Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Comment: Shelving 101, or, Organic Organization (with helpful vocabulary words)

I've got a lot of wonky book stuff on my mind lately: statistical trends that show the growth of independent bookstores, attractive and productive ways of doing websites, methods of forming alliances with other local institutions, and not least, figuring out the specifics of writing a bookstore business plan (more on that soon...).

But the wonky bookselling topic of today is the eternal conundrum of bookstore shelf organization. We've been working on redoing some displays in the store, and I've been thinking about my own bookstore: how one would develop an organizational system from scratch. Bookseller Chick has also been addressing this lately from the perspective of the beleaguered bookseller answering the author demanding "Where are my books?", with data from her readers about how they go about finding books; check out her enlightening discussion in the June 27, 28, and 29 posts for more aspects of this issue.

You've got books. Your customers want books. You've got shelves, you've got display spaces, you've got staff and/or a computer to keep track of things. How do you arrange, display, organize, and categorize books so that customers can buy the books they want?

The way I see it, the ultimate goal of any bookstore's organization (into sections and within sections) is twofold:

1) Findability: placing a book so that it can be quickly and accurately found by a customer or a bookseller looking for that specific book.
2) Browsability: placing a book so that it catches the attention of a customer who is likely to be interested in it, whether or not they were actually looking for that specific book.

Findability is the motivation behind most backlist (that is, non-new release) sections; it's why, say, fiction is usually separated from nonfiction, and organized alphabetically by author's last name. Anyone looking for CATCHER IN THE RYE by J.D. Salinger need only find the fiction section and look under S, and the sale is made. They don't even need to ask a bookseller for help if they don't want to (as Bookseller Chick laments in her recent posts).

Browsability is usually the focus in new release sections, where customers may not know the exact title or author of a book or may just be looking for something new. Displays and featured tables, books grouped together by theme, and point-of-sale books are all aimed at attracting the reader who knows what she likes, but doesn't know what's out there.

This all gets more complicated when applied to books that aren't necessarily easily classifiable as one section or one author. For example, how do you organize anthologies (by editor? separate section?), creative nonfiction (memoir? travel writing? essays? belles lettres? criticism? what if it's more than one?), history or biography (by subject? by author? by time period or theme?), etc. The judgement calls are endless, and sometimes agonizing. Should Art Spiegelman's MAUS be shelved next to Brian K. Vaughn's smart superhero comic EX MACHINA (in a graphic novel/comics section), or next to Eli Weisel's Holocaust memoir NIGHT (in memoir, or history, or World War II History, or Oprah Book Club Picks?) – or both? (And if it's supposed to be in both and you have only one left, how do you know where it is?) Should a book on living rooms go in architecture or interior design, and should it be shelved by author, title, or subject?

The real question is where the customer who wants this book is likely to look for this book. Answering that question takes knowledge of the books as well as the customers. It also takes knowledge of the store itself.

In my experience, very small stores tend to skew toward browsability. With fewer books (and staff that knows them well), it's easier to find any book if needed, so it makes sense to focus on making more books attractive to the undecided reader. A larger store, especially one with a specialty focus or one that tends to have a lot of goal-oriented customers, should probably skew toward findability. It may be more important for customer happiness to find a particular book quickly than to present a cornucopia of tempting impulse buys.

The bookstore's best bet is usually to try to determine the most intuitive place to look for a book and have it there consistently, sometimes setting it in stone by coding into a computer inventory system. There are, of course, variations on this – I linked earlier to this article by comic book store owner James Sime, who not only organizes his books by variables like publisher, superhero featured, title, or genre, but actually reorganizes his store periodically to see if another system will work better (and to encourage customers to discover books they wouldn't if they stuck to familiar sections).

And I think his impulse, while taken to something of an extreme (in a store where customers are likely to appreciate it), is one every bookstore can learn from. Just because "we've always been organized it this way" doesn't mean that's the best way to do it. A store may be invisibly losing sales because they're not displaying the books their customer base is likely to find irresistible, or because books in a certain section would be easier to find alphabetized a different way.

