The Bookseller's Dilemma & the Quirky World of Book Arrangement

One of the most common questions put to us in the shop is “how do you order your books?” Now of course what people mean is how do they find the books they’re looking for, but the topic itself is the struggle every bookshop faces - something I call the bookseller’s dilemma.

First up, fiction. Do you lump all the novels together in a mishmash from A-Z, or do you dedicate some shelves specifically for crime thrillers and others for light-hearted romance? Of course, then, someone comes in, finds the crime section and asks “and where is the Nordic crime?” Consider also the authors who jump between genres - does Stephen King get his own section, or do you divide his books up between horror, sci-fi and fantasy? Does Wilbur Smith stay in the historical section or do his books get scattered about the shop floor?

These things might seem easy at first, but then the deeper you go, the more complicated it becomes. Does historical crime go in historical fiction or the crime section? Does Sherlock Holmes go in crime or classics? Or if you have a short story section, should Sherlock Holmes go in there? 

Okay - you say - so at least we could agree books should go from A-Z. And that makes sense. But then what if an author goes under two different names? Often this is because they write two different genres, so that is fine, but other times people want to see them together. Fortunately for this reason ‘J D Robb’ works so well as an alternative pen name for Nora Roberts as the books generally then all end up together. For us though while we try to keep authors together, strict alphabetical order is impossible in such a large shop. We used to try and get from around A to M and have to go back to the beginning and never get all the way to Z. So now generally we focus on keeping fiction books grouped in the first letter of the author’s surname, but not keep alphabetical order beyond that.

Second, non-fiction. People seem to agree on this - you have history, biography, health, business etc… which all makes sense until you pick a bit below the surface. Where do you draw the line between biography and history when a book is about Napoleon and his conquest of Europe? Obviously one book might be more biography, and one more history, but then you have to answer the question “are these all your books on Napoleon?” with a “no”. 

Then there is trying to draw a fine line between health, spirituality, self-improvement, career and business. It’s like trying to separate mashed potato from gravy - messy and borderline impossible. The potato is obvious, and the gravy is obvious, but that line between them is where the dilemma lies.

Smaller bookshops can avoid some of this by having non-fiction on one wall, where it all merges together in a fairly coherent whole, where it might not always work but everything is close enough together to be functional. Bigger shops however, and second-hand bookshops often have larger collections, need to have distinct areas for all these different sections which makes the whole dilemma worse. 

Which comes to the ultimate point, that there are no hard and fast rules and the way each bookshop responds to the dilemma reflects their individual situation, customer base, the size of the shop and the number of books to organize. Part of what makes bookselling so fun is the delightful puzzle of creating a little world within the shop’s walls where each book finds its own nook. It can be a bit chaotic - a bit more art than science - but it is also what makes exploring bookshops so much fun.