On the Content of Bookstores

I’ve been in a lot of different bookstores lately (nobody is surprised). For some reason, this particular string of bookstores in this particular order led me to notice something I hadn’t really considered before.

The story:

I went to the flagship Half Price Books and wandered around, noting titles that might fit my 2018 Reading Goals. There were a lot of them. A joy-inducing, oh-my-goodness lot of them. I recalled a number of books I’d wanted to read but had forgotten about. I found copies of classics you can otherwise only order online. You know, the B-list of popular classics authors. Part of this is because the store is humongous, and part of it is that it’s near a major university or three, I suspect. I didn’t actually buy any books that day, because grad student, but I made a mental note to shop here more.

I was out of town and visited a local bookstore, and noticed how obviously and carefully curated their selections were. Even in sections like YA I could see that each book included on the shelf had been meaningfully selected. They were not only the popular ones, although there were plenty of new and new-ish releases, but also those considered generally considered good by the book community. I felt like anything I pulled off of any shelf would be a good book.

I visited briefly a Barnes and Noble in the city, near that Half Price Books and thus that university. It’s also near a very affluent part of town, and near the business part of the city, so therefore an area full of wealthy people, young professionals, professors, and college / graduate students. I say this to compare it to

My local Barnes and Noble, which I visit frequently but most recently yesterday, when I had this observation I haven’t actually made yet (I’m getting to it, hang with me). This store is also located in a pretty affluent area, but a suburb filled with middle-aged families with young kids or teens.

When I observed the selection of books at the first two places, I based their existence on the kind of bookstore – independent and used. So when I briefly browsed through the fiction section of the city Barnes and Noble, I was surprised by their selections. There was more diversity, both in authors, in sub-genres, and in the number of books by each author. I found a number of different classics (that weren’t the B&N Classics editions!), including less popular (less assigned) ones, and I spotted books by authors I’m intending to read for my challenge that I can’t find at my local store. Some of this may have to do with store size, but on the other hand, my bookstore devoted an entire case to the Outlander books. An. Entire. Case.

I mean, there are a lot of Outlander books, but all I could imagine was that if that was halved, maybe they would have had space for Middlemarch, which wasn’t in stock.

And this is when I realized: bookstores stock for their demographic. And this area of the world, apparently, wants Outlander and James Patterson. Which is fine, I guess.*

I mean, it makes sense. If you had told me that different stores of the same chain carry different books, I wouldn’t have expressed surprise.

If you’re hanging in still, and wondering why I just spent 500 words building up to that obvious conclusion, here’s my takeaways from those thoughts:

  1. What an interesting ethnographic experiment. Walk into Barnes and Nobles in different regions. Characterize that region’s reading tastes. You totally could do that.
  2. This is why I buy most of my books from Amazon and Half Price Books. (well, also the discount). I usually can’t find ones I’m interested in and also haven’t read at my local store.
  3. How important independent bookstores are! That careful curation of stock is invaluable. This has motivated me to visit a new independent bookstore that’s not near where I live now, but will be closer when I move this summer. I want to make friends with the staff.
  4. How limiting the end result is. How many people, how many young readers, are missing out on encounters with some really great books, classic and contemporary, because their local bookstore only carries trendy books? How many people have given up on reading because they want a steak-book, and the only thing the bookstore sells is candy-floss?

A lot of places, including my general region (if I’m willing to make a little effort) have independent bookstores to help with this problem, but a lot of places don’t. One of the things I missed most about moving back to the Atlanta suburbs from Boston was the lack of indy bookstores. Now that I’m paying attention, and realize I have access to those resources, I’m going to do something about it.

This discovery made me more determined to put in the effort to dig up those little-known gems and promote them as much as I can. It contributed to this post in a psychological way. The internet is great for buying books you can’t find in your bookstore, but it’s also a bewildering warren of misses and meh reads. I want to help all you lovely readers know what to order, what to request, what to dig out from between the Pattersons and Clancys.

Are there little-known or un-popular books you love? Let me know about them!


*Full disclosure: I was interested in the premise of Outlander (time travel!), but DNF’d it halfway through. I’m not interested in smut that masquerades as storytelling. Sorry if you’re fond of the books, but there’s no faster way to get me to DNF a book and find it generally distasteful than to include a lot of smut or graphically depicted sex. It’s why I DNF’d Game of Thrones, too.


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