Shopping for books, like shopping for other things, is not merely about quickly finding the thing that you want. Store design has long been oriented towards making shopping an experience. FAO Schwartz tried to make shopping like a trip to the amusement park. Whole Foods made it a political statement. Even a visit to the grocery store can become a pilgrimage, so that when you find the milk hidden behind aisle 25 you are ready to bow down and thank the gods.
Chance and adventure may be the great advantages that bad books stores have over good ones. Last year, some 275,000 books were published in the United States. Most of those titles turn out to be familiar or uninteresting. Poring through all the books in a store to find something new and interesting is a game where the very improbability of success makes a good find all the more exciting. It’s the lotto scratch tickets of the educated class.
This is why I was so confused last week when I walked into St. Mark’s Bookshop in New York. I started walking around the store to try to find a treasure, but quickly became disoriented. Nearly every title seemed to have been carefully selected to appeal to someone of exactly my taste and interests. This meant that there were no hidden gems, just an incredible wealth hung out in the open and ready for the taking. At first I was excited to find so many good books. But I soon became bored. There was no fun or adventure. Through a detailed understanding of their typical customer, the store had created the perfect selection of books for me. But they had also taken the fun out of shopping. Where was the chance? The sense that I had “made a find?”
Though most American bookstores are likely to remain delightfully bad, shopping of all kinds is increasingly moving to the internet. There, detailed information can be collected on each person, enabling the careful tailoring of shopping experiences. The internet of the future, led by Google Ads and Amazon’s book suggestion service, is one where the purchase options we see are exactly what we want and nothing else. As these services are perfected, I suspect that there will be more and more of a desire to re-integrate randomness and adventure into online shopping. If consumption is about the adventure of choice, what happens when we have programs that choose for consumers? Marketers may find that sales start to suffer as the means of selling become almost perfectly efficient. Without the dross, no one will believe that they have found gold. Mammon, it seems, demands mediocrity.