Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Comment: Bookseller/Blogger To Watch; Bookstores & Chaos

I've recently become a devotee of the blog of Bookseller Chick. Her profile says she works for a West Coast chain, but her attitude is truly indie: creative, community-minded, and all about the conversation. Her blog is a real forum for discussion of issues in the book world, from the book that scared you as a kid to the idea of Book TV to our reaction to (scarily brainless) teen girl chick lit. Hats off to her -- I'd love to have this site become as much of a conversation-starter.

(Later this week I'm planning to run another roundup of great book blogs I've discovered recently, so prepare for more time wasting!)

In the BS Chick spirit, I've been thinking about an issue that I imagine bookstore goers have opinions on, whether they've considered them or not. How do you take your bookstore: chaotic or clean?

Myself, I'm a bit of a neat freak. I spend all day at my current store picking up stray books and putting them back on the shelf, dusting surfaces, throwing out random slips of paper, straightening stacks, sorting through piles of detritus... My coworkers have chastised me once or twice for "neatening" something that could have stayed where it was, such as a book a customer had placed on the counter and was coming back for. But I feel obligated to keep the encroaching chaos at bay. It's my feeling that a neat store is a more beautiful store.

But this isn't the aesthetic in all bookstores. There is an ideal of the independent bookstore where all is chaos, where only the bookseller may know where to find something. Christopher Morley's classic THE HAUNTED BOOKSHOP, or the book I just finished, FIRMIN, both take place in this kind of establishment. Finding a book there is like stumbling across treasure, not like flipping through a file cabinet. As the literate rat Firmin puts it,

"Sometimes the books were arranged under signs, but sometimes they were just anywhere and everywhere. After I understood people better, I realized that this incredible disorder was one of the things that they loved about Pembroke Books… when they hauled some literary nugget from a mound of dross, they were much happier than if they had just walked in and bought it. In that way shopping at Pembroke was like reading: you never knew what you might encounter on the next page – the next shelf, stack, or box – and that was part of the
pleasure of it."

I understand this feeling – I like browsing a good messy used bookstore myself. But I also think that this prejudice for civilized chaos belongs to an older model of bookstores, of publishing and even of literature: a game for gentlemen and geniuses, not to be undertaken for motives as base as profit. It's all very well to have "mound[s] of dross" if your purpose in being a bookseller is just to relax among the books with your pipe and wax prolific about literature. If, however, one intends to run a bookstore as a business, a different model is necessary.

The sensation of discovering something unexpected is indeed valuable. Serendipity is one of my very favorite parts of the bookstore experience. But I think it can be achieved without resorting to mere messiness. Our job as booksellers is to seek out the new and wonderful and underpublicized books out there, to put them on our tables and face-out displays, to surprise the lucky bookstore patron with the book they didn't know they wanted. This kind of egalitarian display chaos – bestseller next to indie press unknown – is my kind of chaos.

And I think it can co-exist with sections organized alphabetically, clear and consistent signage, and an absence of detritus and dirt. Surprising books are a sign that a bookstore's staff is creative. Disorganization is a sign that they just don't care enough to keep the place neat.

But maybe I'm wrong. Feel free to share your thoughts on chaos vs. order, serendipity vs. organization, neatnik nerdiness vs. bohemian laissez faire.

I'll be busy dusting the information desk.


Anonymous said...

I like em tidy- but I like when the bookseller's mind is a bit chaotic and strangely cross referenced. When I bring a book to the front I want to see those wheels turning and have them say "Oh you like X? Have you ever read Y?" and have it be something I would never have found on my own.

Anonymous said...

I like the store to be clean, have good signage & be well-lit. I don't want to get a headache just from walking in. I want to be able to find what I want without too much difficulty. I know how hard it is to keep the shelves alphabetized, so I try to put books back in the right place if I've taken them off the shelf.

The Girl In The Other Room said...

