How Bookstores Deal with Atheist Lit February 8, 2008

How Bookstores Deal with Atheist Lit

Paul Constant in The Stranger rants about the seemingly random ways certain bookstore chains categorize atheist books (that is, if they categorize them at all):

If you should happen to be in the U-Village Barnes & Noble and you should happen to ask to see the atheism/agnosticism section, well, you should prepare for disappointment. A number of atheist books were released last year—God Is Not Great, The God Delusion, The Portable Atheist—and a good many of them became best sellers. Barnes & Noble stocks most of these books in the philosophy section (next to such faced-out wonders as Pink Floyd and Philosophy and Embryo: A Defense of Human Life). And the philosophy section is dwarfed by the mammoth Christian Inspiration section and the Religious (read: Christian) Fiction section.

This is the standard for Barnes & Nobles across the country. I sent an e-mail to Mary Ellen Keating, B&N’s spokesperson, asking why books for nonbelievers were so poorly represented. She replied, “We are planning to introduce an atheism section as part of the philosophy subject later this year.” Keating declined to get more specific on a date. Barnes & Noble is far from the only bookstore in town to not address atheism as a subject. Elliott Bay Book Company doesn’t have an atheism section, choosing to shelve the atheism books in general religion instead, and the University Book Store’s unmarked atheism/agnosticism section has exactly 12 titles. Classics like Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian are shelved elsewhere. These independent bookstores are losing out on the chance to one-up one of their chain-store competitors: Borders Books and Music has the best atheism/agnosticism section in Seattle, and it’s had the section for years. Seattle Metropolitan‘s stance on the existence of God remains unknown at press time.

You have to wonder why other bookstores aren’t jumping on Border’s bandwagon.

It’s always a pleasant feeling walking into any Borders and seeing something like this:


It’s not like it’s that hard to set up in other places…

[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

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  • I count the shelves of atheist books at my local Borders every few weeks. When I first noticed, there was one shelf, not really full, in the back corner of the store. I checked yesterday and there are 5 shelves now, plus several atheist books included in displays on books about religion and spirituality and at the front of the store with the hot, new books.

  • Here in Toronto these books are generally in the religion section at Chapters and Indigo bookstores.

    Actually, I recently saw your book at a local Christian bookstore here in Toronto, Mitchell Family Books.

  • When I went to B and N to buy “The God Delusion” they did not even have the book out on the shelf. So I asked and they had it in stock but kept it behind the checkout desk. I found that interesting. It is Georgia, after all…

  • Linda Lindsey

    I have to give praise to the Barnes & Noble in Humble, TX then. A couple of weeks back, I rounded a corner and there was an end cap on the main thoroughfare through the store, right in front of the information desk, of about a dozen new and classic atheist titles. I’m not sure where they shelve the atheist books in general, but I was happily surprised to see a special display of them.

    Hmm, come to think of it, the guy who runs the place looks suspiciously like Richard Dawkins…

  • Solomon

    Most of the Barnes & Noble stores I’ve been in recently shelve “The God Delusion” under biology.

  • Soop

    One reason to like Barnes&Noble though:
    I was there over the holiday season and was browsing the fiction section, when a guy sidled up to me and asked me how I was doing. When I looked up, he had a Jesus pamphlet stuck right under my nose and was about to begin his spiel. I quickly told him I was not interested and began to walk away. Within SECONDS, a Borders employee approached him and told him they did not allow solicitors and that they were going to have to ask him to leave. It was entertaining hearing the guy fight it and insist that he was not soliciting. The employee held firm and assisted the young man out.

    I felt so good that I walked right up to the front desk, purchased my book, and bought a couple of books to donate to their “Books for Foster Children” holiday charity event in addition.

  • I always have a hard time finding the section in bookstores. In fact, it never occurred to me to check the Philosophy section in B&N.
    At my Border’s, the atheism section was kept by the Christian section for a long time, but I haven’t been in that store for a while, so I’m not sure if they’re still there.

  • Surely the best place for atheist titles like ‘The God Delusion’ IS in the religious section? As they’re dealing with religious topics, even if they’re not advocating a specific religious position.

    I live in the most atheistic city in the UK, and there are, to my knowledge, no atheist sections in the bookstores – works dealing with religion are in Religion, works dealing more with naturalistic explanations of the universe are in Science or Popular Science and humanist stuff tends to go under Philosophy.

    Surely this is the best way to go – as it encourages people to pick up these books who might not have done so if they were in a section all to themselves?

  • Here in Jacksonville, there’s a B&N which placed a number of atheist works on a table in the main aisle of the store. I think it was labeled as “staff recommendations.”

  • Books-A-Million seems to shelve them willy-nilly, too — hence why the majority of my freethought/atheism-related books have come from Amazon.

  • PuckishOne

    Maybe Borders has changed ownership, because I distinctly recall going to several Borders in the Seattle area (maybe 3-4 years ago) and finding no physical-science section at all, in any of the stores. No physics, chemistry, biology…bupkus. But a full “religion and spirituality” section in each, along with astrology and all the pop psychology you could swallow. Because of that I haven’t set foot in a Borders since.

