Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


July 27, 2009

Browsing for Godot

What do Neal Pollack and the author of Homo Thug have in common? For one, both are grossly misunderstood by the bookstores that peddle their wares.

Pete Croatto

When I worked at a big-box bookstore from 2006 to 2008, the apparent objective was to eliminate guesswork for both customers and employees. That's why we had two information desks, managers aplenty, and cash registers that did everything but count out change.

What's confounding is that, for all the assurances that everyone knew what was going on, I'd be shelving books, heading toward a section I believed to be a book's rightful place, and ask myself if the system had collapsed. After all, what was Malcolm Gladwell's self-described "intellectual adventure story" The Tipping Point doing amidst the blameless inner children and benign assurances of self-help? Alternadad, Neal Pollack's account of being a first-time dad and full-time writer, was in the rather forbidding sections of general family psychology and general childcare, a few spines away from the Oprah-approved recipes in Deceptively Delicious. Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief, about the whirl of history, scandal, and passion behind orchids? Be sure to stop by the gardening section.

Photo of a Santa Rosa Barnes & Noble courtesy <a href=''>Kristin&Joe's Flickr</a> via <a href=''>Creative Commons</a>
"Susan Orlean says she's found her book shelved in true crime and gardening, the victim of an ongoing identity crisis that rankles her to no end."

Photo of a Santa Rosa Barnes & Noble courtesy Kristin&Joe's Flickr via Creative Commons

This isn't a problem exclusive to nonfiction, as a former coworker reminded me: "There is 'fiction,' then 'African-American fiction,' but any actual classic African-American fiction is in regular fiction, so that means 'African-American fiction' only contains [not-as-yet-classics] like Homo Thug."

By keeping potential customers away from the books they're looking for, sloppy categorization can kill bookstores. So why must everything be so needlessly confusing? Don't stores want to connect their customers to sales? I decided to ask around.

Orlean says she's found The Orchid Thief shelved in fiction, true crime, current affairs, and gardening, the victim of an ongoing literary identity crisis that rankles her to no end. (Before our interview, she said she hoped that this article "started a movement.")

Wishy-washy placement strategies prevent readers from finding stylistically related books, too, Orlean says. In her case, there's Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City or Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air. Readers craving these titles, which typically fall under literary nonfiction, are out of luck, she adds. Most stores don't have such a section, even though the genre dates to the days of A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell.

"When I hear some of the stories [about] where books get shelved, and how illogically they get stocked in the stores, I get puzzled that [stores] haven't looked at the bestseller list and said, 'There are a bunch of books that are interesting, literary nonfiction books that don't fit our categories,' " Orlean says.

Orlean, whose next book is about another potential category-bender, a biography of Rin Tin Tin, says that "almost every nonfiction writer I know has griped about this because their books are hard to find and randomly shelved."

She continues, "When you're first getting going, you're counting on the serendipity of someone stumbling onto your book." If The Orchid Thief were her first book and relegated to gardening, Orlean says that "no one would ever buy the book."

I wish I could tell Orlean and other authors how Barnes & Noble or Borders plan to shelve their future works, but reps at both stores declined requests for comment. I thought I might get an answer if I spoke to someone in the trenches, so I visited a Barnes & Noble in Holmdel, New Jersey. A pleasant young woman at the information desk said that corporate decided placement; talking to the store manager, she assured me, would be useless. Veteran bookseller Jo Benninghoff, who managed a central New Jersey Borders for three years, said he had no idea how the books ended up in their locations.

What can be concluded is that categorization is an inexact science, even in a small store like The Raconteur in Metuchen, New Jersey. "I frequently forgo accuracy in favor of stocking books where the appropriate customers might come across them, even if they weren't necessarily looking for them," explains co-owner Alex Dawson.

Dawson says there are no hard and fast rules, and that space regularly determines where a book resides. He likes to put genre-straddling writers like David Sedaris and Orlean in trade fiction, alternatively referred to as "contemporary literature": "The section most browsed by hip, up-to-the-minute readers interested in relevant and renowned authors."

It's better than some of the sections Sedaris has found his books in, including gay and lesbian studies ("I don't really write about sex," the openly gay Sedaris asserts); a friend of his once spotted his essay collection Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim in the sewing section of one clueless shop.

Other authors joke about it. Pollack believes Alternadad belongs in several categories, especially "on the front table because my publisher paid a huge bribe to the bookstore chain to get it there. Those are the only books that sell well." (Pollack isn't entirely jesting; one of the worst-kept secrets in the book world is that publishers pay bookstores for prime, front-of-the-store locations during a book's initial release). As for Game of Kings, Michael Weinreb's account of a champion high-school chess team, the author is happy enough when stores "actually have the damn thing in stock."

Chuck Klosterman, noted pop-culture essayist and author of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, has never had a problem with where his books are placed in a store. Most people buy books through a friend's recommendation or by accident, he says, so location doesn't really matter. "Everyone would like to think that store placement is the key," Klosterman tells me, "but I suspect this process of discovery is so random that it's almost impossible to control."

But much of a physical bookstore's success is built on leisurely browsing, especially since its online rivals Amazon,, and make finding exactly what you want so painless and efficient. For brick-and-mortar stores, that means more than offering earth-toned easy chairs or tastier cookies, or putting another John Mayer CD on the overhead speakers.

Better organization leads to better browsing, one of the great pleasures of visiting a bookstore. And it's destiny that can be controlled: Put Sedaris's work alongside humor legends Woody Allen and Jean Shepherd, not next to Stone Butch Blues. Start a memoir section so fans of the The Glass Castle: A Memoir can find J.R. Moehringer's The Tender Bar, or Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life. If bookstores started framing their categories with readers in mind, customers will look at them like a second home, not a house of mirrors.

Pete Croatto

Pete Croatto is a freelance journalist and movie/book critic whose writing has appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, ICON, and Deadspin.

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- Books
- posted on Jul 28, 09

Very nice piece, both in concept and scope; English wasn't bad, either (for an American, that is).

Has this guy written anything else? If not, somebody ought to hire him as an editor-at-large.

- Books
- posted on Nov 11, 10
But But But...

As a bookseller who is able to decide for myself what categorisations apply to my books, I converse with my colleagues several times a day about the best place to put a title. And there's rarely an easy answer. Most books can live in many places, and any attempt to apply a concrete genre will necessarily ignore important connections. Having said that, I do like the concept of genre as a general indicator of theme.
A mini example: Catching The Big Fish by David Lynch. Does this belong in Film, alongside books about Lynch? Or, as a book on transcendental meditation, should it reside in the spirituality section? Or, as a commentary on the creative process, should it be shelved with other artists talking about their medium, and about what it means to create? A conundrum indeed.

- Books
- posted on Jan 12, 12

I work at a bookstore and it's so frustrating to see books go to what is obviously the wrong "home" for them. "The Tao of Pooh" helped me understand the basics of Taoism using Winnie the Pooh stories as analogies. It is shelved in Humor.

Article by Pete Croatto

Pete Croatto is a freelance journalist and movie/book critic whose writing has appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, ICON, and Deadspin.

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