Random Acts of Books: Sam Sacks on Stocking the Shelves

Some people plan their dream wedding in great detail, furnish their dream home, or dress their dream children. Me, I stock my dream secondhand bookstore. So it was a treat to find a dreamy little Page-Turner piece by my Open Letters Monthly colleague (and Wall Street Journal Fiction Chronicle writer) Sam Sacks on what, exactly, goes into filling the shelves of a good used book emporium. In this case he’s talking about the Housing Works bookstore in downtown Manhattan, long a favorite of mine for its congenial atmosphere and eclectic, almost stream-of-consciousness choices.

Except as it turns out, the selection isn’t as whimsically random as it looks at first glance. Between the boxes and boxes of donated books in the store’s basement and those serendipitous finds on the floors above, there’s a very human process of curation at work. Obviously, and of course. The trick here, though, is making it look almost accidental. Meandering through Housing Works’ stock involves opening oneself up to chance discoveries, the aleatory title free-association process, as opposed to coming in with a wish list and leaving with those same items. And in fact, as Sacks explains, there are two sets of inventory: the store’s mail-order stock, which is searched, ordered, and purchased online, and its physical shelves—where the discovery happens. For a few years, he was the one who decided what went where, and his essay offers up a window into the process:

I have always thought that the backbone of a good used-book store is formed by its fiction and history sections, so whenever possible I separated these books for the floor. Naturally, there were exceptions. Specialized histories with a narrow scholarly focus are better sold online—so a history of the Punic Wars makes it to the store; a study of urinals during the reign of Hadrian doesn’t. In fiction, forgotten midlist titles from the nineteen-eighties and nineties tend to molder on the shelves, while, oddly, forgotten midlist titles from the seventies or earlier exert a kind of retro fascination and are more likely to sell to someone off the street.

Sacks also admits to preferring Twain biographies to addiction memoirs (unsurprising), disliking hardcovers (I did not know this), and padding the nature writing, travelogues, essay collections, and literary criticism sections (one of the many reasons I like him). Although at least one admission took me slightly aback:

I always sprinkled the dollar- and fifty-cent-book shelves with gems of higher value to cultivate the feeling of treasure hunting that draws so many people to bookstores in the first place.

Really? That’s kind of like finding out your uncle let you win at checkers all those years. Then again, my library is the better for it—all those wonderful, shabby, triumphant finds from the cheap shelves—so I can’t really complain. If there’s a little man-behind-the-curtain wince at remembering that even the most random used book finds are curated by someone, there’s still fun to be had in imagining how they do it.

And if you really want curated randomness, take a look at the Biblio-Mat in Toronto’s The Monkey’s Paw (via GalleyCat):

(Photo at the top is of one of the many well-stocked shelves in the Housing Works used bookstore, courtesy of the New York Daily News.)

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2 Comments to Random Acts of Books: Sam Sacks on Stocking the Shelves

  1. November 21, 2012 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

    “Aleatory” is my new favorite word. And “Punic.”

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