American Top 50 (books, that is)

If you want to know the  favorite 50 books of independent booksellers across the country, ask Hans Weyandt, co-owner of Micawber’s Books. By mid-October he’d collected more lists than he cares to count from booksellers spanning the country: rom City Lights Books in San Francisco to Harvard Book Store in Boston to sellers in Iowa City, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Phoenix, New York City and Durango, Colo. And the lists keep coming.

Hans Weyandt. Photo by Emily Blodgett.

What started as a playful project to gather favorites from roughly 20 booksellers has snowballed into a massive work-in-progress. He’s stopped counting the number of  lists he’s received.

The project began in August, after a Micawber’s customer asked Weyandt for 10 of his Top 100 books. Initially, he says, he thought she was asking for Micawber’s bestsellers. She said no, she wanted Weyandt’s personal favorites.

This set him off on what he calls “a crazy-fun task.” He began to call and email contacts at other stores asking them for a list of 50 favorite reads or best handsells and the names of other booksellers who might be interested in giving him a list.

“My whole goal was to get 20 lists, because I thought that would give us a nice round number of 1,000 books—obviously not all different titles. But I did that, called five or six people originally and went from there,” he says.

“I probably talked to 50 people. Nineteen people got back to me.”

He began posting the lists on his blog on weekdays, starting with his own on Aug. 31. Then he got some media attention.

Publishers Weekly ran a story, as did Shelf-Awareness, an industry newsletter that’s published daily on the web. He was asked to address the project in a panel discussion at the fall Midwest Independent Booksellers Association trade show in Minneapolis.

That publicity has prompted even more booksellers to send him lists, though some aren’t quite following the rules, he says. He’s received lists of 100, 60, even 46. And then he gets requests from people who want to change their lists.

One of his favorite contributions came from New Orleans, hand-written by 78-year-old Joseph J. DeSalvo Jr., former lawyer-turned-bookseller, whose store—Faulkner House Books—has the coolest address of any bookstore in the world, Weyandt says: 624 Pirate’s Alley. DeSalvo wrote that his list—which is filled with classics such as Moby Dick and The Odyssey, and books by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain and William Faulkner, of course—was his Top 50 favorite books at the time he sent the letter but “next month it will likely be a bit different.”

“The whole thing has been a tremendous amount of fun,” Weyandt says. “Every list is weird in its own way.”

He describes the list from the head buyer at City Lights Books in San Francisco: “It’s full of Beat stuff, philosophy, bizarre fiction, and Wind in the Willows pops up. A kid’s book.”

American classics land on every single list, Weyandt says. “That’s proof to me that people were listing stuff they actually did love, not to look smart or impress people.”

One book that he’s seen land on many of the lists is Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell, who wrote for the New Yorker in the 1930s. “It’s been a cult classic for years,” Weyandt says. “I’m surprised how many lists it’s made it onto.”

Next up: “My big goal is to get a list from every state,” he says. Any plans to compile and bind this list into book form? “We’re talking about it,” he says. “It’s not a done deal.”

You can see the lists at  micawbers.blogspot.com.

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