Beyond writing down what people ask me for during the Book Fair, I do not indulge in a lot of analysis of what people buy and why they buy it. This sort of thing tends to run down the same path to the same old spot: “You should put out less X so you can put out more Y.” So next year, when the Y buyers are not buying because they bought their books last year, and the X buyers go away disappointed, we can think of something ELSE we shouldn’t sell so we can make more money. I have mentioned before the remark of roving genius Roger Price, who explained the world of consumer surveys with “Unless everybody wants it, nobody gets it.”
What interests me more are the sorts of lures and traps we can set out, things to keep a customer coming back until all that’s left in that wallet is a weathered credit card and enough cash to drive the purchases home. We have a few of these things sprinkled about, but the most successful one was an accident.
During the course of the Book Fair, people inevitably pause to go through their selections and weed out the things they don’t really want. (We haven’t come up with a way to prevent that so far.) They would then leave whatever they’d decided not to take on the nearest table, in the darkest corner, or just in the middle of the aisle. People would trip over these for a while, thinking “I’d better not touch those; they might be someone else’s books and they’re coming back.” Then the volunteers would take action and collect them to be restocked, after which, at least three times out of ten, some customer would come up and say “Where are my books?” It was a bad scene.
One year, a Book Fair staffer who dabbled in industrial espionage reported that the Brandeis Book Sale actually set out a special table where people could discard what they didn’t want. This made it clear that these were NOT somebody’s books, and concentrated them in one spot so no one had to go hunting for them in those dark corners. Why couldn’t WE find a spare table we could use for that?
So we tried it and to the surprise of everyone who thought an empty table at a Book Fair was a waste, it worked. Oh, not everybody could be convinced to leave things there: there were still occasional piles left on window sills and between boxes of LPs. But the vast majority of people welcomed the service we offered, and discarded the duplicates, the lukewarm passions, the books that would have precluded paying rent this month.
And there was a side effect. People could NOT resist pausing at the discard table to do a little extra shopping. The discard tables are the last resort of customers who hate to leave at the end of the night: since we have the tables on the way to checkout, they can linger for a chance at one last wonderful discovery before they pay up and walk out. And during the day, bustling shoppers pause, and then come to a full stop, seeing the tumble of discards.
We have had several suggestions as to why this is. Some people cite the desire of diners in a restaurant to see what other people are ordering. These are the books someone else ALMOST bought. Other sociologically inclined persons suggest it’s because the pressure is off. These are not hundreds of books sorted and arranged by subject; they’re odds and ends stacked here and there. One or two people suggest it’s a result of the cut-throat competition. “Lemme see what some villain picked up before I saw it” or “Maybe some fool just missed buying the best book at the Book Fair.”
The number of books picked up and purchased before they can be sorted and sent back home is not going to pay for solid silver doorknobs in the lobby, but does provide for a gratifying bonus. So if you were wondering if these little gardens would be seen at the Book Fair after the Grand Renovation, the answer, if I may express myself in Renaissance Italian, is “Yeah, you betcha.”