Bookselling in the 21st Century: When Your Store is a Photo Op
Katie Orphan on the Problems of Having a Beautiful Bookstore
We joke at The Last Bookstore, where I work, that we signed on to work at a bookstore, but ended up working at an amusement park. During the summer and the weeks of school breaks in spring and winter, that feels especially true. We are extremely fortunate to have a bookstore that serves not only as a neighborhood bookstore, but also as a tourist destination.
I’ve thought a lot about how this happened. It seems like mostly good fortune in finding a location that is beautiful and working with those bones to make a bookstore that is also beautiful. I believe that is what draws so many people to us: it’s a place to take an Instagram photo that one’s friends have taken on their visits to the store. I also think it goes deeper than that.
The more that the book is venerated as a physical item, something that, unlike a screen, people want to hold and even smell, the more the bookstore turns into a temple. The physical space where books are kept, and where booksellers friendly and grumpy alike can provide guidance in the world of books, becomes more important.
It’s a hard line to walk, between a bookstore that champions all the things that a good bookstore should—small presses, interesting and under-known works, the perfect title to give to a loved one—and being a place where people go to take photos and work on their laptops.
How does a bookseller buy for such a disparate group of customers? I want to make sure there are great books available to everyone who comes in, whether they are one of our regulars or a visitor from a far off land, but I also know that lots of people just want a photo and maybe one of our branded tote bags.
It’s also hard to figure out what will be in demand, since our visitors vary so widely. We can predict what regulars will like, but when a tourist from Brazil comes in one day, or a visitor from Germany comes in another, it’s hard to find the book that will satisfy all of them. And, I suppose, one of the great pleasures of having an entire bookstore at one’s disposal is that no one book has to be perfect for everyone.
The other challenge that arises for us is the way that people interact with the space. Some see it as a special place, one made magical through the presence of books. Some view it as a photo opportunity first, everything else second. We get people blocking thoroughfares to take photos, making access to shelves difficult for both staff and visitors. We should have known that would happen when we created unusual design fixtures for the store, from the tunnel of books on the mezzanine level to the cash wrap made of books.
One of my coworkers told me this story some months ago. She was working upstairs and heard two customers talking on the other side of a set of shelves. One of them pointed out a light switch, and reached for it. Her companion asked if she was going to turn off the lights. The first customer replied, “They don’t mind if you do things like that here.” My coworker yelled over the shelf, “Yes, we do. Please don’t turn out the lights.”
There is an attitude underlying that action that our store is not a real, working bookstore. The assumption is that we are first and foremost a destination for people who want to make our store their own for an hour. There is nothing wrong with people finding our store wonderful and claiming a sense of ownership—we want people who visit us to love the store as much as those of us who work there do.
We are, however, a real working bookstore. There are a couple dozen of us who spend our days and nights making sure that books are shelved, organized, and sold. We write staff recommendations, we help people find books, we handsell our favorite titles. We also schedule engagement photo shoots in the store and constantly answer questions from first-time visitors about where the aforementioned book tunnel is and whether or not we have restrooms for customers to use. For the record, the tunnel is upstairs, and no, we do not have public restrooms.
I am, again, grateful that people want to spend as much time as they do in our store. I love meeting people who have traveled from all over to visit us. It’s a stunning realization to discover that someone has made such an effort to see the store where I work. It’s my home away from home, and it means a lot that people would travel to see it. It’s an impulse I understand, as I too love to visit bookstores when traveling.
I want to see what is popular in other places. I want to learn from other bookstores how they do their displays, their sales, how they train their staff. I love to be in in new and strange places that remind me of home.
And maybe that’s where the lesson arises for me. The things that I wish to see when I visit another bookstore are the things that our visitors wish to see from us. They want to know what we recommend and what our customers like to buy. There is a reason our staff picks and bestseller displays are so popular. People who visit us also want to take something home, whether it’s a photo from their trip or a copy of a staff member’s favorite title.
Maybe all bookstores are moving in this direction. We must be that temple to the written word, the physical book, to which people still long to make pilgrimage. We should welcome the visitor, but make decisions based on the needs and interests of our regular customers. Visitors will not mind. They’ll be glad to take home the book that people in downtown Los Angeles or suburban Chicago or Nashville or Seattle, or wherever, buy the most.
It’s the best kind of souvenir I can imagine. A book that tells not only the story its author wrote, but whose very existence in one’s collection tells a story as well.