Tingling the Spines

When Amazon began opening bookstores a couple years back, I wondered why an uber-successful online enterprise would turn to brick-and-mortar, especially after sales of more than fifty million Kindle e-readers through its website. Turns out Amazon’s walk-in shopping experience is worth the walls. It’s retail at its most relaxing – and it has a place in the equation.  As CEO Miriam Sontz (Powell’s Books in Portland, OR) puts it, “something special occurs in a physical bookstore that is not replicable online”.

I’ve been to an Amazon Books just once (fewer than twenty locations in the U.S.), but vividly remember what made my shopping experience so compelling.  First, the manager greeted me with, “Welcome to Amazon, and what was the last book you read?”  When I told him (Kristin Hannah’s “The Nightingale”), he replied, “Oh, that’s a wonderful book.  Wasn’t it so interesting to read an account of the war in France instead of in Germany?  Have a look on Aisle 3 – you’ll find some other great WWII fiction.”

As I indeed had a look on Aisle 3, the manager moved on to other customers, prompting similar conversations.  Suddenly I realized the whole interaction was intentional.  Personalize/focus my shopping experience by discovering what I’m reading.  Pique my curiosity by allowing me to overhear what other people are reading.  A + B = Increase the odds I’ll make a purchase.

What really sets Amazon Books apart from the others is the displays.  The books are laid flat and on angled shelves, so you’re looking right at the cover as you’re standing in the aisle.  Below each book, an easy-to-read card delivers a crisp synopsis of the book, as well as a smattering of the ratings and reviews you’d find online.  Think about that tactic.  You peruse the entire colorful cover.  You take in the book title and author without cocking your head ninety degrees to the left or right.  And you know a little about the book (and whether it’s a recommended read) without turning a single page.  It’s almost like those moments in front of paintings in an art gallery.  “Displayed flat” sounds counter-intuitive in the per-square-foot world of retail, but damned if it isn’t a great way to shop.

Photo by Natasha Meininger

Amazon isn’t the only spine-tingler these days.  In a truly baffling trend, interior decorators and collectors are shelving books with the spines… facing the walls.  That’s right: take a book off the shelf, turn it all the way around, and place it back on the shelf.  Why?  Because “eggshell” – the typical color of the pages themselves – is aesthetically pleasing, instead of that rainbow of bright, colorful book jackets.  The linen texture is uniform, blending more confidently with whatever else is going on in the room.  Really?  Is this Feng shui on steroids?

Alas, as the Wall Street Journal reports, backward-bookshelving is no fad, .  You can purchase books on the cheap specifically for this approach.  Check out the goods at booksbythefoot.com.  BBTF sells you reclaimed books, covers removed, of various shapes and sizes, and yes; purchased “by the foot”.  You can even purchase your tomes in a color scheme (i.e. “burgundy wine” or “earth tones”).  Arrange them any way you want: facing in or out, flat or standing up, in piles or as standalones.  Any way you stack ’em they’ll look fully nondescript, suggesting you’d never go so far as to – gasp! – read them.  As Chuck Roberts (BBTF President) puts it, “Some people don’t want to have the literature as a distraction… they want books as objects on a shelf.”  You mean, like lobotomizing the intellectual meaning from the aesthetic?  Weird, just weird.

Or maybe not.  Now that I think about it, I own the complete works of Charles Dickens, painstakingly acquired years ago, one book at a time through the Franklin Press or some other mail-order rag.  My Dickens collection (above photo) sits neatly on the shelf gathering dust, just waiting for me to crack the first spine or read the first page.  But no matter; don’t they look pretty?

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.