I've been thinking about these books for a while, and I think it all comes down to archeology. Human archeology, I mean.
If we got out our tiny picks and miniature whisk brooms and our specimen trays and started digging into the psyche of the typical bookseller, the first layer we'd unearth would be that of a bookstore customer. We all have stories about the bookstores we used to shop in before we got into the business. We're always remembering those stores and the experiences we had in them.
If you looked underneath that bookstore customer layer, you'd likely find a childhood layer of bookish passions - wintry trips to bookstores and libraries, rainy days spent indoors with a long series of kids' mysteries, and summers spent in the park or on the stoop, engrossed in novels.
In fact, anyone who loves books and works with them professionally - from publishers to publicists to book bloggers - will likely have this common history below the surface.
The adults we've become are built upon these foundations that we all have in common. When we get together at trade shows or conferences or in bars to meet up with each other, these stories come out pretty easily. When I'm working with my buyers in their stores, or when I'm having a meal with other booksellers, a little scratching at the surface will reveal their stories.
Like the archeologists who study humanity's ancestors to better understand how we got where we are today, booklovers can examine our own bookish histories to understand why we do the work we do.
Luckily, some authors have taken it upon themselves to explore the roots of their own passions, the bookishly-tinted world around us, and why we behave the way we do in stores.
by Lewis Buzbee
Graywolf Press | 9781555975104 | $14 | 2008
How did I get here? What led me to this life? Sooner or later, we all ask these questions. Lewis Buzbee spends a good portion of his fascinating memoir & exploration of the history of bookselling, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, retelling his own story.
"I became a voracious reader and book luster at fifteen, after discovering The Grapes of Wrath. For several years, I cared little about a store's atmosphere or reputation; I was concerned only that it carried books.
"When I wanted new books, I hung out at the local B. Dalton located in the dark basement of our biggest shopping center, or at a tiny Little Professor tucked into the back end of a nearby strip mall. I bought mass-market editions of Steinbeck (every single one within six months), Cheever, Updike (for the respectable naughty bits), Vonnegut, Heller, Barth, Barthelme, Pynchon."
Buzbee soon graduates from bike-powered trips to the local mall to a discovery that he wants to spend his days & nights in bookstores. From his first day on the job, he's hooked. And in his memory, he captures the flavor of our passion so well!
"November, a dark, rainy Tuesday, late afternoon. This is my ideal time to be in a bookstore. The shortened light of the afternoon and the idleness and hush of the hour gather everything close, the shelves and the books and the few other customers who graze head-bent in the narrow aisles."
Perhaps you will pick up Yellow-Lighted Bookshop to find a portrait of a kindred spirit, as I did. But you'll finish the book with a greater appreciation for the democratic power of the book, and the place of the bookseller in the world.
by Murray Browne
Paul Dry Books (Consortium) | 9781589880566 | $14.95 | May 2009
Like Lewis Buzbee's book, Murray Browne's The Book Shopper is also a memoir of a life spent reading and a life spent in bookstores. He writes from the outsider's point of view, the passionate amateur. Early chapters describe his initiation into the life of the book lover, his 10-year career as a book critic and even a balanced chapter on the pros and cons of Amazon.com book shopping (which he ends with a recommendation that sometimes you just need to step away from the keyboard and seek out your neighborhood bookstore).
Though his focus is frequently on shopping for used books, his chapters on the prerequisites of what every good bookstore should have make for a great starting point for any bookstore's collection. He doesn't waste time on store cats and mugs of coffee and comfy chairs - he just gets down to brass tacks: the authors that any self-respecting bookstore oughta carry. I doubt you'll disagree with any of his recommendations, and the treat is in the telling. He's a charming storyteller.
The Book Shopper is another great addition to the shelf of books for book lovers.
by Paco Underhill
Simon & Schuster | 9781416595243 | $16 | Jan 2009
Once we've unearthed those childhood obsessions and adult passions, discovered the primary colors of Why, Where and How we got into this, it's time to start thinking about the place where we spend so much time - the bookstore itself.
At this point, it makes sense to leave the warm, friendly memoirs behind and learn from a scientist about the psychology of shopping. I don't think much introduction of Why We Buy is necessary - the first edition was published 10 years ago, and since then it has become a classic case study of Why and How people behave they way they do in stores.
In fact, the continuing appeal of the book prompted Paco Underhill to go back to the book and completely revise it, looking more closely at how online shopping has altered the landscape over the last 10 years, and exploring the most innovative stores to have sprung up recently.
A couple choice bookstore-specific tidbits from Why We Buy. To start, it's important to let
"...shoppers know that it's all right for them to touch. At Hallmark stores we studied, some front-end Christmas ornament displays were so artfully designed and painstakingly constructed that shoppers didn't know if they were supposed to take or just gaze adoringly. Bookstores, too, sometimes run into the same problem when tabletop displays show a little too much effort. People know how much effort it is to get anything looking nice, so they can be reluctant to undo somebody's hard work."
Underhill spends a few paragraphs extolling some of the merchandising choices that his favorite bookstore (BookPeople in Austin, Texas) makes.
"This store isn't just selling books - it's selling to people who like books. At heart it's still a serious place that, among the tchotchkes and kitschy humor, has reinvented categories and subsections. For example, the Insurrection and Conspiracy section sits next to the Journalism shelf, and there's a pair of stuffed roosters flanking Homesteading & Farming - a nice touch."
Of course, most of Why We Buy is not specifically targeted at booksellers. But Underhill's conversational voice and easy expertise might be just what you need to get inspired to take on some serious bookstore reinvention. And some of the issues he raises are perfect for tossing out at your next staff meeting to get folks thinking in new ways.
What other books about bookstores keep you inspired? Let us know in the comments.