Monday, April 26, 2010

THE TROUBLE WITH USED BOOKSTORES


I went to my favorite used bookstore last week--where there is one perhaps twenty foot double aisle of "mystery" books, but I have always been puzzled on why so many authors are never there. I was waiting for Phil to pick me up (he was at a nearby nursery) when I happened to walk over to an aisle labeled adventure and action. This aisle also turned out to be crime fiction, too, and was filled with the books I assumed the story didn't have.

I picked out a few and went to pay for them and told the clerk that I had almost missed the books because I assumed that all crime fiction would be together. He was supremely uninterested, of course. Does this happen in used bookstores in your area? Or even new bookstores? Are there too many places to look for the same sorts of books? This store also files all the quality paperbacks in a different spot. And some of the crime fiction is under straight fiction. So in order to make sure they don't have a book, I have to look in at least five places. Six if I include the under a dollar tables?

Seriously, this bookstore has a great supply of almost every genre-if you can just figure out where they file it. They seem to have no inventory list at all. When I mentioned Simenon, he looked on amazon and decided if they had it it would be under quality paperbacks. Yes, I said, but earlier editions were not necessarily quality paperbacks. I am sure he thought I was crazy. Maybe I am to think they would want to sell books enough to know where they keep them.

38 comments:

Milton T. Burton said...

Bookstores tend to hire only two sorts of people:

1. Intense, dark-eyed, emaciated females who only read books nominated for the "Pushcart Literary Prize" and;

2. Imbeciles.

Since you didn't get the upsnoot, intellectually snobbish attitude for wanting something so plebian as crime fiction I must assume you drew an imbecile.

Anonymous said...

I find (sadly) more and more fall into Milton's category 2 or, to be kind, let's call them the "don't knows."

They may not give a damn but they just as easily may want to help you but...they don't read so they don't know. As them how many texts they sent today and they're awake, books...not so much.

An aside of sorts - Patti, this made me think of Foyle's Bookstore in London, where we started going in 1972. All paperbacks were shelved by publisher, so if you didn't know who was published by Pan or New English Library or Corgi, you had to search the entire section.

Jeff M.

Denver Bibliophile said...

There is a very nice used bookstore in Denver. All of the books are neatly arranged and the staff is very knowledgeable. No imbeciles or emaciated help.

Steve M said...

Last one I visited (and bare in mind I'm in the UK) near me I just asked the young girl if they had any westerns.

"Western? What are they?" she asked in all seriousness.

I walked out.

pattinase (abbott) said...

In this day of struggling bookstores, they can't afford to have uninterested clerks though. I can just go home and order online. I have never met the Pushcart lady. She's probably in NY.
I almost never know the publisher so I would be in big trouble.

Naomi Johnson said...

At my local mystery bookstore, no problem, all the used books are filed alphabetically by author and separated only into HB and PB. At the Half Price store, yes, I have the same problem you noted. I not only have to check every section but also all the endcaps and tables because there's not much rhyme or reason to their organization.

Todd Mason said...

Milton Burton's two classes exist, I suppose, but as someone who has worked in at least five bookstores over the decades, I'll choose to cleve to his Tend. I suppose the person looking for an editorial position so far unsuccessfully will be the PUSHCART-only fan.

The Trouble is with all bookstores, as Naomi gets at by mentioning the Half Price chain...or at least all generalist stores. The ignorance or intellectual laziness (which includes ignorant snobbery) that puts Stephen King in the Horror section in Borders but puts Anne Rice in Fiction or Literature, or Walter VT Clark in Western when the books were carried and Larry McMurtry in Fiction/Literature or puts some fantasy in Fantasy/SF(or, worse, in "Sci-fi" alone) and some in Fiction/Literature...because that's how some clown in purchasing labeled them at HQ.

They don't have to care, and they actively, as much as they care, are hoping to put them where they think they might sell. Or where their whims or their misunderstanding (which includes ignorant prejudice) tells them they belong.

wv: mingl

Todd Mason said...

The Pushcart Prize, fwiw, goes to short work.

pattinase (abbott) said...

The only sensible solution is to alphabetize all fiction together-all non fiction. Where's the harm in that?

Todd Mason said...

It's a rare secondhand store in my experience that has an inventory control system, beyond the proprietor's memory. Certainly the one I browse most often is a set of piles and stacks that fails to manage to classify much very well at all.

Though they make the effort, unlike, in my experience of them, the Second Story stores in DC (as opposed to their well-organized warehouse/store in Suburuban MD), or the Strand in NYC.

Todd Mason said...

The worst that could happen that way, Patti, is that you don't discover Kate Wilhelm with Joanna Russ or Sara Paretsky that way...and you don't necessarily see Joanna Russ's nonfiction, or Harlan Ellison's, or Gore Vidal's, when you find their fiction. Of course, in the latter instances, you often don't anyway.

