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Treat yourself and your shelf before an upcoming book shortage hits retailers

A visitor looks at books in a book shop. (Damien Meyer/AFP via Getty Images)
A visitor looks at books in a book shop. (Damien Meyer/AFP via Getty Images)

For most bookworms, the holidays are the perfect time to gift yourself a few new reads for the new year.

But this year, an impending book shortage has many booksellers worried they’ll be unable to meet demand.

At Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts, nearly every shelf bears a crisp white poster urging customers to pre-order and shop early. The message seems to be getting through customers like Louise Tanski.

“I live in the neighborhood, so I come in here pretty regularly just to check out the new books," she says. "But I know that things are probably going to be short come December, so I definitely have been thinking about getting things a little bit earlier than usual."

When Lia Green came into the store, there was only one copy left of the romance novel she wanted.

“I came looking for the book I have now, so I was able to find it. I think they did say this was the last one, so if anyone else wants it, too bad for them," she says.

It’s not just romance novels that are in short supply. Rachel Cass, the store’s buying and inventory manager, says this year’s shortage is unique because it’s affecting books across all genres.

Plus, people are buying more books. Printed book sales in the U.S. rose by more than 13% this year compared to last, according to NPD BookScan which tracks book sales.

"Every year stuff goes out of stock, especially if something ends up on somebody’s end-of-year lists or wins some big prize at the end of the year," Cass notes. "This year, it seems like it’s just more books and it’s earlier."

The store tried to get ahead of the shortage by ordering more inventory earlier, but Cass says she doesn't think they'll make it to Christmas without running out of some key items. "But at least at the moment, we’re in pretty good shape," she says.

It’s a different story at Tubby & Coo's Mid-City Book Shop, a sci-fi/fantasy bookstore in New Orleans. Candice Huber is the owner and says their store is already feeling the pinch of the book shortage.

When they went to order a book, the publisher let them know there were only 200 copies left in the warehouse. And then suddenly, there were none.

"I said, OK, can I up my order? They email me back and they were like, just kidding. It’s sold out and the reprint's not coming until March," Huber says.

Why not print more books? Well, that’s where the problems start. Most publishers print books internationally, so they're being hit hard by international shipping issues like container shortages.

Huber says additionally, there just aren't that many printers left to do the work due to publisher consolidation over the years. Add to that the paper, driver and warehouse worker shortages — and it gets pretty tough to restock once copies run out.

Despite those issues, Huber says there’s no need to toss your book buying wish list just yet.

"If there is the one true book that you want, you should have ordered it already," they say. "But if you haven’t, go for it right now if you want to make sure that you have it."

"Otherwise ask your booksellers — your friendly local bookseller — because we will always have suggestions and we have books. It just may not be the one book that you’re looking for," Huber adds. "Be flexible and lean on your local booksellers in their expertise to bring you something that you probably didn’t even know you wanted."

Rachel Cass of Harvard Bookstore hopes customers will do just that. She says she's cautiously optimistic about how business will fare this holiday season.

"After a couple of really challenging years, I’m not saying things are back to normal, but it’s been really, really nice to see really excellent books come out this year and people being really excited to come and buy them," she says.

And as people continue to read more during this pandemic, booksellers may finally be able to turn the page on this chapter of uncertainty.

Kalyani Saxena produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Ciku Theuri and Chris Bentley. Saxena also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.