Thursday, May 23, 2013

An Improvisation

There was a time, fifteen years ago or more, when the aesthetic in bookstores, even independent bookstores all went kinda corporate.  (This will be a history lesson to the young peoples.)  The chains were still the biggest, and baddest players in the market back then, and the Internet Bezoshemoth had yet to swallow the earth.  Everyone was trying to compete with the slick professionalism of B&N and Borders -- remember Borders? -- and one way seemingly to do so was to update the look of everything.  "Branding" and "re-branding" were the buzz words.  What that translated into, at least for the big shops that could afford it, was a fairly substantial capital outlay on consultants, a few new computers with fancier software, and new signage when and wherever possible.

In a lot of ways, this proved to be a very good thing.  What went probably was looking pretty shabby by then and what came in to replace it was a level of design, accessibility and utility that actually made bookstores work better as well as look better.  What was lost, besides a certain amount of clutter and dust, was a little of the individuality, and yes, eccentricity of some of the books-landscape.  Bookstores that hadn't updated their widow displays or reconfigured their cash registers since the Carter administration, found themselves looking all shiny new and Clintonian.

That kind of investment doesn't come cheap.  The last thing anybody wants after spending serious money on a face-lift is to see somebody dress it back up in the same ol' rags and do.  Pens tend to be kept, for awhile anyway, in the nice new mesh-metal-containers, scratch-paper in the matching mesh-metal-boxes.  Nobody puts Post-its on the new big computer-screens.  Unused book-stands briefly go back, stacked by size, under the appropriate tables.  Signage suddenly has a uniform font, style, sizes etc. and consistency -- for the briefest blink of the eye -- is everywhere to be seen.

Some people, some booksellers hate this sort of thing.  Not me.  I like the smell of a new car as much as the next fellow, and there is something about showing off the new wheels before they wobble that I totally get.  (And that's as near to an automotive metaphor as you're ever likely to get from me.)  There are negatives from the get-go, but why not enjoy the pure newness of things at least while they still look new?

But we all know why we can't keep nice things, don't we?  Time.  Yesterday's innovation tends inexorably to the entropy of disordered library tables and mismatched chairs, stained carpets, busted Poly(methyl methacrylate) -- science! -- and the inevitable return of framed family photos and potted jade-plants.  Sooner or later there will have to be some compromise with not just wear and tear, but the occupation of the space by actual, expressive humans.  However hard the powers-that-happen-to-be try to enforce  a rigid aesthetic conformity, people will break out.

(Two brief examples I will always treasure: 1) a photograph I wish I could now find online of a then East German lady hanging socks and drawers to dry on her Teutonic, Bauhaus balcony, and 2) a computer terminal at a local Barnes &  Noble I saw not long ago, the back encrusted with unicorn stickers.  Fight the Power!)

One thing that was lost in the movement to make everything clean and professional, immediacy.  Selling books isn't always the leisurely business of exchanging favorite titles with trusted customer, is it? Sometimes, ya gotta grab the people.  Thus the necessity of keeping current with news, reviews and the holiday schedule and being able to throw a time-sensitive display together on short notice.  When display materials and signage become the stuff of plotted campaigns and unified, long-term messages, it can be hard, for example, to mark the passage of a great writer, or remember that Fathers Day follows Mothers Day as night follows day.

So a coworker makes a handsome display, a witty selection of titles meant to communicate the changing nature of masculine interests and then we find we ain't got a sign.  We could request one of those lovely, professionally produced pieces from Promotions, but frankly, their plate is rather full just now and there are bigger fish to fry and so on, so...

I actually love making home-made signs.  I like home-made signs in bookstores.  Such signs and displays suggest a level of direct engagement of booksellers with our customers that reminds us all of the actual business we are in.  Just doesn't happen much anymore.  There are people for this sort of thing; paid professionals, with computers and standard fonts and all that.  Still, I've been asked.

What I like best about this kind of improvisation is putting as much into the message as possible in the time and space allotted, which ain't much.  Fathers Day makes me think of my own Dad, and of the TV dads of my generation.  Doesn't take me long to start humming the theme to My Three Sons in my head and so to the Internet for a reminder of the opening animation.

Now if the reader is too young to remember this old show, that's okay.  I haven't watched it in years.  What it was is less important in this context than making direct reference to the presumably happy if vague memories of people at least old enough to remember the reruns.  The next step is to do something different.

You can't see everything in the display in the photo below, but besides the usual beer and BBQ titles, there are books that address everything from running to The Enlightenment on these tables.  Seems Daddy has moved on, a little.  We live in faster times.  And so, my modification of the opening credits animation of a TV classic.  The son on the right is, clearly out of order.  The son on the left, in case you can't read it in the photo, says:

"Oh, Damn, Dude!  Seriously?"

Don't know if anyone ever actually said "damn to Fred MacMurray, certainly not that I remember.

The joke then plays out as best it can and the sign does until it's either replaced or no longer needed.  Made us all smile, anyway.  And it serves a greater purpose too, I think; reminding the customers and the staff that not everything in an Independent Bookstore needs to be quite so impersonally, blandly professional as what one would see in a chain store.

How's that branding working out for you, Borders?

No comments:

Post a Comment