When I walk into a good bookshop with the intention of browsing, I look for new books, and I look for a display table.
There are lots of ways to attractively present new titles, and I’ve seen them all. But somehow, the sight of stacks on a big table “commands me to buy” (to use an ugly marketing phrase) like no other fixture or display strategy.
Vending one's wares from a simple table is such a universal human activity, and we all know the appeal, from farmer’s markets to trade shows. So maybe I’m just drawn to the horizontal surface because my Swedish ancestors bought and sold their vegetables that way. But I have other reasons.
A table has some distinct merchandising advantages over vertical shelving.
There’s a kind of egalitarian spirit to stacks of books face up on a table. A browser can circumnavigate with easy access to everything- nothing out of sight or out of reach.
There is less likelihood that butt-brush factor will chase browsers away from narrow aisles.
As a browser, the logistical challenges of vertical shelving- especially the floor to ceiling variety- are becoming clearer as creaking joints and dodgy eyesight begin to toy with me.
There is the issue of the top shelf, and the even more distressing problem of the bottom one. I can’t be the only customer who decides to skip finding out who the S through Z authors in New Books are rather than get down on hands and knees to examine them. I’ve always wondered if those authors have any idea that their last names put them at a distinct display disadvantage in most bookshops.
Big corporate retailers are spending heavily to track eyeballs in their stores, since it’s clear that where they go is a huge factor in what products get noticed and sold. For bookstores, this is also the case.
One of my favorite customers at the downtown Milwaukee bookstore I managed was Mrs. Jepson, an eccentric older woman who had won a lawsuit against an ambulance company and was rewarded by being able to use it as a taxi service. They’d drop her off and pick her up after she spent an hour or so rolling around the store in her wheelchair.
She looked a little like Flannery O'Connor, had definite interests, and a sharp tongue (“The only thing she reads is the newspaper!” she’d invariably complain about her paid companion.) If she landed at a busy time we’d groan and make the best of it, but on a slow Tuesday morning she was a delight.
Another delight was seeing bookseller Daniel Goldin’s patient, funny, disarming way with her as he fetched books from this section and that at her command. This talent has come in handy as his Boswell Book Company has cornered the Milwaukee north shore nursing home market.
But Mrs. Jepson mainly liked to browse, snatching random books within reach and demanding “what’s this about?” The thing was, her browsing boundary was books she could see and pick up from a sitting down position. Authors H through P of the new Mass Market fiction section, for instance.
I don’t know whether Esther Jepson would have had an easier time with horizontal display tables, but the lesson is that bookstore customers have unique perusing strategies and abilities, and may not be seeing what you want them to see.
My old boss David Schwartz was a big believer in the display table, and we spent lots of time configuring, measuring, and moving them around. A key Schwartz insight: if the table is too low you will need a lot more inventory to make stacks; higher tables are better, since only a few copies of a book can get it close to the customer’s eye level.
My friend Jason Smith in Oak Park was a little obsessed with this issue for years before he opened his own store. He was so convinced that displaying books on tables is the way to go that he named his store The Book Table, and it is indeed a joy for horizontally biased bibliophiles.
And in Hyde Park, the Front Table at Seminary Coop Bookstore has been some of the most valuable bookselling real estate in North America for decades. There isn’t a better snapshot of new, important scholarly books to be found anywhere. And in stacks! I was thrilled to hear that they’re converting some of their vertical New Release shelving to more table space. No more crawling on the floor to see the new Slavoj Zizek!
I know, I’m unrealistic. Just in time inventory and bottom line watching have made book piles a thing of the past in many stores. And organizing regular sections like fiction horizontally rather than vertically makes no sense. And who has the space for all these tables anyway?
It's fun to get lost in the stacks. But give me a big flat space stacked with curated new titles over wall shelving any day.