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.