Anyone who’s ever worked in a bookstore knows a “shelf talker” is a small piece of paper taped to a shelf that’s intended to bring added attention to a particular title. Sometimes they include short reviews penned by staff members.
This column is called The Shelf Talker because I see my role in the store as a living, interactive version of those little pieces of paper.
I like hearing the sound of voices across the aisles, and I’m not averse to joining a discussion anytime the opportunity presents itself. This venue is where books and readers come together, and I enjoy participating in the process.
Each customer comes in with a different purpose. Some know exactly what title they want and a speedy transaction completes their visit. Others may be looking for a gift, or something to read on vacation, and many people come in with no plan at all. They just want to take a break from the day and browse.
In my perfect universe, everyone would leave a bookstore feeling glad they came in. I’m especially pleased when customers who don’t know each other make a connection and end up having a friendly conversation. A great example happened earlier this year when two people looking through the fiction titles found out they had gone to the same college, a small private campus in the Midwest. For both of them, it was the first time since moving to Portland that they’d encountered another person from their alma mater (and I’m not naming the place because I think this column should have an element of mystery associated with it).
Neither of those visitors ended up buying a book, but they had an interesting experience and that’s important. A neighborhood bookstore should be a place where interesting things can happen at any moment, and every spontaneous comment may contain a nugget of memorable insight.
I overheard a mom talking to both of her sons not long ago. Each boy was being allowed to buy a single title, but unhappy feelings had emerged because one book was bigger than the other. “It’s not fair,” was the complaint, to which the mom promptly replied, “Fair and equal are not the same.” It was a brilliant example of what I like to call “wisdom among the stacks.”
My favorite conversations are the ones that lead a customer to a totally unexpected discovery. One evening I overheard a man talking with a friend about bank frauds and stock market cycles. We started chatting about the history of financial scams, and I realized he might be interested in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds, an early look at marketing psychology and investment mania published in 1841.
He left with the book that night, and I’m looking forward to seeing him again so we can talk about it. Feedback from readers is a valuable resource. In the meantime, we have a replacement copy of ‘Popular Delusions’ in stock and I’m keeping my ears open for another reader who sounds like he or she would enjoy it.
This job is like navigating through a vast landscape of ideas, opinions, and the unmarked boundaries of human imagination every day. There’s no way to predict what topic will come up for discussion.
I also like to compare the front door to a blank page. Every person coming across that threshold begins a new chapter in the story of another day at Annie Bloom’s Books. I want to help each chapter come to a satisfying end, and then start right in on the next one.