• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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I Pick A Moon Dog

I like to watch people in bookstores. If I could, I would follow them around with a survey or a tape recorder. I want to know why they pick up the books they pick up. Did they go into the store knowing what they wanted? Had they read a review, heard the author on NPR, or had the book been recommended? Were they just looking around and a jacket or title jumped out? Were they familiar with the author? DId they read the jacket copy, the blurbs? Did any of that make a difference? Did they read the first page, the last? Did they smell the spine? Did the display make a difference? The jacket art?The author photo? I live to understand why people are attracted to books.

When I was a young editor, I worked for a publisher who would walk around the conference room while an editor was presenting a book. She would pick on people randomly and ask them if they would read the book being discussed and why. She wanted to know why they wouldn’t read it, too. She would really put people on the spot and it was more than a little terrifying. But what she’d tease out over the course of a meeting was what connected a reader to a book and sometimes, before our eyes, we saw a marketing campaign, an approach, a hook, a narrative come alive. And sometimes that idea would translate all the way through from writer to reader.

What do you do when you walk into a bookstore?

69 Responses

  1. I see what’s on the front tables and try to guess why they’re there, especially if I’ve not read anything about them. I tend to look for non-fiction but can be wooed into fiction by a great cover design. I like to spend at least half an hour or more to explore and see what catches my eye.

    What makes me buy a book? Any number of things. I once bought a book by an author I had never heard of solely because of the rave blurb by an author I love…and the book “Come, Thou Tortoise” became one of my favorites, a quirky and lovely book by a female author from St. Johns, Newfoundland, Jessica Grant.

    As a fellow author, I tend to go for books I’ve seen well-reviewed by people or outlets whose taste I trust.

  2. my bookstore is tiny, like a shoebox. i enter from the back through the coffee shop behind it. (there’s a quick through-way with a door to the bathroom on the right and a bulletin board of flyers searching for lead singers, psychic readings and apartments for rent ).

    my first stop is the new books display table. i run my hand over the covers i like, i flip over the backs of books that get my attention either by whispering their author’s name in my ear or shouting their title at me.

    I go to the nonfiction shelf which is past the fiction and history sections. i go further down the aisle and pick a greeting card to mail to my sister in florida. i sweep through the kids section and pick out an easy-reader level 2 for my daughter and find a magazine that i don’t have yet. i linger back at the display table trying to remember what’s in my checking account and if $26.95 plus tax is going to bust the bank.

    i go back to the coffee shop and start reading my book or my magazine depending on my math.

  3. I carry with me a list of “should/want to reads” and look to see if any of them are on sale. If I see a book by an author I’ve enjoyed in the past, I’ll pick it up and think about it.

    I’ll pick up a book with an intriguing title (fell for Aimee Bender’s The Girl in the Flammable Skirt that way) and look at it (I subsequently not only bought that one, but got her latest.) Although I’m not big into the whole trendy paranormal thing, I also bought “Because I’m The Vampire, That’s Why” based on title, blurb & first few pages, because the author was funny.

    I’m one of the few who’s not oohing and awing over the “Dragon Tattoo” girl books. Started the first that somebody had loaned me, but after 25 pages in, wasn’t impressed, did another 25, still didn’t feel grabbed, and at page 74, still dead bored, decided I’d wasted enough time.

    Colorful jacket or art might catch my eye, but a lot of not fabulous books have those, and I can tell in a paragraph or two whether I like the author’s voice. If I don’t like the author’s voice, there’s no point in investing my hard-earned dollars and scarce time hoping to be impressed by brilliancy, if I just hang in there long enough.

  4. It depends on whether or not I’m high. If I’m high, I might buy anything, it’s all candy. If I’m not high, I’ll buy whatever I went there to get.

    But I rarely go to bookstores anymore. There’s so much to read, so little money and time, so little left to squander in being high or in other forms of dabble. Classics I can read on-line. Books I want to purchase, these days mostly being those by writers whose work I want to support, I will buy through Amazon. Other books I want to read but can’t or won’t afford, I’ll check out from the library, including through inter-library loan. And I have a decent though not overlarge home library, only half of which I’ve read.

