Venn Librarian

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What’s missing?

Posted by lpearle on 17 August 2011

I’ve been following the controversy over Meghan Cox Gurdon’s Wall Street Journal articles (for the best round-up/analysis, check out LizB), and something struck me about her first article, something that I didn’t see picked up on elsewhere.  And while all the fuss and #YASaves activities have been great, @dmcordell‘s recent tweet about the closing of her local indie bookstore reminded me of my initial thoughts.  Ms. Gurdon’s article opens with a woman in a Barnes & Noble, looking for a book:

She had popped into the bookstore to pick up a welcome-home gift for her 13-year-old, who had been away. Hundreds of lurid and dramatic covers stood on the racks before her, and there was, she felt, “nothing, not a thing, that I could imagine giving my daughter. It was all vampires and suicide and self-mutilation, this dark, dark stuff.” She left the store empty-handed.

Here’s what’s missing: someone to help this woman navigate the selections.  Yes, there are many “dark” books out there, but there are also other books, less dark and possibly more appealing to this mother.  But if you go into a big box bookstore (B&N, the erstwhile Borders, Wal-Mart, etc.) you won’t find a person who can help you find the right book for you or your reader.  Why?  Because the people working there don’t really know the books.

A slight digression:  Years ago I was in the B&N near Penn Station, browsing.  I found two things that made me go wha??, and I spoke with the staff there: 1. Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man was in the self-help section, and 2. A.N. Roquelaure’s books were in the horror section.  The staffer said that he knew nothing of the books, and that “corporate” told them where to shelve things.

Another slight digression: I have a college friend who has spent his post-college years in Woodstock, in the music business (working for the now-closed Parnassus Records, as a dj for WDST/Radio Woodstock and now selling LPs and CDs at record sales, on eBay and via Amazon).  He knows what the local people like and will respond to.  When B&N was opening a store in Kingston, he went to see if they had an opening in their music department.  He learned that the selection was 95% chosen by the regional office, with a mere 5% available to the local manager to select based on local tastes – his quick assessment of the 95% was that 80%+ of that would not sell that well.

Back to my story.  The people who work at these big stores don’t have the intimate knowledge of books that those working in small, independent bookstores do… or librarians.  And that’s what’s missing from Ms. Gurdon’s story.  The reason the woman left empty-handed was because she couldn’t find someone who could help her find the right books, the perfect book for her daughter to read.  It’s not that the people who work in those stores are bad, but they’re not specialists.  At my favorite indie, BookCourt, I can ask questions and get intelligent answers.  And, to be honest, I’ve had great success with staffers at the Chapters store in Montreal (last year, I went in asking for the new Julian Barnes, and they knew that it was not fiction or non-fiction but memoir and exactly where it was on the shelf; at the B&N I most often frequent, they’ve never heard of him).

So in addition to our talking about how #YAsaves, let’s also stress how having strong public and school libraries and great local bookstores, all staffed with people who know books and how to find just what the patron wants are essential.


One Response to “What’s missing?”

  1. When my son was younger, we went to B&N looking for a book called “Backyard Ballistics”, a book that would teach him such kid-tastic things as building a potato cannon, a tennis ball can shooter and rockets from matches and paper. We scoured the kids section, and then, asked the clerk behind the desk for help. He looked it up on his computer, and then laughed and said “Oh, they’ve got that shelved in the Gardening section!”. Go figure!

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