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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Bookseller Musings: Slipcases, Curating, and Fonts

Snug in Our Boxes

Sturdier than a jacket, covering all of a book but spine, a slipcase protects its inhabitant. No dust can collect on the slipcased book’s top edges. No hasty index finger can tear the binding at the top of the spine by careless removal of book from shelf. The slipcase demands respect for the book – and yet, there is nothing forbidding about it. Instead, it invites us in. Its presence lends anticipation to our reading experience before we remove the book from its shelter and carefully open to the pages within. 

We set the slipcase aside gently while reading the book. And when it comes time to return the volume to our shelves, there is again something magical and sweetly secretive about not only closing the book but slipping it into a neat box designed to fit that book and only that book.

In cold midwinter, when most of northern life is lived within doors, humans and pets snug in the “boxes” of homes and places of employment, a slipcased book has a special familiarity. In my bookstore, books in their cozy boxes are surrounded by the larger box that shelters us all.

Curatorial Publishing and Bookselling

Reading an interview with John Makinson, chairman of the recently merged Penguin Random House group and owner with his brother of a small bookshop in Norfolk, England, I came across a phrase that was new to me: curatorial publishing. When the interviewer asked about how Penguin Random House is negotiating the current [digital] environment, his answer began like this:
I wish I had some sort of cosmic message for you, but it is very difficult to divine the essence of curatorial publishing, the kind of publishing we do. That said, it’s about human relationship, a commitment to skill and craft. So the progress we make in any market is incremental.
How refreshing that someone in such a huge business can be content to make incremental progress! How heartening to read about commitment to skill and craft! Years back, an admirer of my bookstore referred to my curated collection. Now, reading Makinson’s phrase curatorial publishing, I was moved to get out a Webster’s unabridged dictionary.

Disappointment was my lot. 

The dictionary defined the verb ‘to curate’ as ‘to act as a curator,’ and ‘curator’ as ‘the person in charge of a museum, art collection, etc.’ or ‘a manager; superintendent.’ Is that all? I felt cheated. If ‘curatorial’ is nothing more than a management function, ‘curatorial publishing’ is simply a redundant phrase, the adjective contributing nothing. I’m not satisfied. I’m sure more is meant.

I conferred over lunch (homemade chicken soup with rice) with my artist husband. I told him I see a curator’s role primarily one of selection, ensuring quality, and I was happy to have him agree with me. Perhaps some readers take quality in selection as implied in managing or superintending. I don’t. It’s great when quality is one of a manager’s responsibilities, but whether or not it is seen that way will depend on others – chief officers, boards, even stockholders. Certainly, in business we’re talking about, management is generally first and foremost about sales and profits. The phrase ‘quality control’ is an add-on.

One of the ways booksellers have always survived has been (1) to sell products other than books along with books (e.g., greeting cards and non-book gift items) and (2) to stock large numbers of bestsellers by famous authors, fewer (if any) numbers of slower-moving, niche category books by unknown or forgotten writers. That is a perfectly legitimate management plan. It is not, however, the plan of a curatorial bookseller.

Any curated collection offered by any independent bookseller, whether or not augmented by items other than books, will reflect that bookseller’s interests and values, with selections made according to quality as determined by that bookseller. For example, someone once jokingly advised me that if I were to “get rid of all these science books, there would be more room for fiction.” I cannot envision a bookstore without fiction, but neither can I imagine one without books on the sciences. For me, that would be no bookstore at all.

Font Choice

I have abandoned (for some time now) Times New Roman on this blog for Bookman Old Style. Both have the serif, which I like for its generosity, but Bookman (besides sounding appropriate to a bookseller’s blog) has more readable spacing, to my eye, and a satisfying roundness. 

Again, I have made a selection that pleases my own eye. Comments? Like or dislike? Agree or disagree?


Deborah said...

I definitely like the font you're using. Very easy to read.

Gerry said...

Easy to read! Never underestimate the value of that.

I think "curated" means "carefully and professionally selected for a particular purpose." We can improve the language if we want to . . .

P. J. Grath said...

Glad the font is working for readers. Gerry, I like your definition much better than Webster's.