    • Home library is where it’s at, agreed.

      Though I am a sucker for bookstores–and am a cool five blocks from the ridiculously good Green Apple Books in San Francisco.

  5. 1. Book cover photo/design and/or author. 2. Title. 3. Has it won awards, been endorsed by lots of publications? 4. Have authors I admire written blurbs about it. 5. How does the first page read?

    That’s how I judge what I’ll buy.

    If the subject matter has to do with a vampire or “best friends changed forever over the course of an unforgettable summer”, I throw it and run.

    • Yes to all the above, All Adither. I like to see who’s blurbed it (new outlet or fellow author), and I always read the first page or two.

      Though I’m also getting to where I’m looking on line so much in advance that I know what I’m going in for before I even get there.

    • Shit. Shit. Shit.

      Two more would-be readers have stated their unwillingness to sink their teeth into my tale of two smoking hot teen vampires whose lives get forever changed over the course of one memorable summer.

      Bloody hell! My own first paragraph just fed me an utterly appropriate idea. I’ll transform my protagonists from vampires into coprophiliacs!

  6. When I am on a particular hunt, I enter a bookstore with a focused intent, an in-and-out attitude. I don’t want to be distracted with all those other shelves, those other genres because I want that one book. But when I have no agenda and ample time to roam, I’ll enter a bookstore wanting to browse almost every section just to LOOK. Invariably, I discover something wonderful: Night Train to Lisbon (Pascal Mercier) was one such find. Yet, sometimes my mind is so sated from just perusing that I have to leave the store empty handed and think about what I have seen before I can return to make a purchase (which becomes the particular hunt phase…)

    And I enjoy the solitude of my book shopping. Listening to pseudo-intellectuals in the next row drone on about some author or plot while I am on my own pursuit annoys me to no end. Worse than the wine snobs at the local tasting events arguing over bouquet and hints of oak while I’m waiting in line for a sample taste.

  7. The size, trade paperback.
    The cover design, I stay away from photographs.
    If the cover strikes me, I read the blurb.
    If I remember it from NPR, the Daily Show, or a handful of people that like what I like, I buy.
    Otherwise, I’ll look at the cover again, and then buy.
    I err on the side of buying. I love books and have the great fortune that it’s an expense my entire family supports.

  8. I look at books I’ve read blurbs/blogs about. After that, I look for new books from authors I know. Then if my arms aren’t full, I choose one or two books based on type of story, cover summary, and first paragraph. Usually the spontaneous purchases are books by first-time authors.

  9. Betsy, the first thing I do is make careful note of where the cameras are located and whether or not the store has private guards.

    Don’t get the wrong idea. I’ve never shoplifted anything in my life; I just have a quirky, yet passionate interest in retail security systems.

    • Tread carefully with that interest: I was with a group of construction professionals who were laughingly pointing out the “hidden” security cameras in a casino. We were intercepted by several large men and told to stop pointing.

      • That is so strange! I was at a Barnes & Noble with a group of casino professionals and we were all yucking it up at the “Easter with Justin Bieber” section/shrine, when someone noticed that all of the store’s tracking cameras were pointing at us.

        Naturally, we did what any of you would do if you were in a similar situation: making obscene gestures and dry humping JB’s cardboard likeness.

        Security pounced. They seemed overly eager to confide that they, too, were secretly in the anti-Bieber camp.

        I never found out how the “family gaming and hospitality industry” professionals felt about the Bieb, (because we’d only met a few minutes earlier in the B&N lobby’s Lobbying section), and they departed, while I lingered around and had a chat with the security team.

        “Look,” I said, “I know that many of you feel Bieber is unworthy of an in-store shrine at this point in his career. Fair enough. But you’ve got to face the new market realities. Last year, this part of the store was filled with post-Christmas Jesus remainders and 90 percent marked down Holy Land scenes calendars.”

        As soon as this small circle of guards start nodding their heads in agreement with my inspirational message, I glide in for the kill.

