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Adventrues in book-buying
The Plan:

get to the Gower Street Waterstones and acquire a) One Stop Short of Barking, a silly book in the Underground that I keep wanting to buy and then think, oh come on, it's too silly, and b) Lost in Translation, by Eva Hoffmann, an autobiographical book about the author's migration from Europe to England, reccomended in my counselling course.

The Process:

Got me to Gower Street. Seen the Travel, London shelf in front of me. Looked for Barking. No joy. Asked very young person at Enquires desk if they had it. Young person laboriously peers at terminal and pronounces that there is a copy, in the Travel Guide section. We trudge to the Travel Guide section, just opposite, but can't find the book.

"Wierd," she says.

I then ask about the Hoffmann. Yes, there are five copies in stock, and they are across the floor in Biographies.

Observing the young Waterstone person flip through a ring binder to dechypher the meaning of the codes from the terminal, I muse sadly on the disappearence of the terminals that used to be there on the floors, where the public could look up availability and location of books.

"Oh yes, I remember them," she says. "I think they took them out because they were giving out wrong information."

I swallow a quip about Microsoft Word and trudge over to Biography.

Biography is helpfully shelved in alphabetical order, by SUBJECT. I am looking for a book by Eva Hoffmann, called Lost in Translation... what IS the subject?

I work out that were there isn't a clear subject (for example, a book on the life of Kafka, called "Kafka"), the books are shelved in alphabetical order by author. But not one copy, let alone five, of Eva Hoffmann are under H.

I ask the guy sitting in the other Enquiry desk about the book.

"Oh yes Eva Hoffmann," he says when I tell him the title. He obviously knows the book. "That'll be up on the second floor, History."

I ask, "History, which part?" but he assures me that "They will find it for you".

So I go up to History. Before even starting to look for Hoffmann I happen in front of the History of London shelf. I have a look and what is peeking at me from between The Subterranean Railway and London Underground? Yes, it is One Stop Short of Barking: the one copy that was supposed to be downstairs in Travel Guides.

Reassured, I surreptitiously browse the shelves, then give up and ask the desk. The guy confidently strides to the Jewish Studies, locates the H, and announces with a touch of perplexity that no, there is a Eva Hoffman , but it is another book.

I keep looking some more, hoping for misshelving (five copies after all!), then give up, wander around the stacks reading this and that and resisting the siren call of several books, evilly leave Robert Hare's Without a Conscience over the festive stacks of devotional happy-fluffy Christian books, then head down to Popular Science and Costa Coffee.

I cannot help but acquire a book about cats (Fur Babies: why we love cats, proceeds to go for a cat shelter!) and a book about the neurological underpinnings of happiness (research!)

While paying for the books I relate my fruitless search for Eva Hoffmann to the cashier, whose interest is piqued. She checks again, and yes, the terminal assures us that there are indeed copies of the book in the store, and they are most certainly in Biography.

I am left with the certainty that somewhere, in the labyrintine penetralia of the ex-Dillons, there ARE five copies of Lost in Translation, whom nobody can find or buy because God knows where they have been shelved.

I appreciate the delicate logistics of such a gigantic stock of books, but people, really. Amazon manages.

The Results:

a. One Stop Short of Barking (I bought this book mostly because its author has the triumphantly Londonish name of Mecca Ibrahim)
b. Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent
c. Daniel Nettle, Happiness, the science behind your smile
d. Fur Babies - why we love cats, Liz Jones et al.
e. The Bhagavad Gita, pressed on me by a shivering Hindu missionary at a street corner. Well, I thought, why not have the Bhagavad Gita around?

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I suspect, though, that Amazon manages by doing something like the New England Mobile Book Fair (which is a large and very distinctly non-mobile bookstore out on the west edge of the general Boston area somewhere that lilairen often takes me to).

They shelve by publisher, and within publisher, by book title. This is entirely unambiguous; things have one clear place, and only one.

For customers who want to find books by other categories, there are reference copies of Books in Print at the front of the store.

For that matter, books have one and only one ISBN: and Waterstone's bookshelves are nicely regular and easily catalogued. You'd think they might be able to keep track of their stock.

BTW, this was how Foyle's used to shelve books. I don' think they do it any longer, but oh boy - they had every book in print, and it was impossible to find any of them...

Oh, Foyle's! I ventured in there a couple of times when I first moved to London in 1995, and then never bothered again. They had a strange soviet-style multi-step process for actually buying stuff, too, which didn't help. On the other hand, there was someone at work who loved the place because they had a copy of his book, some incredibly obscure textbook/monograph thing published years before.

Yes, you had to carry your books to a desk, where they were wrapped (in a paper bag, when did bookstores start giving you a plastic bag even for the one or two books?), entered into some register, then you were given a slip of paper that you had to go to a separate cashier (in a wire cage, IIRC) to pay for.
Ah, what sweet memories. :-)

I remember getting paper bags from bookshops when I was an undergraduate, but not much later than that. So, mid-eighties?

I muse sadly on the disappearence of the terminals

I often muse sadly on this too.

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