Todd Mason said...

Nor do you usually find Kate Wilhelm and Joyce Carol Oates together, when they have similar appeal, interests and approaches, nor Margaret Atwood and Joanna Russ, likewise.

Anonymous said...

Patti - That's a problem I think a lot of people run into, actually. I've found crime fiction under mystery, action, drama, even comedy! It's quite frustrating, too, whether you're looking for a particular author, trying to "hook" a friend on the genre, or even just browsing. It's not just that store; it's everywhere. I like your idea of simple alphabetizing. That's how our library does it. The fiction is all alphabetized.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Our library does use "mystery" but many authors I would expect to find there are under fiction.
Why can't they inventory their books? Certainly they must lose sales when they can't put their hands on one. And the average used bookstore buyer won't spend hours hunting it down with online ability.
Yes, a lot of JCO is pretty dark or crime-laden. She could be filed with almost any group.

Evan Lewis said...

We have a mystery specialty shop (new and used) that shelves by subgenres - hardboiled, softboiled, cozy, female detective, police procedural, foreign locale, etc, etc. As most of these overlap, I'm usually bewildered. Luckily the staffers are knowledgeable.

Some of the paperback exchanges get too tricky when they try to separate mystery from suspense and westerns from historical westerns.

Powells, the big guy in town (and in the country), keeps it pretty simple.

Todd Mason said...

Not only is Oates criminous, but she takes an explicitly feminist approach to much of that work, and even moreso explores the exploitation of women, particularly girls. This is also true of much of Wilhelm's work. Both also tend to write in a "cool" tone, not so much dispassionate as controlled (and not the affected tone that "cool" might also suggest, as with TC Boyle or BE Ellis). Also, both are fascinated by individuals caught in sweeping societal changes, neither helplessly swept up nor bestriding and controlling the changes themselves. Like that. To say nothing of Oates's lack of concern with field boundaries is similar to Wilhelms's gleeful mixing at will.

The Tattered Cover and Powells and for that matter any number of dealers who work with Alibris and Amazon do inventory themselves, but the brick and mortar holdouts are often too concerned with the other quotidian concerns. The one I go into second most often is so small that I have to wonder whose tax dodge or money-laundering operation it is.

pattinase (abbott) said...

There's a good topic. Probable money-laundering operations in your neighborhood. We have am empty Chinese restaurant for one.
Action-Adventure-who would you expect to find there? Maybe it's me.
Female detective-that's really looking for precision.

sandra seamans said...

Since we don't have any bookstores, used or otherwise, I'm always searching through mixed piles of books both at the library or the used book sales at the local historical society. I even found Ian Rankin's Knots and Crosses in a bin of embroidery and knitting books once. Stuck there because of its title, no doubt. So for me, searching through a sea of books is pure pleasure. I never know what I'm going to find.

Todd Mason said...

Action-Adventure will likely house the new Gabriel Hunt books, the old Worldwide Library titles (Harlequin's hairy-chested Men's Fiction) and such other imitations of THE DESTROYER and Matt Helm as various publishers have put out...no doubt some technothrillers, at least. The stray Bond novel. Like that.

I imagine there's any number of readers who are always happy to find a new female tec series or even a one-off.

Bill Crider said...

I love bookstores like that, but then I love going through them and looking everywhere. That's half the fun for me. I don't care what the people working there know or don't know as long as they leave me alone.

Anonymous said...

I asked the proprietor of a small independent bookstore (not a used-book store) here if he had any Elmore Leonard novels after I was unable to find any. Never heard of him, he said.

pattinase (abbott) said...

That is so funny, Sandra. I find things like that at my library used book sales, too, because the FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY sort them. A lot of cozies are in with the cookbooks every time, especially if there is food on the jacket.
Bill-this bookstore has the look of being organized though. So it took me five trips before I stumbled onto action/adventure. If Phil hadn't been debating over which pansies to choose, I never would have found them.
Not hearing of Elmore Leonard is grounds for turning the store over to someone who deserves to run one.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Not action-adventure at this store. This was thrillers and most anything other than cozies.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Not action-adventure at this store. This was thrillers and most anything other than cozies.

Ed Gorman said...

I've found Half Price very helpful. I like the way they assign one person to each section so if they haven't read the books themselves they at least know where they are and what they are. They rotate people so everybody eventually works in every section.

That said a lot of used book people are straight from Dickens. Or Jack London's White Chapel.There was a guy here who had thirty thousand used books. He never categorized them. He said that increased his sales. If you had to wade through all these piles of books you'd buy more just by chance. It had nothing to do with him being lazy of course.

He also told great whoppers. I walked in there one day and he said Hey, you her about the Cedar Rapids cops? Huh-uh I said, knowing I was in for a good one. He said, They're killing people and dumping them in the river. The Cedar River? I said. Yeah. The Cedar River, he said.

