in Print for half a buck. What are the Dover Bookstore's bestsellers? All of the "clip art" books says Masto, and the Dover Dinosaur Coloring Book. "Our latest Trollope or Wilkie Collins are always best sellers when they come out," he added. The Belton Estate (Trollope) and Man and Wife (Collins) are the most recent brought out by Dover . . . .Two never-before- issued Philip K. Dick novels are due this coming season, both found among the papers left by this science fiction master three years ago at his death. One, Radio Free Albemuth (Arbor House/Dec), is an sf work that's part of the Valis cycle (so is The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, published posthumously in '82). The other, Puttering About in a Small Land (coming in September from Academy Chicago), belongs to the group of previously unseen mainstream fiction written by Dick in the '50s and '60s. Says the Academy Chicago catalogue of it, in a burst of weirdly creative copywriting: "Now in print for the first time, Puttering About in a Small Land proves conclusively that Philip K. Dick did not have to leave Earth to hold the reader's attention." Somehow, that doesn't sound as consoling as was doubtless intended.