In my store, we have a large health section – all of the books have a label that identifies them as belonging in that section, and staff can look up any health title or author in the computer. Recently, a staff member went through the section and broke up the health books into subsections with new shelf labels – "diet & nutrition," "alternative medicine," "aging," "women's health," etc. And sales in the health section shot up. It's a little more difficult now for a staff member to find an individual book – they have to make the right guess about which subsection this book has been shelved in (and correct it if it doesn't make sense). But customers in the health section apparently tend to have a particular issue in mind, if not a particular book, and the new system has made the section infinitely more browsable. And we've applied this subtopic grouping in other sections with similar success.

The ultimate goal, of course, is to balance browsability and findability based on knowledge of a store and its customers. There should be a way to find any book on demand (even if only a bookseller can figure it out), but books should also be placed where likely readers are able to stumble upon them. If your store tends to sell a huge amount of Neil Gaiman and Neal Stephenson, maybe you need to break those authors out of the fiction section and create a fantasy/sci fi section, so fans of those authors can find other fantasy books they're likely to be interested in. If your historical biography section never sells anything, maybe those books need to be folded into the history or memoir sections. If booksellers can never find anything for customers in the design section, maybe a more findable order of books is needed.

This is a different focus from the big questions about the state of the book world I've been talking about here lately, but in a way it's part of a big question in itself. It's part of stepping back and looking at why bookstores do the things they do -- what our actual goals are, as opposed to what our habits are -- and how we can do them even better.

In planning for my own bookstore, I've occasionally fantasized about just having every book organized alphabetically by author – no separate sections, no exceptions, no more agonizing decisions ever again! Theoretically, this would be the perfect findable system (provided one always knew a book's author, which is of course unlikely), and serendipitous browsing might even occur as the reader of Anne Lamott decided to try George Lakoff. But what if someone just wanted a book on Japanese pop culture, but they didn't know which one? Theoretically again, a preternaturally gifted staff might be able to steer this customer toward half a dozen pop culture books whose location they had memorized – but now the realm of theory gets a little silly. A completely alphabetical bookstore might have a quirky attraction, but it probably wouldn't sell nearly the number of books it could, and there would probably be a lot of frustrated customers.

In fact, I'll probably organize books into a minimal number of large sections, based on the number of books I carry in each broad category and my own personal interests. Then I'll watch carefully how customers shop my store, and listen to what they're asking for, confused about, or pleased by. Then I'll make changes. The store's organization will evolve as it finds its place in its neighborhood and with its customers, and organization will become organic. I can't wait to find out how it develops.

In the next months I'm hoping to visit some local bookstores and look at their organization and other factors, and talk here about what can be learned from each of them. If you have thoughts on bookstore organization, or you know of a particularly unique or effective/ineffective bookstore shelving system, I'd love to hear from you in the comments.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'll start by saying that I enjoy your blog, and find these posts about the nuances of bookselling fascinating. My question does not really relate directly to the entry on shelving, but it has to do with bookselling.

I am curious to know how you plan on or currently go about hiring staff? What do you look for? I am asking this because I recently interviewed for a job at a local independent bookstore (the only one in the area). I thought the interview went well but I did not get the job. I was certainly disappointed because I have always wanted to try bookselling and feel that I would be really good at it.

Even before I applied at this store, I began to notice that their staff choices always seemed a little off. I often hear from both fellow bibliophiles and casual reader friends about how they feel intimidated by these people. The store in question seems to hire people who fit a certain look. Their appearance is often bookish but in such a way that corresponds to a certain hipness and all of them (barring those who helped get the store going during the 70's) are attractive twentysomethings. These staff members are aloof and they often prove to barely know what they are talking about (one friend told me a story where the clerk he asked had no idea where to find books written by Saul Bellow).

However, not all of them are bad. The older ones who work there are much more helpful as is one girl who works at one of their locations (there are two). In fact, when I started going there, one staff member even went so far as helping me find a new book every week. This had a tremendous impact on me and I can thank him for my enrollment in Graduate School. The books gave me a passion for literature that has continually grown. Yet, a good number of them really seem unfriendly and uninfomred.

