A Case For Book Catalogs
The big news that rocked the literary world, you may have heard, was the liquidation of one of the largest booksellers, Borders. Perhaps you’ve since ransacked a store for 40% off stationary, movies, books and CDs (I hear Borders had quite the classical music selection.) But when the last balloon sinks in this book sale frenzy, when the Borders store down the street closes its doors for the last time, some customers will be puzzled as to where they may buy their books. The popular antidotes to (or probable instigators of) a post-Borders world seem to be Amazon, eBay, eBooks or even audiobooks.
But there is another option for buying books, one that is not extinct but may face an uncertain future. That option is the book catalog, which I think deserves some recognition, an encouraging pat on the back or at least a nod. When I mentioned catalogs in general at the last gentleman’s club cocktail time, asking my peers how they felt about them, and one responded rather curtly: “Fun for the first ten minutes on a plane—nowhere else,” citing Skymall as the chief example. Meanwhile, many others of our society immerse themselves in the Ikea catalog’s photo spreads, dreaming of their lives inside the pages.
I don’t think many of us regularly use mail order catalogs today, but the industry, spearheaded in the late 19th century by entrepreneur Aaron Montgomery Ward, was once booming; what attracted the public to this new form of consumerism was that they could now shop and browse products in the complete privacy of their homes for the first time. Ward’s first catalog began as one single, modest page in 1872, which in the next twenty years evolved into a 540-page book; by the early 20th century other catalogs proliferated, selling more and more products along the way, until Americans were able to buy cars and even kit houses from them.
I don’t care so much about buying houses through the mail, though I have flirted with catalogs many times in life. One of my greatest memories of childhood was, upon visiting Grandma Bellefonte, perusing the catalogs she had delivered there. When too young to care about the stories in magazines, newspapers, or adult conversation, catalogs were the perfect thing to scan at the dining room table while grandmother and mother prepared dinner in the room next door—aside from the Sunday comics, of course. From the tacky, vinyl novelties of Oriental Trading to DVD collections from the BBC, for every interest I had growing up, a catalog appeared in the mailbox just in time to appease me. Though I have only settled upon one catalog since: Bas Bleu, a “book-by-post” catalogue that describes itself as “champion of the odd little book”—and if ever a champion were needed, it’s now!
But why defend catalogs if what I’ve said about them are also advantages of buying a book on the Internet? I find that book catalogs have a few special qualities that might not seem so apparent, but do make the difference. Something I like very much about Bas Bleu is the catalog’s book summaries. They are short reviews, sometimes written by readers, and are conversational in tone, sort of like a friend recommending to you a book he or she has enjoyed. I also like to think of them similar to a traditional book store’s “staff picks.” Each summary ends with the reviewer’s initials, so you can build sense of the tastes of who is trying to sell a book to you, and doesn’t end up sounding like market copy drib-drab you’d find on a back cover.
A book catalog emulates the experience of browsing a brick & mortar book store better than most websites do; the small number of reviewers (the summer 2011 catalog only had three) creates a , or at least puts a humanizing face on the company—it feels nicer to buy from a gaggle of bluestockings (what Bas Bleu means in French, slang for a literary woman) than the always-expanding but faceless Amazon. You may also flit through a curated selection of books rather than being confined to results of search terms and keywords online. The Internet experience is great if you know what you’re looking for, but is not as useful for discovery (and don’t even think of trying to discover a good read easily in the Kindle book store, where authors are given free rein to publish just about anything.) Flipping through a catalog is sort of like checking out what has been laid out on display, rather than picking through the shelves divided from one another by genre.
You may think, then, Why do I need the opinion of a bookseller on what to buy? Why not get a recommendation from a friend? You could do that. In fact, there are quite a few online communities that exist just for that, such as LibraryThing and even the New York Public Library’s revamped system that’s as much a social network as a library catalog. On these websites, users may share what they’ve read along with their reviews and opinions on those books, and it can be a great way to connect with readers of similar taste and discover books to check out of the library next or order online. My issue with these services is that they require from the user the diligence and work ethic of a librarian: to make the most of the experience, users must keep up-to-date catalogs and lists of what books they have read, what they are currently reading, and what’s on the agenda to read next. It’s an exhausting kind of over-sharing that becomes a sort of part-time job.
Of course, catalogs are not better than shopping online, though I wouldn’t say shopping online is necessarily better, either. You should find, also, that book catalogs themselves have evolved into online stores (you may buy through the Bas Bleu website, though they cheerfully encourage visitors to request a catalog.) I believe that spending a bit of time on a lazy afternoon exploring a book catalog is both a relaxing and fun experience, and I would certainly be sorrier in a world without them than a word without Borders, speaking honestly.