July 2002

Jessa Crispin


How to Find a New Favorite Bookstore

So you want to branch out from your neighborhood Borders, or you just moved into a new town and need a new bookstore. Here’s how to tell in one visit whether a bookstore is right for you.

1. Take a list of “test” authors.
Go through their shelves and see how many books they have by some of your favorite more obscure authors. The best-case scenario is that they would have books by them that you have never heard of. If you’re looking for Kathy Acker in a Barnes and Noble, however, don’t be surprised if you only find one or two, tops.

2. Check out the magazine racks.
Do they only have the usuals like GQ, Vogue, and Time? Or do you spot a few copies of McSweeney’s, Bust, and Ready Made? If you’re a magazine addict like myself, having a good periodicals section can be just as important as the books.

3. Browse other sections.
You may be a strictly fiction/literature kind of girl/boy, but check out the selection in other areas. This will be particularly important when birthdays roll around. Take note of which sections are lacking. Do they have a large array of Metaphysics books but a piddly SF selection? Is their photography section overflowing with Anne Geddes and not much else? If so, you may have to mark this one off your list.

4. Talk to people.
As much as is said about sales clerks who know nothing about books, I wonder what people expect. Clerks are paid crap. Last time I trolled bookstores looking for a job, Borders was hiring at $6.25 an hour and Bookpeople was even worse. No wonder these guys can’t answer your questions. They aren’t paid enough to care.

The people you should be talking to are the book buyers. Their job is to pick what gets sold at their location. If you have a serious inquiry about an author or a book, not just “There was this book on Oprah,” or if you want to suggest that the store begin carrying New York Review Books, go to the information desk and ask if you can speak to a book buyer. If they say no, meaning they don’t let their customers speak to the people who decide what is offered and what is not, that is not a friendly bookstore.

5. Decide if the bookstore actually wants you there.
Are there places to sit? If not, do clerks glare at you if you plop down in a corner? Are there public restrooms, especially if they serve coffee or tea? Is the staff polite, or is it populated with rejects from that 24-hour diner where they glare at you while they throw your food down on the table? What are the hours of operation? Do they close half an hour after you get off of work?