The Art of Shelving

A few months ago I read a book called Hound, a gentle mystery with a book scout (“book hound”) ┬ámain character. The narrator tells us that he started in the book trade by working at a used bookstore. He says that he thought he would learn a lot about books, but mostly he learned about shelving.

jeff behind the counter

This is Jeff, who recently returned from Hawaii and works several days a week.

When I read that, I thought he meant building shelves. Now I know better.

At a used bookstore, shelving is important. As much as we all love the ambiance of the cavernous, cluttered used bookstore with tilting piles of books on the floor, on the counter and in the corners, it’s really hard to find what you want in those stores, unless you are just browsing (or you are a fictional character and the book you want/need slides off a stack and falls on your head). Brandy, the managing partner of Mockingbird Books, has a clear vision of what Mockingbird is. It’s a cozy, pleasant store with lots of books, where you can easily find what you want if we have it. It is inviting, not haphazard. It is organized, and within that organization, whimsical and often witty.

sex life of the foot

Shouldn’t titles like these be face out as we head into February?

Right now we are getting a lot of books through donations, which means there is a definite ebb and flow to the subject matter, and it isn’t controlled. I shelved a lot of fiction and poetry books last week, for instance, and the Drama section is filled so tightly that I couldn’t fit some books in. Earlier in the month there were hardly any novels in New Arrivals at all.

Very often one shelf will be jammed, but three shelves away there is plenty of space. Books have to be shuffled across all three shelves to make room.

Right now the fiction shelves are packed. I was talking to Jeff today, and he said, “For good retailing, you want a lot of face-outs.” Rows and rows and rows of spines are just not that inviting. Think about your own experience browsing shelves. Unless you are on the lookout for a particular item, all that carefully designed (if narratively inaccurate) cover art needs a chance to do its job.

fiction from outside

“Outsider fiction” takes on a whole new meaning when you really are outside.

When books come in, Brandy, Mark, Jeff or Jules research them (starting with Amazon) to determine the price, which is usually 50% of the cover price. Sometimes, the book is worth more than that. Rarely, the decision is that it is worth less, usually because of the condition.(This hardly every happens at Mockingbird.) The book is priced and listed in inventory, and a label is printed. The new store code on the back should be covered by our store’s label if at all possible. This is actually a consumer protection thing — Brandy had the county division of Weights and Measures come to her other store one day and spot-check the books. This is to prevent the scanning equipment from scanning the Suggested Retail Price and charging full price at the register.

The books are cleaned and labeled. Most/many of them go out to New Arrivals.

“New Arrivals” can be a bit misleading, though. I also think of New Arrivals as the “flying standby” section. Often I take a book from New Arrivals, carry it back to shelve it, and discover there’s no room. Back into New Arrivals it goes. ┬áSome are over-sized and just fit better there. For example, Haruki Murakami’s bizarre, enigmatic and wonderful 1Q85 is currently in New Arrivals and has been there for two weeks. The hardcover book is practically a cube — and the M’s, in Fiction, are tightly packed right now.

There is also a particular book Brandy is trying to get rid of, and it has been in New Arrivals since December. (All right! All right! It’s Fifty Shades of Gray.)

I struck a tiny blow for fantasy today when I found a copy of Kat Richardson’s Greywalker labeled SF/Fantasy (correctly), but three other books in the series shelved in the Paranormal Romance section. I got them all moved to Fantasy. I don’t know if Richardson is happy about that, but I am.

I felt pretty good at 5:30, when I was getting ready to leave, to see that there were plenty of books facing out on the fiction side of New Arrivals, since it had been pretty tightly packed when I came in. I also re-alphabetized the Gender Studies and Ethnic Studies sections. (To be fair, I didn’t work very hard that day, since I took an hour to spend with my friend Kathleen at lunch.)

new arrivals face out

I walked to out to a glorious almost-full moon framed by delicate whips of bare winter branches. It was a good day.

winter moon 01



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