Just stumbled across your blog from a link on another's blog- & just wanted to say, I love it! Will def. have put a link on my page so I can check back often. ;)

Anyway, back to the topic at hand- chaos vs. order/serendipity vs. organization, etc etc. While a very neat & tidy bookstore makes things easy to find (especially if you've come into the store searching specifically for "Book X"), there is also something to be said for a bit of mess/disorganization, like you explained (for the value of the unexpected surprise).

The "loosely" organized bookstore forces you to look at every single book you see and can often open your mind to a new book you never even thought of (or even heard of before seeing it)- simply because it caught your eye as you were rifling through a stack of jumbled books. (but I'm just probably repeating exactly what you said) ;) I do think you make a very excellent point about "civilized chaos belongs to an older model of bookstores"- one of my favorite bookstores is in Columbus, Ohio (& I make sure I stop there anytime I'm remotely near Columbus). It's an old converted church- the kind that when you walk in, there's just a large open space where the pews would have been and a tiny little attic area upstairs. And the piles of books-on shelves, in bins, and even stacks on the floor (all in their respective catergories though), just simply "feels" right for a bookstore that old. It would never work in say a brand-spankin` new Barnes & Noble.

So I guess I'd have to say I appreciate both styles- each have their own place and need. I like the efficiency & ease to which I can find exactly what I'm looking for in a modern behemoth borders type of store, but I love the "thrill of the hunt" when searching through "organized" chaos in the dusty old bookstore too.

JoanneMarie Faust said...

I prefer the books all organized and kept that way. I don't shop well in chaos. I want things in their proper places. Although I try to shop whenever possible in used bookstores, I like the clean, neat and organized nature of the chains.

Barry said...

I'm thinking preferences are formed with what you grow up with: in my early days, there were very few specialist bookshops to go to, so we'd have very tidiliy organised shops that sold a mixture of stationery, toys and books and never anything very interesting. Then I found a second hand bookshop called Hard To Find, and it was heaven: it was two double-storied shops joined together, there was a basic structure to the organisation of the books, but the place was old and a bit ramshackle, and Warwick had odd fixations as well as too many books, so there would be big piles of things all over the place, plus the things he was fixated on would pop up in strange places, just so there'd be a chance they'd come to our attention.

Of course, when I travelled, even shops like Borders and Dillons in London were a complete revelation in terms of what a bookshop could be, and I imagine when I finally get to Powells, I might want to camp there for a couple of days. But, curiously enough, the best bookshop I have seen in recent times was both fairly small and perfectly ordered. The thing that made it the best was that the selection so perfectly reflected the things I am into that I wanted to just move in.

Barry said...

On a quasi-related note, I will be having my first trip to New York in June, with only a few days to see the whole place. Any recommendations as to particular districts in which indie/used bookshops are particularly thick on the ground, or as to particular shops to look for (I'd be looking for "good" fiction) would be very helpful. Neatness or scruffiness won't be a problem for me.

Book Nerd said...

What great thoughts! It seems that the general consensus is that there's a place for both order and chaos in a good bookstore, and each store has to find its own balance between the two. I especially liked Eileen's suggestion that the chaos should exist in the bookseller's mind! I appreciate hearing from you all - it's good to know what real bookstore junkies are thinking.

Barry, great that you're coming to New York! Off hand, I'd say Greenwich Village and environs would be the best neighborhood for concentrated bookstore acreage. But sometime before June I'll post a more complete rundown of my favorite bookstores in the city, with locations so you can track them down.

Happy bookstore hopping!

Sarah Faragher said...

Tidy! I'm a semi-compulsive neat freak, and I love the sight of books standing upright on their shelves (the regular grids of the shelves gently containing the relative chaos of the books). No teetering piles of books on the floor, please, or books wedged two rows deep into overflowing shelves. I like a small shop in which I can discern the personality of the proprietor, and in which it is obvious that the proprietor respects books. I like this type of shop so much that I opened one myself...