Dust on the Shelves

Sunday, November 9, 2008

*I'll return to the regularly scheduled Customer of the Week next week. I've had this work-related post kicking around in my head all week and finally feel like I can get it down on "paper".

The powers that be at my store recently decided that it was time for our regular cleaning and alphabetizing binge. You would be amazed at how much gets misplaced, mis-shelved, and just plain lost in a large bookstore. Since we alphabetize the entire store several times a year, you'd think we'd stop finding random magazines and books from ten years ago shoved behind other books, but yet it happens. There's no particular rhyme or reason to which section gets organized in what order. Mainly, the managers post a list of sections and we all hack away at it until only erotica is left. Then someone finally sucks it up (hee!) and organizes the sexy books.

I love alphabetizing, in part because it appeals to my latent OCD. After I finish a section, I just stand back and admire all the books all lined up neatly next to their mates. But mainly I like it because it gives me an opportunity to actually look at every book in a particular section. So I tend to gravitate toward the sections that interest me: religion, philosophy, science.

Lately I've noticed that I've spent easily as much time, if not more, dusting off the shelves rather than actually organizing. And that saddens me. Our country has been at war with two Muslim countries for nearly seven years. And yet the entire shelf of books on Islam were coated with dust. The polar ice caps are melting, coastal countries are drowning, and hurricanes are regularly threatening the existence of large numbers of people. And yet, dust covers the books on climate change. Gothic teenage vampire romances go flying out the door in droves, while we're constantly returning books about religion and philosophy and science because they've languished on our shelves for too long and must be returned to the publisher.

What nonfiction does sell is often of the "political expose" genre - this has been especially popular during the tenure of George W Bush et al. While certainly such books have a purpose, I suspect that many of them fulfill for the educated urban liberal the same purpose as People magazine does for the rest of the population. While it is certainly important to read about what is happening in the world, it seems that very few readers have an interest in why. At least not at the deep critical level that requires a basic understanding of who our enemies are, and what they believe.

Likewise, there has been an explosion of books on "going green" - a facile label for doing things like buying $20 reusable shopping bags. But yet we rarely, if ever, sell books to those interested in learning about the science of climate change. Even though having a basic knowledge of the underlying science allows one to read the "green" books with a critical eye, and take actions based on rational principles and not simply those promoted by the latest book printed on recycled paper.

Of course, I understand that reading non-fiction is harder. Sometimes even boring. And I'm as guilty as the next person and probably in no position to preach. However, I also appreciate that education is an active, not a passive, undertaking. To call myself an educated person, I have an obligation to pursue knowledge, even if doing so is harder than reading the next Spenser novel. I don't want to see dust gather on the shelves of the fiction section, the mysteries, or even the romance novels. That's not the point. I would just like to see the day when I don't need to wipe an inch of dust off the books in those other parts of the store.

Posted by oballard at 7:54 PM  

I wish I'd written this because you are exactly right. Sometimes it seems people just want to keep up with what's going on with Britney and her life, Angelina and Brad, and decide if Jen is pregnant than to actually read any of the books on the shelves.

Of course, I'm as guilty, too. I've developed quite the fondness for non-fiction since working in the bookstore, but I've been poor about readin anything lately.

Also, I got giddy reading about organizing the shelves. I LOVE doing it. I am far to OCD to be stuck in the children's department, where there never seems to be a long-lived rhyme nor reason to things. When I get a shelf organized, I want to block it off from customers for a 24 hour period so I can just admire it!

November 9, 2008 at 9:48 PM  

Excellent post. I agree it is sometimes hard to read those types of books. I loved Guns, Germs and Steel, but it was hard to get through. I am not much for the teenage vampire books though. I could skip those.

You make some excellent points here.

I worked by way through college working in the library and I loved shelving the books. Now I volunteer in my kids elementary school library and it is so much fun. I love to shelve and organize the kids books. There is something satisfying about putting all the books in order.

November 10, 2008 at 12:58 AM  
~m said...

My favorite temp job ever was when I was temping during grad school. The local library had been remodeled so all the books had been removed...and I got to help re-shelve them. Nirvana!

November 10, 2008 at 3:09 PM  
Stella B said...

you guys totally get it :-) it is soooo satisfying when everything is all neat and the books look so nice.

FADKOG - word about the children's department. I once suggested we just build a pit and throw all the board books in and let customers grab them like a carnival game. It seemed easier than trying to actually keep them organized.

November 10, 2008 at 8:19 PM  
voreblog said...

Great post. But now I feel guilty for spending the past year reading the entire Chicken Soup For the Soul series.

November 14, 2008 at 9:31 AM  
Stella B said...

@Voreblog: But did you notice how nicely organized they all were? (all two shelves full?) Yeah, you're welcome :-)

November 14, 2008 at 3:02 PM  

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