That Sort of Job

A lot of books come in to the Book Fair, and a lot of people work to get them ready, and a lot of people come to buy them. That’s about as basic a description of what we do in my little world as you can get.

As with the books, so with the people: you get all sorts. And looking at this operation from one angle, the people can be divided into two sorts: the ones who want us to sort more than we do and the ones who want us to sort less.

There are customers who would like to shop this way and volunteers who would like to sort this way: Why can’t we sort the History section by country, and then by century within each country? That way, someone who’s looking for books on the Counter-Reformation in Germany can go right to that section.

And then we have customers and volunteers who’d rather do it this way: Why separate the History and the Military History and the Biography? Mix them all together, and then people will have the fun of searching. And while they’re searching, they’ll find books they didn’t know they needed.

It’s a disappointment, I know, but fistfights have so far never broken out over this difference of opinion. But both sorts of people do come to me and say “Oh wizard, oh wise one, which is the way to true Book Fair happiness?”

And being the official wizard and wise one in this corner of the building, I have to explain, “Neither. Both.” This leads to muttering of “Never did believe in wizards anyhow.”

On a basic level, the customer who can walk in, find exactly the book she wants, and walk out with it isn’t going to find anything else to buy. Bad for the profit margin. But the person who is confronted with eighteen tables marked “Non-fiction” may try to hunt for a book and fail to find it or may just turn away, overwhelmed. Also bad for the profit margin..

Now I like to look deeper and find even worse trouble. Why sort by country and THEN by century? Wouldn’t it make more sense to sort by century and then by country within that? Then all the sixteenth century books will be together. Except for the books that cover, say, 1492-1776. I guess we’d need another section for that. But at least books covering relations between Italy and China from 1891 to 1950 would…no, I guess they wouldn’t. And someone who’s looking for books by Barbara Tuchman is going to get lost in any case. Maybe History’s too complex. In Art, anyhow, we could put all the Impressionists together and…but some people say Manet was and some say he wasn’t, and you know there’d be one of each in the Art Set-up Squad.

So it’s better to be formless and free? Maybe even splitting between Fiction and Non-Fiction is too much (I’ve seen a study which analyzes the ratio of fact to fiction in the Amityville Horror books; it’s not pretty.) Maybe we should just have one category: Stuff. Hey, that’d sell those encyclopedias: if people have the fun of trying to find all thirty volumes in different places, they’ll have a more personal involvement with the set! And the book group member who simply wants six more copies of The Help is going to turn around and go hunting online.

That’s why we use the system we do: sort of sorted. We try to sort up to the point that it will be helpful but not to the point where we have to lock the volunteers in for 24 hour shifts and argue about whether histories of Venice should be mixed with histories of Rome. The result of this middle-of-the-road method is pretty much what you’d expect.

Someone’s always out of sorts. 

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