Thursday, July 22, 2010

where do I shelve this?

When reps and booksellers sit down to hash over forthcoming books, there are lots of angles to consider. While I see a few buyers who make snap judgments based on instinct and experience, most carefully pore over the metrics about each title that appear in the catalog: price, format, book dimensions, page count, and number of illustrations. I have been asked about paper weight. I have been asked about font and typography. But no topic comes close to eating up the appointment time consumed by discussions over category. That is, where do I shelve this book?

It’s a great annoyance to storefront booksellers that internet retailers don’t have this problem. Or, more accurately, can get around it by slicing and dicing subject lists so that a book comes up in infinite possible subject searches. Even when a title is floridly interdisciplinary, few stores can afford to take a physical copy for every section in which a customer might look for it.

I’ve presented dozens of titles from our new Fall 2010 lists that required some hard thinking about placement.

Yale’s fascinating new biography of Joe Louis (Joe Louis: Hard Times Man by Randy Roberts) could be shelved in biography, or sports, or even African-American Studies, since the focus is on meaning of Louis’ success to the Black community.

MIT’s excavation of Freud’s obsession with Mexico (Ruben Gallo’s Freud’s Mexico: Into the Wilds of Psychoanalysis) has prompted the logical shelving question “Freud, or Mexico?” Our catalog heading suggests “psychoanalysis/Latin America,” a combination I don’t see too often. (For what it’s worth, my advice has been that this is of greater interest to the Freud customer than the Mexican history and culture customer, but what do I know?)

And Harvard’s new book from innovation guru David Edwards (The Lab: Creativity and Culture), investigates what art has to learn from science, and vice-versa. “Art, or science?” (Just to make it even more interesting, I try to remind buyers that the book has business applications.)

These discussions can be either enlightening or frustrating. Sometimes they start out enlightening and get frustrating. The “where to shelve it” conversation is really a stand in for the “who is this book for and do I have that customer” conversation. After a lengthy chat on this subject about a title last week, the bookseller sighed and said “the longer these talks go on, the smaller the order, right?’ And then she decided to skip.

Stores that are still organized on some variation of a Dewey decimal model- which is to say, nearly all- will inevitably have to ask and answer this question about every complex title. It’s not necessarily unreasonable. Some buyers interpret many possible categories as “publisher doesn’t really know what the book is,” though I think that’s rarely the case. And as long as the average bookstore customer expects to see these familiar categories in their neighborhood stores, figuring out the best home for a book is time well spent.

But last week I dropped in on a charming bookstore following a different model in the St Louis suburb of Webster Groves- Pudd'n Head Books. This shop seems to have subverted the whole category premise, and is reinventing mainstay bookstore sections in really interesting ways.

For instance, the Biography section, while not particularly large, is subdivided into more than a dozen sub-headings, some with only a few books in each. These include:

- Rising Above
- War Torn Children
- General bons vivants
- Remarkable Friendships
- Culture Clash
- Revolutionaries
- Eccentric Scientists
- Explorers
- Politicians
- Ordinary Citizens
- Dysfunctional Families
- Exceptionally Cool People

I can hear the immediate objections from traditionalists:

- How do you find anything? (Yes, booksellers are really forced to know their inventory and it helps to be small and selective ;)
- How do you decide if a book fits in more than one sub-category? What if it doesn’t fit any quirky sub-category? (This is marketing, not shelving books in a library, so there’s lots of leeway for creative license ;)
- Won’t a lot of small shelves make the sections seem incomplete? (On the contrary, my impression of that biography section was that it was huge, and I was shocked to realize how few actual books it contained.)

I’ve seen a few other stores take this approach, and as a bookstore browser I find it really appealing. A more selective and playful presentation begins to seem more like curating than traditional bookselling.

Every book on display at the Wexner Center Bookstore in Columbus Ohio looks as if it’s been hand-chosen.

Looking Glass Books in Portland Oregon has an appealingly offbeat inventory sensibility.

And though it’s mainly a used store, no bookstore is more compulsively eccentric than Monkey's Paw in Toronto. You are guaranteed to leave that store with books on subjects you never knew you cared about, in part because the bizarre organization exposes you to them.

As usual when I’m giving advice like this, the caveat is “easy for me to say.” But I’m an addicted bookshop patron as well as a rep, and increasingly, the stores I feel drawn to spend time in are the stores that surprise me.

And isn’t this the message we’ve been hearing from the experts? If physical bookstores are to survive they need to truly be destination spots, great good places where book people love to hang out, offering something the internet giants can’t. I’m not sure the same old tired, library style category headings and inventory organization fit that vision.

1 comment:

  1. Jennifer IndeliclaeNovember 5, 2010 at 7:25 AM

    Excellent post -- thanks!