        I direct my gaze towards Bieber’s innocent face, and let it rest there for a moment or two longer than any sane adult normally would. The guards are gazing, too.

        I then lower my eyes and and state in a quiet, yet solemnly insistent, voice:

        “Last year, when he was just 16 years old, Justin Bieber made over one hundred million dollars. That’s more than Jesus grossed during in his entire lifetime, even with inflation factored in. And he didn’t get there with nepotism. Hear what I’m sayin?”

        Spontaneously, those of us in the circle held hands and said, “Amen.”

        As I was leaving, I heard one of the guards say to another: “Praise the Bieb.”

        To my Christian friends, I want to assure you that I still think JC’s message is a viable one, but I think that church execs could be doing a far better job of getting his message out there.

        If you’d like, I’d be willing to play with some image make-over ideas for him. There are a lot of ways we can go with this. Just imagine Christ without that scraggly, homeless-vet-style beard. Picture him with a haircut that is modern. No, I don’t want to plagiarize the Bieb. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s hairstyle. Maybe go for something like Timberlake meets Twilight.

        I’m not cheap. But I get results. But I need total control. I won’t play the “We have to await for the Pope’s approval” game. If he has concerns about what working with me entails, he’s more than welcome to pop over here to hammer out the remaining details.

        I’ve got something brick-shittingly awesome in mind for the roll out. Ben is going to freak.

      • Dear OldSchool: glad to provide you with an inspirational springboard for the Bieber riff – some day, I’ll post an entry about my harrowing escape from a brewery – might inspire a follow-up on the lack of common-sense security in certain industries…

      • I’m guessing that breweries are more concerned with unauthorized entries than they are with people trying to escape.

        Love to hear all about it.

  10. Well, if I’m in a fat mood I go to self help or health/dieting and linger in the aisle while this strange longing to begin some sort of “program” takes hold. Then I go order a double espresso at the adjoining coffee shop and pour two packs of Sugar In the Raw in it and decide that I could write a better diet book than any of them.

    Fiction though, it’s all about the cover and the title. I judge like crazy. Then, it’s the opening chapter. I’m very hard to please. I demand brilliant language, an engaging scene, a promise of sex, all of that in the first paragraph.

    I’d be a great agent that way. Happily slapping through the stack, rejecting energetically.

    But man, when I fall in love? Watch out!

  11. I’m usually there for a specific book. I may browse if I have a gift card. Otherwise I library or order on line from Amazon, Alibris, or a book club. A book leapt off the shelf into my hands the other day and it was wonderful. Burning Road. Weak ending. I loved Anya Seton’s Elizabeth, from the library, so much that I ordered it from Alibris. Used but perfect. Four bucks and some. I do jot in a little notebook when I read of something, but usually forget the notebook.

  12. I’m a wanderer. I pretty much keep myself to the Public Library as I’m more in TheOldSchool’s category—how can I steal this, when I’m in a commercial establishment. Never the less, I have literally, more times than I can count, ran my finger down a shelf of books and stopped when I figured it was time to stop and pulled out the book at my fingers and read it. Most of the books I’ve read that way gave me hope that I too could be a writer. Some, intimidated me. Book stores, make me feel like an old stallion, paranoid and protective, fighting, Now a days, I usually go for what I know or have been recommended by people I think are smart. This rarely happens. Damn-it! To be honest, when I walk into a bookstore I look for girls and wonder what they are reading, at first. Then I start wondering how they spend their day, and I want to stalk them, briefly, until I figure out how to approach them. And then I think about stealing books and wander over to the in-store Starbucks and have a seat, hoping they can read my mind. They can’t. Sorry! Can’t help ya. But, I can say this—when I’m finished with my book, I’ll help you sell it. Believe you me.

  13. A trip to the bookstore for me is better than a day at the spa! I love the total environment. Sometimes I’m there to hunt for a specific title, but more often I’m browsing for a new novel. Covers draw me first. I don’t like garish graphics or stereotyped people (I bypass the bare chested hunks).Then certain titles appeal. I read the blurb and the first paragraph, and if I’m still interested I add it to my cart.

