Walk around Alexandria and Arlington. Do you see a lot of people with their noses in books (or magazines or newspapers or e-readers)?
One of the world’s best-known booksellers, Amazon.com, says you will. It looked at its own customers over the past year and found that the 140,000 residents of Alexandria make up “the most well-read city in America” — better-read, it claims, than the university towns of Cambridge, Berkeley, Ann Arbor and Boulder.
Amazon, of course, is not the only bookseller in the nation, and if you really want to measure readers, you should look at borrowers as well as buyers from other purveyors.
Rose Dawson, the director of Alexandria’s public libraries, said she wasn’t surprised by the ranking.
“E-book usage and circulation is really, really climbing,” she said. “For both romance and e-books, the wait list is very telling. . . . Romance titles always seem to be checked out, and we own a lot of them.”
The library has about 50,000 e-books, including 898 romances. Those romances were checked out 7,200 times, Dawson said. But residents in this 263-year-old town are also wild about history and genealogy, housed in the library’s special collections.
Bookseller Megan Graves at the four-year-old Hooray for Books bookstore on King Street agrees that Alexandria is full of readers, although she takes small issue with the Amazon news release.
“We think it’s a well-read town that supports independent bookstores,” she said.
Across the street, at the 11-year-old Book Bank, owner Rachel Baker said the steady stream of customers and continuing profitability proves the enthusiasm of local bibliophiles.
“We’re a used-book store in one of the most expensive places in Alexandria to rent,” she said. Her biggest sellers tend to be nonfiction, literature, science fiction, history, philosophy and poetry titles.
Is it a town of romance lovers? “Some people ask for it,” she said. “When we had a romance section, we didn’t sell much of it.”
Educated people tend to read more, and 60 percent of Alexandria’s adults have a bachelor’s degree or higher.
A few miles west, in Arlington, population 210,000, 70 percent of adults have college or graduate degrees. More than 105,000 people hold library cards, and the Arlington public libraries had more than 1.8 million visits last year. The community came in at No. 7 on the Amazon list.
Eileen McGervey, owner of the 18-month-old One More Page bookstore in Arlington, said her customers “definitely are very informed and open to reading new things. They come in looking for things that are new to them or that they heard about” from friends or media. “Very few are coming to buy traditional bestsellers.”
That’s not to say they aren’t buying them, McGervey said, but after two weeks, she removed the bestsellers display because people were bypassing them for history, fiction and a lot of international or foreign-based mysteries.
“That’s a niche we were not aware of when we opened,” she said. “But this is a well-traveled community, and if you’ve traveled, [these books] have a flavor of a place you may have been.”