Every bookstore has the daily challenge of tidying up after customers, especially little customers. One of the joys of owning a bookstore is seeing people of all ages browsing the shelves and finding books they want to look at. People try to be helpful by putting their looked-at books away; mostly they do a great job of this, but sometimes, it’s more of a crap shoot and it’s our job as booksellers to put them back where they belong.
The joy of a bookstore is everything is alphabetically arranged by author. It isn’t really rocket science, although I will freely admit that the non-fiction section with its various shelves of subjects can stymie this seasoned bookseller at times. I’ve learned some things that are helpful when trying to re-alphabetize the store.
In the adult section, most misplaced books are going to be eye level or higher. Adults tend to put things back in a way that’s the easier for them and this makes sense. Easier often winds up at eye level, with books placed on top of the books on the shelf. This sort of person actually makes it easier for me to see what’s awry. They are acknowledging that they think the book goes back where they’ve placed it, but aren’t totally confident of its resting place on the shelf, so they leave it near where it should be. This is actually helpful. It’s very easy to scan to the shelves for books on their sides and return them to their rightful home. The lower shelves of the adult section are almost never out of order, it’s the top two that are the challenge.
The children’s section is the exact opposite. Yes, books wind up on their sides all the time, but more than likely what happens in picture books is testament to the size of the browsers. Little ones like to help put things away at the store just as they do at home. They don’t yet understand alphabetical order; they’re not reading yet. They just know if they put the book back on the shelf they’ve done the right thing, because that’s how clean-up works at home. So, I’ve learned that if you’ve only got a few minutes to alphabetize the picture books, always start with the bottom shelf.
All manner of bad things happen on the bottom shelf of picture and board books. Books are put back upside down, torn books often wind up stuffed in among the others, books are out of order because they are often from the stack the family was reading and the little one helped before the parent could say, “Sweetie, just leave the pile.” Every bookseller I know would much rather have a stack to shelve than a try to figure out where the books might have been mis-shelved.
I like it when kids help put away books with guidance. But there is a constant challenge of things not being put back right so I can’t find something later when a customer is looking for that particular book. It’s all a balancing act. I do love little toddlers returning each rubber bath toy to its rightful home. Proudly, they take a toy (it’s always one at a time) and gently place it in the basket and then repeat for as long as it takes. I will usually show slightly older kids the easiest way to return books to the shelf: use both hands, check that the jacket is all the way down and then gently place the book on the shelf. I don’t worry about alphabetically much with the little ones but older kids are pretty good about doing it right.
So, the next time you’re in a busy bookstore and their computer says they have one copy of a picture book and cannot find it, be patient, it’s probably on the bottom shelf.