Friday, July 01, 2005

Shelving Meditation

I did my first shift at HousingWorks Used Bookstore/Cafe last night. HousingWorks is mostly volunteer-staffed, and benefits people living with HIV/AIDS by providing them with a range of services designed to fill their needs but also empower them to live a full life and be empowered about their healthcare, etc.

The bookstore/cafe is a large yet cozy space in a beautiful old building in SoHo. The first floor houses everything from rare books, to art, to film and music, to gardening, cooking, and crafts, to literary criticism, to mysteries and thrillers, to a collection of records and CDs. There's also the cafe counter and a lot of tables. Upstairs is a balcony stretching around the perimeter of the store, where history and social science, science, medicine, sports, humor, health, new age, and other books are shelved. They have a map of the store but I think I got a pretty good feel for it after just one shift.

I like learning the systems for things. For example, the books are tagged with two code numbers - one is the month and year they arrived at HousingWorks, the other is a shelving category. 567 is Science. 422 is Literary Criticism. I think they are Dewey or Library of Congress numbers or something. Some books pose a challenge to categorize. For example, where would you put books about people's mountain climbing expeditions? Sports? Wildlife/Environment? Travel? And what about a book about female mountain climbers and their expeditions? Women's Studies? And for some reason, they have a literary biography section, but no general biography section. The books within each category are shelved alphabetically by author. But in the Science section, I found a biography of Heidegger shelved under "H" - you can see why someone would take a look at it and then put it back in the H section rather than using the author's last name. Yet there aren't enough biographies to shelve them differently from the other books.

You are probably bored out of your mind by now, but I find these questions interesting. The way the bookstore is set up right now is good for aimless browsing. You choose a section that interests you, then see what you can find. Finding a book about astronomy, for example, you would have to go to Science and just skim the shelves. You would find plenty of books, but might miss the one most interesting to you because they are all mixed in with other books. This shelving system maximizes the chances that you pick up something completely unexpected, but it's not very good for targeted searches by subject area. If you know the author's name, you're golden.

So let's say we reorganized it so books were sorted by topic on a much finer scale, then by author's last name. This would result in all the mountain climbing books being together, all the astronomy books being together, and so on. But there are a whole lot of books that still would be very hard to place. This would probably make life more difficult for the volunteers who price the books and decide what category to put them in. It would help the customer looking for a specific topic - another volunteer told me that no matter how often she alphabetizes the Health section by author, when she goes back a week later, all the Alzheimer's books are together, Cancer, Depression, Diabetes, etc. I think it would decrease the number of chance discoveries - books that you would not have sought out but happen across in your browsing.

I spent about 3 1/2 hours going through the Science, Math, and Wildlife/Environment sections and "weeding" - taking out books that had been there for more than 6 months, taking out miscategorized or mis-shelved books, putting the others back in "ABC order" (as we used to say in 3rd grade). Was it fun? Not particularly. Was it not fun? No. It was mesmerizing. It was the kind of repetitive yet engaging task that requires that I stay almost completely in the present, focused on what I'm doing, yet relaxed. Hence, shelving meditation. This is the stuff that voluntary simplicity books are made of.

I love bookstores. I have about 50 new books that I want to read, and I was only there for one shift! And I have finished two whole books already just this week!


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