    I don’t read reviews but will consider the recommendation of a personal friend. And I love supporting fellow writers, even buying genres that I don’t normally read, just because I’ve been following their journey to publication. 🙂

  14. I have too many books, so I’m strict about what I buy. A purchase is usually from a specific list that has taken a while to whittle down. It’s not how I like to buy books, but if I let myself buy casually, I end up with no money and an impossible pile of books.

    Still, random browsing does have some part in forming the lists. I go to The Book Hive in Norwich (fantastic) and browse by cover, title, and author familiarity. I pay a lot of attention to press and author quotes, once I’ve had my curiosity caught.

  15. 1. What’s on the new nonfiction table?
    2. What’s on the “in the news” nonfiction table right up front inside the big window? Any new literature stuff? Oh! Look! The new book about Shakespeare and Justice…have to pick that one up.
    3. Where would they put copies of my book if it ever gets published? Where will I move them to once if they fuck it up?
    4. Any new titles in the “Education” section that might compete with mine? Me, me, me, it’s all about me.
    5. Where did my kids go?

  16. I breath in deep and try to control the stupid grin on my face.

  17. I scan for novels. I check out the titles recommended by staff but rarely pick those up. Nine times out of ten I pick up a new book because it’s a trade paperback and the title sounded intriguing. If I’m in a used bookstore I pick up the hardcovers too. I read the first page, I pick a couple of random pages inside, I see how well the person can write, if I like their voice. I also pick up books by authors I have vaguely heard of but don’t know. I always want more than I can have. It’s so much easier in the library–there I stop picking up books when I have as much as I can carry.

  18. I wear a helmet. I twinkle my nose like Elizabeth Montgomery in the sitcom Bewitched. I’ve come to believe in the Vibrational Theory of Bookbuying. The book I most need to read will somehow draw me to it. Perhaps jump off the shelf. I used to joke about this until the day a book cartwheeled off the shelf and fell at my feet. Twinkle twinkle. Now they fly through the air at me. Therefore : the helmet.

  19. Indie Next picks rarely let me down.

  20. 1. Hiss at my two kids (who are quickly vanishing into the children section) “Leave other people alone! And don’t get stolen by any creepy people!”
    2. Browse the front table.
    3. Browse the staff recommends shelf.

    I KNOW I buy based on word of mouth. I also buy whatever books my children emerge from the kids’ section with.

    • There are some good kids’ books out there and I love my daughter’s interest in books; I was overjoyed when she picked out “Where The Wild Things Are”. Just wish she had more patience to allow me to browse…

  21. I cheat, sort of, since I order books for my library sometimes months ahead of the release dates. I also follow a lot of agent and author blogs, so I know what’s coming.

    So I mostly make lists and then place personal pre-orders or go shopping.

    But then again, I do love to browse the stores . . . I usually bypass the displays and go for the shelved stuff, the wallflowers who might be a fantastic date, given the chance.

  22. I actually look for how things are displayed b.c I love to see what the store is thinking. I look for what I have wanted to read and forgotten about. And I look for gifts always- esp if the bookstore is small. Iw ant to buy things there to give to friends. I adore bookstores and libraries….
    Esp if there is a cosy floor for reading.

  23. I think, who are these people and why are they writing all these books? Who do they think they are? Do they really think they have something to say? Do they think they know something I don’t know? What gave them the idea they were such smartypants that readers would be willing to part with their hard-earned money just for the privilege of reading their garbage? By the way please buy my book, Madame Bovary’s Daughter. It’s coming out in July. Thanks.

  24. Like last Saturday. I went directly to the Westerns and chose one. Then I checked out poetry. Mostly grunge. Not interested. Some bright yellow books caught my eye. Woman who writes funny. There’s so little humor these days. Selected one. Almost got a joke book, but felt I had to watch my pennies. Can’t get carried away. Then, my wife found me.

  25. I head straight for the sections that I enjoy: usually either erotica / sex writing or general fiction. I often ask for the sex section — every good bookstore should have one as far as I’m concerned! Then I pick up books that interest me, either because I love the author/editor or have never heard of the author/editor, and I read the first page. I’m also a sucker for how books feel in my hands — tactile, heavy, beautifully bound…but I make sure I have clean paws before gauging that stuff!

    Thanks for a great discussion!

  26. I go right to the cookbook section. Since I was a teenager, I’ve been crazy about anything that has to do with cooking. I enjoy reading a good cookbook as much as a good novel.

    • So do I. I’d read Nigella Lawson, Serena Bass or Alice Waters even if I had no intention of preparing a single recipe. The cookbook section is my second stop – after art and photography, just before smut. In bookstores as in life.

  27. We’ve been hanging at used bookstores lately, particularly ones with first editions and/or rare books. I love the look and smell of books, but especially old books — it’s so fun to look at all the old covers, and to see the range of prices for first editions based on a list of factors.

    Last month we went to John Windle’s store in San Francisco. It’s very small (one tiny room), and we were the only people there for 2 hours. He let me flip the pages of an original Audubon book with watercolored birds, and then he showed a golf book he was selling for $60K (golf, who knew?!). He’d recently purchased and catalogued 2 full collections of William Blake, so he walked me through just one shelf of those. I could have stayed there all day.

  28. I wanted to write something terribly nostalgic about the magical and iconic Either/Or Bookstore in Hermosa Beach (1966-1999) where I could snuggle down for hours perusing books in various cozy sections; where buying a book was for me as much about supporting the store as possessing a new volume. So I went to the Either/Or fan page on Facebook where I found another fan’s story that said it much better:

    Jessica Boyd Livingston wrote that her family stopped in the Either/Or on a trip to California when she was four and she left behind her stuffed bunny, “Kitty Kat.” They went back that evening but the store was closed so her mother left a note under the door. They returned to New York and within a week a package arrived. Inside was Kitty Kat and a note. “Here I am! I had a wonderful adventure with Justin the Cat, and I’ll whisper all about my stories to you in your sleep.” Magical and iconic.

  29. Feel like shit because my university press-published book isn’t on the shelves. Unless I’m in Montana, where all the stores support me. Then I find someone to hug.

  30. I hate, hate, hate that they have popular new books hit your eye the second you walk in. They have no greater appeal to me necessarily. I want to peek in and out of lots of different books, old and new, especially memoir, and just breathe in the atmosphere of being a needle in a haystack of books. The first page is important. It needs to show a voice and sensibility that are worth my time. I am suckered in by appealing jacket art and blurbs, though I should know better.

    I miss the Scribners bookstore (and others), which was akin to a church of words. What’s in there now? A Sephora franchise? A spiral staircase now leading to mascara? Sacrilege. Visiting family in Portland last summer, I spent hours in Powell’s, near tears a couple of times as entire walls of books would appear before me devoted to subjects I love, like Antarctica. We are being robbed of this experience and the quirky, soul-filling book buying that can result.

    • I agree. Scrolling soullessly through someone’s Kindle is a completely different experience than strolling the aisles of a well-stocked second-hand bookstore.

      There is beauty in serendipity.

    • You’re exactly right. That discovery you didn’t know you were even looking for when you walked in the door . . .

  31. I used to be a very leisurely person. Then I had four kids. Sadly, I now have little time to browse bookstores. When I do visit, I go straight to the register and look at what’s being showcased. If you want your books to sell, make friends with the store managers. They’ve got the power.

  32. i have a reading list.

  33. Usually I have something in mind, based on reviews or, yes, NPR. Sometimes a book will call to me and I’ll read the first paragraph or turn to a random page to see what the words have to offer–“Cold Mountain” was the last book that got me before I heard anything about it. If I’m feeling down, I may buy a Carl Hiaasen book, but usually I look for new authors and hope for… something in a voice I’ve never heard before.

  34. I’m a sucker for deep characters and that pang of nostalgia for something lost. Something in the blurb has to spark that feeling. I’ll also flip to random pages in the middle of a book to get a feel for voice.

  35. As I primarily read a certain genre (and sex, erotica, and/or romance are definitely not it), I have a list of certain authors who I rely on. I’ll also seek out new voices. One thing that I NEVER look at is the cover…I am definitely not one who judges a book that way.

    • RS, I’m the same way. I like to read the book in the store before I know whether I should buy it or not.

      Usually, I don’t make the purchase. Who wants to buy something that reads like something you’ve already read?

      Publishers should stop spending so much money designing these dust jackets, and devote more energy towards finding stories that aren’t so predictable after just one read.

  36. My husband and I will take turns picking a book at random from the shelf, then the other reads the first page aloud. I’ll pick a book; he’ll read p. 1 to me. Then he picks a book, and I read p. 1 to him. We can do that for hours.

    • Kelly, How many attempts on your lives do you and your husband experience during a typical trip to the bookstore?

  37. Have to watch the bookstore trips as we have a huge library at home. For most shopping I go to Green Apple Books (recommended if you’re in the Bay Area). Spending freeze in effect right now, though (excepting books under $5). Best book shopping is in Hay-on-Wye Wales, where there are about 30? used bookstores within walking distance of each other.

  38. I glance at the front tables and the month’s picks, but I don’t pay much attention to them. It is dismaying to the point of annoying the way it seems like most media, most book talk, and displays at indies and chains alike all highlight the same dozen or so books.

    When I hear of a book that sounds interesting I write down the name of it. My list of books to read is 5 pages long. I carry it with me to bookstores and look for those titles.

    I peruse the bargain tables, too. 🙂

  39. I usually just make a beeline for the used fiction and browse, browse, browse. Step up on the stool and scan the top shelves, kneel down beside the store cat, collect a small pile and slowly page through them. Book covers do influence me a bit, and there are certain trusted imprints or series I tend to go for (NYRB Classic, Vintage, those old Bard Latin American MMPBs), but mostly all I’m looking for is some recognizable authorial authority and intelligence on the first page — something sharp and lucid enough to inspire me to jump in.

  40. I went to a Waterstones today to return a book that my husband didn’t want. (He hadn’t read it, honest.) No receipt so no refund. But amazingly, they offered me an exchange. I hadn’t planned to buy anything that day but here I was with £8.99 credit. It would have been rude not to….

    Did I buy my husband another book? Hell no, I traded up on a hardcover for me: Pulse – Julian Barnes latest short story collection.

    Unexpected treats are always the best.

  41. I wait for a book to scream my name.

    • Thanks, Solange. Most writers tend to overlook the ever-increasing numbers of audiobook listeners.

  42. I look to see if any of my books are in stock. I am disappointed if only a few are. Nothing is ever enough. Why not more copies, why not face out, why only in the back? But I feel utterly horrible when I am not there at all, and my usual shelfmates in the alphabet are sitting there all smug and cosy having closed ranks without noticing I am missing.

  43. It used to be you could trust a blurb. Now they’re all ‘forceful and involving, page-turner of the highest order.’ Another thing, I’m not buying that Gary Shteyngart is still under 40. I’ve seen him. I don’t think so.

  44. On any given day I would answer your question(s) differently. Sometimes, I’m on a mission and know exactly what I am looking for, other times I am responding to an urge to read something unknown to me. Yet other times, I am looking for a genre, author or topic. Sometimes, I want coffee, a magazine or a new bookmark. Maybe, I like/dislike the cover art or the author pic too.

    One constant I experience is frustration. Man, I hate even saying that because I love reading. But, reviews are hard for me to interpret as they can be subjective. I really don’t like many of the bestsellers or popular reads. I don’t want all the self-help or great insights. I just feel I’m being spoon-fed crap and the really good shit is being held hostage on the bottom shelves, in a stock room or under the tables. I wouldn’t consider myself “author-fartsy” either. I just love a good story, any kind.

    I will read a paragraph or two to see if I’m in. WIth some uncertainty, i usually find an in.

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