Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Advantage: Internet

Yesterday, clutching a small square of graph paper on which I had written titles and authors of seven books I wanted to find, I strode confidently, expectantly into my local Barnes & Noble bookstore. Expectant because I hoped a few books might be enticing enough to read. Confident that I’d find them; after all, I knew whether each was fiction or nonfiction and what the author’s last name was. Because the era of two genres, shelved alphabetically by author, is long gone, my visit was complicated and confidence-reducing, though I did buy two of the books I sought.

I’ve visited bookstores hundreds of times in recent years, so I do realize stores have more categories than just fiction and nonfiction. And big signs on top of shelving units announcing Travel, Domestic and Travel, International have helped me find stuff before. But yesterday I didn’t know which big category signs atop shelves should be my destinations. Are my fiction books where all those authors’ previous books are, or are they in New Releases, Bestsellers, or Top Picks? Are my nonfiction books Current Affairs, Biography, Psychology, Self-Improvement, or something else?

I ended up looking in all those areas. I started top left scanning book spines for Cain or Didion, then bottom right for Schwartz or Schiff. Nothing. Then I noticed teeny subcategories like Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual, Addiction and Recovery, Marriage, on the front edges of shelves. So then I had to figure out where each subcategory began and ended and start over—top left for Cain or Didion, bottom right for Schwartz or Schiff—in each little section. Still nothing. Except confusion.

Finally, I gave up. I spied a salesperson who stopped flying across the store when I said, “Excuse me … Where would I find this Joan Didion book?” I pointed to my list.
She squinted at it and declared, “Cluck, cluck … cluck.”
“Pardon me?” I squinted at her mouth to lip-read. No luck. Did she have false teeth clacking? No. Was my hearing failing? Probably. Was she talking into her chin? Definitely.
“Cluck, cluck … cluck,” she repeated, louder.
My gaping mouth must have communicated dumbfoundedness, or at least dumbness, because she finally raised her chin and enunciated, “Memoir is in Biography.” Then with a birdlike head-nod, she flew off toward Biography with me sprinting behind her and calling, “You don’t need to take me, I can find it,” which of course was vain hope since I’d already searched Biography. As Henny Penny scanned book spines, her whole upper body moved side to side like an old typewriter platen at the mercy of a turbo-fingers typist. At the time, her gyrations seemed furious, but in retrospect, I can guess she probably wore bifocals, which would require movement of the head, not just the eyes. As she searched, I heard a mumbled cluck-cluck here and a cluck-cluck there. (Barnyard & Noble? Sorry, couldn’t resist.) She triumphantly produced the desired Didion from a bottom shelf and flew back to her little computer corral, where I found her again after another futile 20-minute book search. This time, we got through the initial cluck-clucks more quickly, and Henny found two more of the books I wanted. But I have to say, navigating the micromanaged topical shelving system was not all that easy for her either.

I love bookstores. I will always love bookstores. I hope they aren’t shooting themselves in the foot by ├╝ber-organizing to the point of frustrating customers, because I’d be very sad if I couldn’t browse among books. But if I’m short on time and have a decent inkling of what I want, I’ll avoid cluck-clucks and buy books online with click-clicks. [The Internet has plenty of frustrations, too. My Advantage: Bookstores thoughts deserve their own post.]

Postscript: One of the books I bought had been recommended by my book club for a future meeting. When I opened it today to begin reading, I discovered The Paradox of Choice is actually about how having too many choices complicates our lives. I think I’ll be able to identify with this book!

No comments: