Christmas Lists

BOOKSTORE owners are perpetual optimists, which could be one reason they're in such a relatively unprofitable business in the first place. None of the store managers or representatives contacted for this week's column would profess to being even mildly worried about the coming holiday season, stock market decline or not. Consider the following comments from local bookstore owners or representatives:

"We're planning on having a great season." (Smithsonian)

"Maybe not better than last year, but just as good." (Trover)

"We expect sales to be higher or at least as strong as last year." (Bridge Street Books)

"We're very optimistic, in spite of Black Monday." (Olsson's).

To help assure them of success, bookstore managers and employes have favorite titles -- special books they thrust into the hands of those customers who inquire after the perfect present for an assistant or an aunt. Representatives of several local stores were asked what was tops on their lists -- what they both liked and expected to sell stacks of. Their selections and their reasons follow.

In spite of its high price -- $75, discounted from $100 -- Olsson's Jim Tenney expects a lot of action with Georgia O'Keeffe: 100 Flowers (Knopf). "It's the best art book of the season," he says. "And it comes already boxed, which makes it easier to ship." And he likes An Incomplete Education (Ballantine) by Judy Jones and William Wilson, despite the largely negative reviews it garnered. "It's something I think I'd be interested in putting by my bed and reading a couple pages a night. It's got explanations of everything from Go del's Theorem to the Mo bius strip."

Crown Books' discount on 100 Flowers isn't quite as large as Olsson's -- the 52 Crowns in the area are selling it for $80 -- but president Robert Haft still thinks his customers will snatch it up. "Price is always a factor, but it's a magnificent book." He also likes The Random House Dictionary of the English Language -- "give this to somebody and you're making a statement that goes beyond buying them a sweater or perfume." The dictionary lists for $79.95, but Crown is selling it for $44.44 -- close to a 45 percent discount. (For most stores, that would mean the book was a loss leader, but Haft says this isn't the case: "We're making a thin margin" of profit.)

Terri Merz of Chapters provided a third vote for the O'Keeffe, and also endorses The Radiant Way by Margaret Drabble as "a comprehensive, witty and perceptive view of contemporary society," and The Haw Lantern by Seamus Heaney: "It resonates, and a lot of contemporary poetry doesn't."

Philip Levy at Bridge Street Books sells a lot of Judaica, and consequently has hope for Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible (Harcourt). "It's a very unusual, exciting collection of modern writers personalizing a forbidding subject matter," he says. "One of my favorite customers, who likes this sort of stuff but never would drop $30, looked at it and just fell for it." Levy also is a fan of Todd Gitlin's The Sixties (Bantam): "It's by a participant who is also a serious scholar, and it's the most comprehensive account of a decade that is proving to have enduring influence."

At the nine Smithsonian bookstores, the two favored titles are, quite naturally, volumes that the museum itself published. The Music Men: An Illustrated History of Brass Bands in America, by Margaret and Robert Hazen, is a "social history of America as looked at through the brass band," says book buyer Joan Mayfield. And The Smithsonian Book of Flight, by Walter Boyne, is "a comprehensive book with wonderful photographs."

The three Trover Shops are fans of two gift books: The National Geographic Society: 100 Years of Adventure and Discovery (Abrams) and A Day in the Life of the Soviet Union (Collins). The first, says manager Steve Shuman, is "a local item from a popular magazine, and also a good collection of fine photography," while the second uses "good quality photography to get behind the mystique of the Soviet Union."

While general-interest stores speed up for the holidays, specialty shops tend to slow down. Says Eric Barnum at Sidney Kramer, which concentrates on economics, area studies and defense: "There're not too many books on economics that someone would give as a gift." Nine-tenths of the books Kramer will sell as gifts are in the military category, says Barnum, mentioning specifically a new edition of Sun Tzu's Art of War (Sterling).

At the Shahar Christian Bookshoppe in Silver Spring, sales of deluxe Bibles actually slow down at Christmas. "Gift Bibles are basically intended for confirmations and weddings," says Colette Koester. "At Christmastime, Bibles are bought as gifts for the purpose of having a reference or study Bible." Their most popular version: the New International.

Pyramid Bookstore on Georgia Avenue, a source of "books by and about people of African descent," is promoting two historical works. The Destruction of Black Civilization by Chancellor Williams (Third World Press) "explains how African people went from being the builders of civilization to becoming subjugated. It got reprinted recently, and a lot of people are happy to see it again," says owner Hodari Abdul-Ali. He also likes What They Never Told You in History Class (Luxorr Publications) by Indus K. Kush, saying "it provides documentary evidence of the greatness of African civilization."

In the Margin

THE BOOKER PRIZE generates in England the same sort of wagering and interest that the Super Bowl provokes here, which must be a symptom of a different set of cultural priorities. Before the Booker winner was announced last month, betting agencies were furiously calculating the odds among the six finalists, with Brian Moore's The Color of Blood the 7-4 favorite. In the best tradition of literary upsets, however, the $26,000 winner was Penelope Lively -- considered, at 7-1 odds, one of the two darkest horses. Her novel, Moon Tiger, tells of a dying woman's memories of a war-time love affair; it will be published here by Grove Press in the spring. Grove doesn't expect the sort of sales in this country that a Booker winner achieves on its home ground, but hopes that at least the reviewers will be more inclined to pay attention . . .

Jimmy Carter has had more success with the best-seller list than he ever did with Congress. He's had three books published in the seven years he's been an ex-president, all of which made the list: his memoirs, a political thesis on the Middle East, and a self-help title (this last with his wife Rosalynn). Carter has now gone back to nature for what his publishers describe as "the most personal book he's yet written." An Outdoor Journal: Adventures and Reflections will be published by Bantam Books next June; the publisher reportedly paid $500,000 for it. Carter's most famous encounter with nature, of course, was the time in 1979 when a "banzai bunny" attacked his canoe. A Bantam spokesman didn't know if that incident is in the book . . .

The Los Angeles Central Library, which suffered a disastrous fire last year that destroyed 20 percent of its holdings and damaged many more, is offering a different sort of literary gift. As part of its rebuilding efforts, the Library is selling a variety of reasonably priced and attractive gifts -- including porcelain coffee mugs, aprons, tote bags and caps. All are emblazoned with a "Save the Books" logo. For a brochure: Save the Books, P.O. Box 71439, Los Angeles, Calif. 90071 . . .

Technology marches on, which is the only explanation for The Great Movies -- Live! (Fireside-Simon & Schuster). For $13.95, movie buffs can indulge themselves with the ultimate in nostalgia: Five classic scenes in pop-up format -- King Kong on the Empire State Building; the shoot-out in High Noon; the burning of Atlanta; and Marilyn Monroe over the subway grate. The last scene before the final fadeout is the bar scene in Casablanca, with yes, As Time Goes By rendered by microchip, arranged not for piano, alas, but for digital watch beep. ::