Friday, March 19, 2010

Books in the News

The vast scope of the product we sell- so many millions of titles- can sometimes seem like a disadvantage when compared to retailers offering a more finite menu of items. But in at least one respect the variety at our disposal is a huge advantage: there’s not a passing trend, piece of gossip or one day news item that can’t be readily addressed with a book.

Lots of people my age got into bookselling to begin with as an extension of their social and political commitments. Books can be weapons in the struggle, and all that. Plus, we couldn’t ever imagine functioning in the tainted corporate world.

No bookseller had more political convictions than my late mentor David Schwartz, but he used to confound the younger booksellers with his rule against wearing political buttons or T-shirts while on duty. “That’s what the books are for, use the books,” he’d always say.

So the concept that books are ideas and ideas change the world is not so original, but what’s sometimes over-looked is the competitive advantage we have over other enterprises when it comes to responding to ephemeral news events.

From a merchandising standpoint, you can think of a store’s book inventory in three ways:

1) There are the permanent, ironclad categories that have stood the test of time, like History, Science, Biography and so on. These may get a tidy-up or some new face-outs as books come in but for the most part they seem eternal;

2) There are some contemporary sections that are more responsive to political and social events. I’m thinking of Gender Studies, Environmental Studies, or the sections on Communities or Sustainability popping up in so many stores. Because you wouldn’t have found these in bookstores fifty years ago, they are more fluid than the old stand-bys. But as they become fixtures they quickly begin to seem like permanent categories;

3) Then there are the rotating displays and promotions around predictable events and occasions, such as Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day, Gardening and Graduation, Poetry Month and Beach Reading.

I’d propose a fourth category that seems underutilized: the instant, short-lived displays assembled on the fly based on news events.

Booksellers have such an advantage in responding to events and trends with their merchandise. The clothing and lifestyle retailers, chronically behind the cutting edge, must feel jealous.

A bookseller can read a celebrity obituary at 7:00am and have a nice display of relevant books up by 9:00. She can see a list of literature in translation awards on a website and throw together a lovely table featuring the winning titles. Some contemporary political tussles (health care anyone?) go on for so long that they will soon belong in category one above. But there are always books on the shelf to back up a display on the headline of the day.

I remember seeing photos of how they used to post issues of each days newspaper in the old Soviet Union. Moscow readers would queue up and crane their necks to study these poster-like bulletins. (Why? They only cost a kopeck.)

Similarly, I sometimes imagine dedicating a part of the front window in my dream bookstore to books drawn from the news of the day- a permanent display that would change every 24 hours based on what the media were exercised about and/or people were thinking about. (Of course I also imagine big crowds coming in to buy them. “Yes, I saw that front page Times story and come to think of it, I should know more about Greece. Or Fess Parker.”)

I guess this is on my mind because when I heard about the suicide epidemic at Cornell the other day, my first thought was “we have the perfect book on suicide!” I know, it sounds a little crass, but it really is the perfect book. And it’s an example of what I have in mind for my daily “in the news” bookstore display.

I immediately reminded the Cornell Store book buyer about Thomas Joiner’s Myths About Suicide, being published by Harvard this month. Of course he’s a pro so he’d already begun to think about how books could be brought to bear on the situation.

Every season there are titles that weren’t anticipated as major books that rise up out of circumstances and strike a chord. Ten years ago when the unpleasantness with the Taliban first commenced, Yale happened to have a small print run book called Taliban by Ahmed Rashid, one of the most knowledgeable journalists on earth. It went to number one on the New York Times list because booksellers said “we have a book on that!” and displayed it. (Shameless plug: a new edition appears this month)

Perhaps the strangest recent out of nowhere, media-driven book happening involves The Coming Insurrection, the short, incendiary tract from a French collective called “The Invisible Committee.”

Published by semiotext(e) last fall and distributed by MIT, the somewhat dense, theoretical, utopian manifesto was initially picked up by a few stores who do well with polemical texts by intellectual agitators. (You know who you are.) But suddenly Glenn Beck discovered it and pronounced it “the most evil book” he’s ever read. Every time the hoopla dies down a bit he brings it back out, waves it around on his show, and his minions pour into bookstores looking for it. It’s a somewhat surreal exercise trying to imagine what a Beck fan would actually make of the book. But hey, a sale is a sale.

Lots of imaginative booksellers are already doing this type of drive-by display thinking, and I smile whenever I see it. But I’d love to see more of it. Bookstores have always been the go-to source for serious readers looking for deep, big picture background. But at the other end of the spectrum, there’s a slice of the public with the attention span of a gnat, and a media cycle measured in hours rather than days.

I would wager that any random daily newspaper would yield a dozen related display-worthy titles that simply have to be plucked from the shelves.

If I had a bookstore you could see them every morning in my window, right next to Pravda.

1 comment:

  1. Denise WaddingtonMarch 25, 2010 at 8:07 AM

    I agree that booksellers should have a more fluid and timely response to "current events." This kind of thoughtful selection and presentation is commonplace on the web and social media sites of the more forward-thinking book publishers (and sadly, this group is still a minority). Booksellers would do well to adapt some of the "new media" conventions to their own shops. They and publishers need think more imaginatively (and realistically) about how their customers' online activity (gathering news about current events, for example) is affecting their experience and expectations when they step into the bookshop.