Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Shelf Life

So I went into Borders last week. I had time to kill and I needed to buy a copy of Ethelbert Miller's Fathering Words, an autobiographical work that I'll be teaching later on this semester. Couldn't find it. Rather, I couldn't find the Biography/Autobiography section. And I looked. And looked. Until a clerk asked, "hey, need some help?" "Hey, yeah," I answered. Turns out that Borders doesn't have a Biography section. "We put the biographies in the sections associated with the writer, like Hemingway's in non-fiction, next to his novels, and the others are wherever," he pointed to wherever as he explained this new system. So Miller's work should have been in the Black Studies or the Local Authors section, which it wasn't.

I left the store shaking my head. "Barnes and Noble and libraries have Biography sections, but not us," my helper had said. Why the hell not? Is Borders trying to imitate linking? Given the associational nature of linking, it might be better to leave it to the computers, at least for now. Can you imagine a shelf with Hemingway's biography, A movable Feast and other works, plus books about elephant hunting, mood disorders, Key West and all things related? Well, actually, I can imagine such a shelf, but the problem is that with organization by association, the consumer is left at the mercy of whomever opened up the carton of books that day. As it was, the Local Authors section was loaded with picture books about the Chesapeake Bay, research on the Civil War, and cookbooks showcasing the Delmarva region's famous crab cakes. No Ethelbert Miller to be found there, or in the Black Studies section (So we put everything about African Americans in one section? Hmmmm...).

Yet, as we blur genres and boundaries in composition, maybe blurring of categories in bookstores is to be expected. However, it felt like looking through the broken lens of a kaleidoscope--everything was fanning out in a pattern that I couldn't discern. If I'd had the time, browsing through the stacks might have been fun, but I really needed, in my time-pressed twenty-first century way, to get the book right then and not a moment later. Nor was I expecting that there not be biographies and autobiographies lined up, alphabetical by subject, as I was used to.

I had meant this post to be a cranky venting of steam, but now I wonder if it doesn't mirror what's going on in writing these days--reordering and disordering of what we're used to. And the reader (allegorical ole me) is pressed by the need to figure out the new order while simultaneously feeling time bear down on her ability to think.


At 4:01 PM, Blogger Styles said...

A marvelous post!

It reminds me of my favorite bookstore, one sadly no longer in operation. Operating in the 1960s on a pedestrian mall in Santa Monica, California, Martindale's, so-called, ordered its books by publisher. In graduate school, I haunted the place.

Imagine the thoughts formed there by names like Anchor, Dover, Knopf, and especially, I should admit, Random House. The grace of the place was a single salesman (Sven Birkerts' second cousin, I'd say), who happily knew every text in his store, on its publisher's own shelf, and with his own real trademark, Book Lovers, Inc.

You'd have found your biography there. But that saleman's biography is, alas, lost to history.

At 8:14 PM, Blogger jocalo said...

Oh, don't get me started on bookstore stories. I'll never stop. Wessex, a wonderful local store in Menlo Park that carries stuff academics love (it's used books) just went up for sale.

Powell's in Portland is the best bookstore west of the Rockies and organizes its rooms by colors. Different employees are in charge of different sections and they write notes for customers to read. Some years back I was intrigued by the creation of a literary history section, complete with rationale by the section creator. Both stores have biography sections.

So here's my question about your Borders store: don't they have a computer data base that you can put in author and title and that tells you just where the book is in the store? That's what I did in December at the Borders across from the Giants baseball park when I was looking for a specific edition of Gilgamesh and a copy of John Searles new book, Mind. Or does Borders have a digital divide?

At 9:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Styles, your bookstore sounds fabulous. I wish I'd gone there. Yes, jocalo, there is such a computer program, but it sent us to Non-Fiction (where Hemingway's novels are kept.). So, I went online and ordered the book from Barnes and Noble!

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