Shelving is not part of my job, but it is one of my favorite things to do. It numbs the mind like a jigsaw puzzle does, and it’s crazy satisfying to make everything on the shelf fit just right. To find some Gabriel Garcia Marquezes in the overstock under M instead of G, or to find Gary Krist’s City of Scoundrels filed mistakenly with the fiction, well you feel like you have just done the bookstore equivalent of a catching the wrong dose on a patient’s chart, even though you understand that the stakes here are low. No life has been saved by finding a misshelved book, and yet the longer I work in a bookstore, the more the medical terminology seems apt.
Save one life save the world, instructs the Talmud, a book we may or may not carry. You can’t save every life. You can’t save every book. But you can at least throw lifelines now and then. Turning a book face out is the micro version of Stephen Colbert bestowing likely bestsellerdom on a debut novel caught in the Hachette/Amazon crossfire. Collectively, bookstores can do quite a lot by getting behind certain titles, whether it be via the IndieNext list or the Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers program, but even those titles are among a chosen few. When a book lands on the shelf, it can be rescued from being smothered by the behemoths, but what about books that never make it onto our shelves in the first place? What about the books that end their journeys in our staff break room, where the less desirable bound galleys that precede the final version of a book wind up?
I have a notebook full of data I have accumulated in my three years of attending bookstore consortium meetings and the annual bookseller conference in New York called Book Expo America. I have watched PowerPoint presentations on book statistics and publishing industry trends. I can turn out phrases like “slow steady growth in the foreseeable future,” or “slow growth in difficult economic times,” but my inbox each day provides the more immediate portrait of the book business: There are far more books and authors than a bookstore or its events program can possibly accommodate, let alone titles that can be turned face out.
Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing depends, I suppose, on one’s ability to accept that you can only save the books that you can save. Despite the occasional gloomy headlines and the despair of some of my talented friends who are having trouble finding publishers right now, there are still an awful lot of books out there. Those bound galleys in our break room make me angsty every day. Between each cheerful cover I imagine the champagne that was popped when the book contract was signed, and see the author mugging for the photo while privately rehearsing answers for Terry Gross’s Fresh Air. I fret about the daily deluge in my inbox, too. It’s filled with requests from publicists and authors who would like to hold an event at our store. It’s hard to say no to a book with a celebrity and a cute pet on the cover even though it won’t appeal to our demographic, and hey, I’m a softie for the kindly pediatrician who keeps calling even though I have never heard of his publisher, the timing is off, and there is no room whatsoever on our calendar.