    As glad as I am to hear of the prominent display of atheist writings, I can’t help but think that this is more of a smart marketing tool than a sea change in Borders policy. Anyone have any other information on this? Have you seen science books in your Borders stores?

  • My B&N has an atheist endcap similar to the one pictured, too. And we’re in redneck country here…surprised no one has complained yet.

  • That’s impressive from Borders. My local Borders here in Vegas where I usually book shop has them stuck in between Christian fiction and Judaism stuff. And only a couple books at that.
    I will give them props for having “The God Delusion” on a display in the front of the store though 🙂

  • In the English bookstore in Zurich they’ve put the atheist books in the religion section. It’s not that big a section overall, so the atheist bestsellers end up being a pretty prominent part of it, holding their own even against the Bibles.

    Weirdly, though, they have a separate section for “inspirational” (eg. Chicken Soup et al.), and this includes all the New Agey stuff. This section is about twice as big as the religion section. Interestingly, that’s where they’ve shelved all of the Neo-Pagan and Wicca books. It’s as though they have a serious religion section and a religion fluff section, and the Neo-Pagans somehow didn’t make the cut…

  • Last time I was at Borders (buying Origin of Species, naturally), I found that the science section was a tiny corner of the store, while the inspirational stuff was obviously the biggest category. But I think it’s misguided to blame Borders for that. They’re just out to make business, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The sizes of the sections are simply representative of their customers.

  • I recently went to a Houston, TX-area Barnes and Nobles. It’s located in an old theatre. Inside there are 3 or 4 levels. I could not find the Dawkins/Hitchens books, so I asked the worker. I was informed that they were in the science section (well, that’s not too bad, now is it?).

    Then I was informed that the science section was at the very top – and tucked into a little nook. Their science section was truly pathetic. The “atheist” books were on a shelf labeled “Evolution” and located at the bottom of the stack. Dawkins’ God Delusion was next to Darwin – and that was about it. I keep putting atheist in quotes because Darwin books do not equal atheist books – yet they were shelved together. And not all of Dawkins’ books are outright atheist books.

    Anyway, later I did find Hitchens’ book on an end cap on the main level – but there was no atheism section anywhere. His book was not on the shelf with Dawkins.

    Now, while I was there I saw very few people trudge all the way several flights up the stairs to that lonely science section. I could hear crickets.

    At least the “atheist” books were not dumped in with religion; however, they were put in such an out-of-the-way place that few would find them without asking.

  • Claire

    They’re just out to make business, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The sizes of the sections are simply representative of their customers.

    I wouldn’t be too sure of that. With a national chain, the head office may not be in touch with what the locals want, and if the local guy does have the authority to reallocate space, his choices may reflect his personal ideas rather than what people truly want.

    That can be a self-fulfilling prophecy – if you don’t stock a kind of book, or only a couple of copies, then your store’s results will show that that kind of book doesn’t sell here.

  • Cade

    In the Barnes and Noble store where I live, The God Delusion was in the science section (a few books away from Behe’s books…) and Sam Harris’s books were under Current Events. Most of the others were under philosophy. You seem to have to go all over the place for atheist books.

    On the other hand, around the winter solstice they had a whole section near the front of the store labeled “Thought provoking books.” It was a treasure trove of atheism books with only a couple religious ones.

  • Daktar

    Yes, the Borders around here are very good at stocking atheist books. A few months ago they were doing a three for two deal on Richard Dawkin’s paperbacks and thus I acquired three of the most interesting texts on evolution I’ve ever read :D. It could just be the result of living in the UK, of course, but It’s still pretty heartening to see that religion and secularism are given a level playing field.

  • Milena

    Currently in my local Chapters, there’s a wide selection of atheist books in a display entitled “In need of a new spiritual path?”. Of course, they’re next to new-age stuff, anti-atheist books, and religious texts. =/

  • Rovakur

    Any Borders I’ve ever been to has had an inexcusably small science section, and I’ve never seen an atheist section.

    I find that B&N vary depending on the local populace. I once thought they were the best bookstore out there, but that’s because I had only been exposed to the two in Madison, WI (home of FFRF, btw; overall, the populace is liberal and well-educated). Thus, when compared to most other B&N I’ve encountered, the two Madison had comparatively larger science sections and smaller religious sections.

    The HalfPriceBooks stores in Madison were much to my liking as well. The two stores there may very well offer as much shelf space to science as the six stores in the Twin Cities area (where we’re now living) combined. The two Madison stores continuously obtain and offer recently-released books, but I have witnessed little of that here, and none of that in the science section. Also, I could at least locate atheism books at those stores. Now I’ll occasionally come across one in the philosophy section, but I have otherwise been told to look in the occult section.

    Perhaps one reason (and this is simply speculation) that religious sections are expanding seemingly at the expense of, say, science sections, is that people like me shop around and look online for the best deals. If I find a great book at B&N, chances are that if I end up buying it, it will be from Amazon because I can get it for much less (even if I had B&N’s discount card).

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