Wednesday, October 31, 2012

How a Bookstore Selects the Books It Sells

I think anyone who's ever browsed a bookstore has wondered why certain books were on store shelves and others weren't. As Sam Sacks, a book clerk for Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, explains it in the New Yorker, it all comes down to the personal bias of those who run the bookstore. "Bookstores are human places," Sacks says. "They are extensions of the personalities of the men and women who operate them." What about the customers? A longtime bookseller confided to Sacks: "We do this for the books, not for the customers."

The interior of Housing Works Bookstore Cafe.
Image via e.j.i./flickr

If you've been a customer at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, located at 126 Crosby Street in New York's SoHo neighborhood, you were undoubtedly surrounded by its sizable and eclectic selection of books. Where did they come from? According to Sacks, they're "from publishers or magazines getting rid of their overflow, from the apartments of lifelong readers who have died, or simply from the shelves of New Yorkers who need to clear the space." So, how do certain titles reach store shelves? There is a method, despite the personal bias that's inherent in picking inventory. Sacks illustrates this in his New Yorker piece.

At Housing Works, Sacks sifts through all the boxes and bags of donated books and selects what the store will sell, both at its brick-and-mortar location and on its website. He admits to a preference for certain genres: "I have always thought that the backbone of a good used-book store is formed by its fiction and history sections, so whenever possible I separated these books for the floor. Naturally, there were exceptions," he says. "Specialized histories with a narrowly scholarly focus are better sold online - so a history of the Punic Wars makes it to the store; a study of urinals during the reign of Hadrian doesn't."

Just as Sacks has a propensity for particular genres, affecting what is sold at Housing Works, he also has a fierce aversion to certain book forms, like the hardcover. "I do not like hardcover books," he discloses. "They are needlessly bulky and cumbersome, far less attractive or readable than their svelte paperback siblings. Unless the hardcover was of a perennial seller (your Doris Kearns Goodwins or John Irvings), I didn't allow them to eat up the limited shelf space."

It's interesting to read about what goes on behind the scenes at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe and the other bookstores where Sacks has worked, including The Strand and Barnes & Noble, the latter of which he says is "unjustly maligned. It's true that the mind governing these stores is corporate, but the staff tends to be far better read and more informed than detractors allow, and the selection is large and egalitarian." For more insider information on the bookstores whose selections are not as large as Barnes & Noble's and are much more curated, see Sam Sacks' article for the New Yorker, "The Bookstore Brain: How Bookstores Choose Their Books," at THIS LINK.

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