I hope I do not sound too much like someone who is merely bitter because he did not get the job. This whole thing had been on my mind for some time beforehand and has discouraged me from shopping at this store in the past. I still shop there because I always try to give as little business as possible to the big chains. I'd love to open a shop of my own someday and staff it with friendly people who may not look cool, but are accessible and knowledgeable. I am curious if you and your readers have seen this at other bookstores? Is it a common occurence, or is my small city unique?

-Michael

Andy Laties said...

On the subject of shelving: I think that given the competition of online retailers it's become more important to explore creative mix-and-match shelving in bookstores. My "identity" section at Eric Carle Museum Store is the Picture Books For Grown-ups area, which is quite a hodgepodge of categories, united only by the fact that all the books are really interestingly illustrated. People love this section. Although I know that many of the books in it are quite widely available, lots of customers -- well educated, literate people -- tell me they've never seen any of these books before.

On the subject of hiring: Because bookstores pay very badly relative to the other employment opportunities available to their necessarily well-educated (or at least well-read) workers, there's moderately high turnover among bookstore staffs. That's why the workers in bookstores are disproportionately young: you can't easily raise a family on a bookstore floor-staff-worker's income. People who stay in the business can do so because they've moved into doing less work on the sales floor, generally speaking. Of course there's no excuse for surly customer service, and the bookstores in question are definitely being hurt by this behavior among the staff. So, when one encounters cliquish or standoffish attitudes among staff in a bookstore, one is not actually learning about the individuals one is encountering. One is learning about poor management. It's up to managers to find ways to keep floor-staff friendly and motivated and interested.

Grumpy salespeople, ergo, grumpy backroom. You should apply for work only where there are happy workers, I'd say, and not worry too much about being rejected for the opportunity of working among unhappy people.

Anonymous said...

A couple of thoughts -

First you should check out Cornerstone Books in Salem, MA. The owners were very helpful in my own personal research (I just emailed them on their generic email address from the bookstore site) and they have an interesting system where they do everything by subject - so if you go to "Shakespeare" in their store you'll find every play, audio, video, etc on Shakespeare. It's similar to what you'll find when you do a search online.

Also if you're starting to talk to local booksellers about their stores you should check out Morningside Bookshop - its right near Labyrinth so you're probably familiar with it. I didn't necessarily agree with all of the owners ideas but he was really nice about talking to me.

Also a shoutout to Andy Laties - I bought your book there (at Morningside) and loved it! :)

Andy Laties said...

Thanks! Yes, I've always found bookstore owners amazingly open to discussing their business practices -- it's one of the best parts of the business: that encouraging attitude toward so-called competitor-booksellers.

Book Nerd said...

I have to agree with Andy on pretty much every point here. Bad customer service is a fault of bookstore managers, who may tend to hire folks they think are like-minded (i.e., they read a lot, or they're a friend of a friend), and then are reluctant to fire them or retrain them when they turn out to be less than an asset to the store. It's one of my greatest pet peeves with indie bookstores that could otherwise be great, and a complaint that I often hear -- snobby or rude bookstore employees are the shame of our stores. Hiring and training pleasant, knowledgeable staff isn't just a decent thing to do -- it's good business sense for independents who bank on their relationships with regulars to stay afloat. I'm sorry you had a bad experience with hiring -- as Andy says, try another store, because you probably didn't want to work there anyway.

I love hearing about sections like "everything Shakespeare" and "identity"! This creative browsability is what makes indies unique and allows customers to discover books they might never have thought to look for. Our store has an "urban arts" section that's separate from art or design -- it features books on graffitti, skateboarding, street art, etc., and it's selling quite well in our creative urban neighborhood.

And thanks for the tips on bookstores to visit! I met the owner of Morningside at a bookseller get-together and he seemed great -- I'll definitely include them in my local bookstore tour. Any other suggestions most welcome!

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