If you’re reading something on a website called NW Booklovers, you’re likely to know what a shelf talker is. Just in case, though, here’s the definition given in a business dictionary: “Printed card or other sign attached to a store shelf to call buyers’ attention to a particular product displayed on that shelf. Also called shelf screamer.” We in the book biz don’t generally raise our voices, so I’ve never heard that last term. I can’t speak for other kinds of retail, mind you. Maybe there’s a lot of yelling about cable-knit trouser socks at Banana Republic.
At Island Books we use shelf talkers rather sparingly. That’s probably because we have the luxury of ample face-to-face time with our customers. They’ve come to expect a lot of personal rapport with the folks behind the counter, and we’ve come to expect it from them. We do occasionally like to highlight a favorite title, and it’s always a pleasure when a short note gets someone to look in a new way at a book she might have skipped. I wrote one recently for a novel I almost missed, Spooner by Pete Dexter. I knew by reputation he was a writer worth reading, but the cover and the jacket description simply didn’t wow me or explain what made the story different from a thousand others. When it hit paperback I finally did more than glance at it, and the first pages wouldn’t let go. My recommendation went like this:
“Holy cow, this is good. A boy grows into manhood with the help of his step-dad, starting out in the South and winding up on Whidbey Island; it’s largely about how men think and feel, and about how they struggle to express themselves, in a dark, funny, I-can’t-believe-he-said-that kind of way. Honestly, the story sometimes lurches and staggers like Frankenstein’s monster, but like him it’s also immensely strong and impossible to keep your eyes off of.”
The shop where I used to work in the early aughts was tragically hip (and is now tragically closed), so the clientele was often too aloof to chat with the staff. The customers were keen on discovering the coolest new titles, though, so we relied heavily on shelf talkers there. They got their message across without any of that messy human interaction, and the buyers could pretend they’d found their gems all on their own. I must have filled a shoebox with all the recommendation cards I wrote in my five years there.
The most successful of my rec cards endorsed a single book, a novel that centers on a man who’s stumbled into a huge insurance windfall after an unexplained accident. He spends his time and money attempting to recreate the one moment in his life when he felt authentically himself, an otherwise forgettable incident when he glanced out a window while climbing a staircase. Though he’s not sure whether it’s a memory or a figment of his imagination, he embarks on ever more elaborate schemes to bring that moment back, constructing entire buildings and hiring actors to help him replay the scene again and again. Not exactly a traditional plot, but one that fascinated me.
Accordingly, I spent way too much time trying to sum up my feelings about the book on a shelf talker, before hitting on the idea of writing a series of cards and stacking them on top of each other—my little way of recreating the narrator’s experience. The first two, now lost, gave a description much like the one above, while the next pair I still have:
“Is there a sound or idea you can’t get out of your head? Science describes that as ‘cognitive itch.’ In German they call it ohrwurm (earworm). In Portuguese they refer to chiclete de ouvido, or ear chewing gum. The English version is Remainder by Tom McCarthy.”
“This isn’t like any other novel. In fact, it may not even be a novel. Emily Dickinson once wrote, ‘If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.’ Remainder doesn’t rhyme or anything, but that sums it up pretty well. Reading it should give your brains a good stirring.”
I wrapped up with one that promised readers they’d understand why I’d filled out so many cards if they ever read the book. Whether it was my words or my obvious obsession that did the trick, Remainder became the third-bestselling book in the whole store during my tenure. A bronze medal finish behind the dominant one-two punch of Harry Potter isn’t bad for an obscure, avant-garde novel about nothing in particular.
As you can see, I tend to say too much about the books I really like, which is a problem when I’m trying to fit my opinions onto an index card. My continuing aim is to write shelf talkers that are short and sweet but still tell a prospective reader something useful, and I think I came close to the mark when I described Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as being “as sad as an elephant graveyard and as funny as milk up your nose.” I’m not sure that even makes sense if you think about it too hard, but the whimsical, crackpot logic of it seemed to match Foer’s tone.
When Chris Adrian wrote The Children’s Hospital, a meticulous depiction of a young doctor’s work in a pediatric facility that’s also an off-the-wall fable about an apocalyptic flood and a fantastic ark that sails an endless sea, I tried to convince my customers that the novel “blends pickles and ice cream and makes them taste good.” Not something for everyone, but a number of people developed a craving for it.
One of the snappiest shelf talkers I remember came from a favorite secondhand shop, Seattle’s Mercer Street Books. See if you can guess what’s being recommended below:
“Boy meets girl. Girl gets pregnant. Uncle Fulbert has boy castrated. Girl becomes nun. Boy becomes monk. They exchange letters. We’ve all been there, right?”
The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, of course. Never before have the travails of medieval romance been more tartly distilled for today’s jaded appetites, and never since has my image of a book turned so quickly from stodgy to edgy. It’s amazing, especially to a prolix guy like me, to see how much can be accomplished in twenty-five words or less.
James Crossley, a bookseller and blogger at Island Books on Mercer Island, wonders how it is that as he gets older he grows more long-winded yet shorter of breath.