Well this being July the Cedar River was at most four feet deep. That was number one. Number two was of course this killing people thing. There are bad cops on every police force but on balance we seem to have a pretty good bunch of men and women here. We voted down gambling so we've stayed pretty clean. And them killing people? And not a word in the paper or on TV or radio? Real real unlikely.

I went back and started plowing through a section of books (religion right next to Nightstand soft core). He was still yakking of course. And finally he got around to giving away what this story was really all about.

I told you about my new Trans-Am, right? he said. Yep I said. Well last night the cops got me going forty-five miles over the speed limit so I'm probably going to lose my license.

And there we had it. Cops arrested him for speeding=cops killing people and throwing them in the river.

Wait. Maybe he wasn't out of Dickens; maybe he was out of Jim Thompson or early Dan J. Marlowe.

George said...

Most used bookstores around here have some rough organization, but you're still going to have to do some digging through some of the double-stacked shelves. Then, there are unsorted piles of "Newly Arrived Books."

pattinase (abbott) said...

Ed-that story deserves a wider audience. You should post it on your blog. We don't have Half Price in Detroit.
They had Newly arrived books here-and that was the easiest section to sort through.
This store is organized in its own way-very clean and big. It;s just the multiple places to look.

Todd Mason said...

Borders in the '90s took the same zone/sectional approach. Before I was kicked upstairs (still can feel it), I took care of Native American, Horror/War/Western, Mythology, Social Sciences, Pets and Nature, and other sections at various times.

Deb said...

Even our local library makes some odd decisions about what is "Mystery" and what isn't. Recently I read Kate Atkinson's trilogy (CASE HISTORIES, ONE GOOD TURN, and WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS?) of which two were shelved in the Mystery section of the library and the other was shelved in "regular" fiction. Go figure.

As for USB, I think if you assume you won't find what you're looking for in the place you expect to find it, you will not be disappointed. (This helps in other aspects of life too!)

Charles Gramlich said...

I've found that a lot of privately owned stores have particular perks. It depends on the nature of the owner, and as you know, we readers and book lovers are weird. In my house, you'd find some weird things about how I file my books

pattinase (abbott) said...

Now that's its own topic, Charles. There is no order in my house except for travel books are together, books I haven't read, my husband's books and family written books. Otherwise it's here and there and I can never find anything.

Daniel said...

I'm amazed how snotty a lot of the comments here have been. We all know that a used bookstore is a labor of love and time and rising rent. No one gets rich off this stuff and a staff of one or two or three is guaranteed to have gaps in the knowledge. The best buys I ever found in a store were old books that the owner didn't care whether they were "collectable."

I'm just happy that I still have a few used stores to walk into (and I'm in freakin' Boston) because I really miss used record stores.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I can see your point in a way, Daniel but your comments can be used against your argument. If they are struggling to survive, they have to make it easier to find what you're looking for. Make it more user friendly. I should not have to browse six sections of the store and get no help from the clerk to find a book. If you can't hire knowledgeable clerks, you can just file everything alphabetically so no one has to figure out where it is.

pattinase (abbott) said...

And believe me I'm not looking for collectible books--I have no collectible books. This guy had no idea where George Simenon would be files. And because amazon said he was published in quality paperbacks (a few were published by New York Review of Books) he was happy to stop there and look no further. You have to at least hire curious people to man your store if you want to stay in business.

Cormac Brown said...

With the economic Darwinism that has gone on the past three years, the clerks at Green Apple Books have been more helpful than ever, and the other stores with the snide clerks have pretty much vanished from San Francisco.

In general, most of the bookstores I've been two with the exception of Border's, have been pretty helpful and they've stopped making faces when they find out the genre that I'm looking for is under "crime fiction."

My lone complaint about Green Apple is that sometimes that if I'm looking for crime fiction or fiction over at the Annex Store, that they will sometimes have all of the copies at the main store. It's just a quick walk, but it seems arbitrary.

Todd Mason said...

Arbitrary is the rule.

Unfortunately, as I can attest apparently alone so far among the commenters, bookstore clerks aren't paid [excrement]. So, one is lucky when one finds one or several who are both knowledgeable and willing to be more than polite, that is, actually helpful.

Unfortunately, Patti, if the clerks don't know anything, they don't know anything when they, and it's usually they, who are organizing (or not organizing) the books.

Dorte H said...

Where do you put a bookstore when you have used it? Sorry, couldn´t help being silly.

I ran into the opposite problem today. I visited our local library for the first time this spring, and since my last visit they have doubled the crime fiction section. I really tried to be selective, but my back and my left arm hurt! Free books, and as they want them back, you don´t even have to buy more shelves!

Travis Erwin said...

The trouble with our used bookstores is they have all closed down.