The rules of shelving can seem arbitrary, even arcane, but the fundamentals are easy to learn: two hard covers, and no more than three paperbacks of the same title, on each shelf. The exception is the face-out. If the jacket is displayed horizontally, behind it you can stack as many books as can fit.
Turning a book face out is an act of tremendous power, or so it feels when you are working at an independent bookstore at a moment that has major chains shrinking and Amazon wreaking havoc with publishing’s already fragile ecosystem. In a bookstore, you can decide, unilaterally, without having to ask permission or sit in an hour-long meeting, to simply face out Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance because, well, because it’s one of your favorite books, and it also solves the problem of what to do with the space left by your desire to consolidate the David Mitchells, which means moving them all to the shelf below.
You can also show a little love to an obscure mid-list paperback you just discovered suffocating between two behemoth hardcovers—simply because it feels like the right thing to do. The positioning will likely only matter for a day or two before the next person doing some shelving undoes your handiwork, sticks three Fine Balances spine out, climbs the giant ladder, and puts the rest in overstock.
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.
But I don’t want to lose hope and I don’t want to extinguish it in others. I don’t want to assume the patient can’t be saved, even if the reality is that in our store’s events department we are forced to accept a high failure rate. Helping whittle the pile down is part of a publicist’s job, too, which means that in their pitches, entire chunks of any publisher’s catalogue are skipped. Publicists do their jobs well. They know our demographic and are saving us time, and yet I want to let out a silent scream. What about the book on page 17, I want to ask? The debut novel the author slaved over for 12 years, developing a drinking problem, going into debt, and blowing up his family in the process? How about we at least admire the cover and spend a moment in silent prayer?
There’s only so much any one bookseller can do, but I try to at least commune with those galleys in our break room while waiting for the tea kettle to boil or the bagel to pop out of the toaster. It’s a short shelf life, even here. Soon one of my colleagues will come along with a box to clear out last season’s bound galleys and make way for the next wave. Every so often you may see a box outside the store with a sign that says “free books.” Please pick one up and show it some love.