Judging Books By Their Covers, And Only Their Covers — Here’s How It’s Done.

As I announced a while ago, I now have the unbearably glamorous volunteer job of co-managing a used book store here on the north shore of Long Island.

The wall clock stopped telling time about a decade ago, and the fireplace underneath it is used only for its mantel.

100% of our inventory of used books comes from donations…which means that we often get bag-loads of crap dumped on us, from people who think that “donations” is another word for “here, this stuff is now your problem.”

So I wrote up new guidelines:

Please, no college text books, water-damaged Philip Roth novels, spinning wheel repair manuals, baby raccoons, left-over lasagna, or out-of-state library books. Everything else between two covers is gladly and gratefully accepted.

The book store is in the front parlor (I like to think it used to be old Mrs. Valentine’s sitting room where she had tea parties during the Monroe administration) in the historic c. 1820 Valentine House in Roslyn, NY and all the money we make from selling used books goes to the local library.

As the enviously philanthropic volunteer co-manager of the Roslyn library used book store, I wield absolute power when it comes to deciding what to display on the fireplace mantel. Here’s the display I made in celebration of LGBTQ Pride Month:

The vertical rainbows are paperback, and the horizontal rainbows are hard-backs. I had the most trouble finding book covers in the color green. Judging by my inventory, green is the least-used color in book-binding.

We were also lacking inventory in green book covers because I had previously plundered our stock for my  own bookshelves:

The idea came to me on a slow day in the used-book selling world. It was also raining (which doesn’t bring in the punters) and I was hungry.

As you can see, my decor à live combines low and high culture…if indeed such a distinction can be made:

I confess that I am not tempted to read any of the books on display chez moi. I think that reading them would totally ruin them for me, as objets d’art, don’t you think?

I rather like the image of Light on Snow, and it makes me happy to imagine all the possibilities that might be contained in Anita Shreve’s novel. And look! Stacked as they are, they make a poem:

Light on Snow, Winter Study

Jem (and Sam)…

heart of the matter

This relates: The great novelist Vladimir Nabokov (so I’ve heard; I’ve never read any of his books) was teaching literature to undergraduates in Ithaca, New York when he wrote about a meeting he’d had with a student who was failing his class. In his diary, dated March 21, 1951, Nabokov wrote:

“the student explained to me me that when reading a novel (Ulysses, in this case) he likes to skip passages and pages so as to get his own idea, you know, about the book and not be influenced by the author.”

Nobaokov did  not record whether this kid made him laugh, or cry, or both.

There was plenty of space left on our book store mantel on either side of my rainbow display, and I searched for good LGBTQ titles but, this being a used book store, I had to go with what I had on hand.

I went with the most glamorous titles we had, because the New York Gay Pride Parade on June 24 will be amazingly glittery…but I’m still a teeny bit concerned that my intentions will be misinterpreted. Are there better topics other than Hollywood and royalty that I should have considered? Discuss.

And, as long as we are all sitting in a circle and having a chat, let us all congratulate Dear Reader Kirra from The Land of Oz, who is taking up residence in Salzburg, Austria next year. When she dropped that news on us last month, the first thing I thought was, Girl, you need a theme song.

Kirra, I’m talking to you from experience; you need to take a mixed tape with you to Salzburg so that you will play it over and over in your garrett, to become ingrained in your daily life, so that for ever more, when those songs come on the radio, you will be shot back to that special time and place with an intensity and recall that only music can trigger. Which I don’t have to tell you — you’re a music teacher.

You don’t have to decide right now what your theme song is, but you do have to have a play list that you will sing along with and remember home by and console and inspire yourself with, on all those nights and days in that foreign land.

Whenever I hear  Haven’t Got Time For The Pain by Carly Simon, or  The Last Time I Saw Richard by Joni Mitchell, or The Koln Concert by Keith Jarrett, I am instantly 22 again, living through one of the coldest Winters on record in Paris. Add a glass or two of wine to the soundtrack and I can re-play the entire year, all the sights and sounds and tastes and feelings. Oh, the misery and oh, the giddiness. Nothing will ever feel so bad and so good at the same time as being 22 years old in Paris, and nothing brings it back more vividly than this bunch of accidental theme songs. I want that for you, Kirra.

Speaking of Paris, the capital of France, I want to take this opportunity to whine about something that has always annoyed me about the book cover that Bloomsbury did for my book about France, called Le Road Trip:

THIS (above) is not what makes me unhappy about the cover. THIS (below) is what I can’t stand:

I pitched a fit when I saw this and I tried to get them to change it, but I was told that it was too late, the covers had already been printed. I absolutely and undyingly loathe the green lettering of the title because it’s an unattractive shade of green and because green makes no fucking sense. What makes it so maddening is that I was in on the editorial meetings when we discussed cover art and I specifiedthat the coloring on the spine should be blue, white, and red for obvious reasons:

Did the art director hand off this assignment to a beginner graphic artist who called in sick the day we sat around a big table in the conference room and discussed what I wanted? Or is the person who chose to go with this stupid green lettering just a terribledesigner? When you are designing something — anything — you have to consider every single itty bitty detail; you have to question every aspect, you have to know the reason for, and be able to justify, each of the countless small and large choice that you make.

Do you think that the great designer Marc Jacobs designs his lace overlay silk jacket and then lets an assistant choose the buttons?

The answer is, “No.”

I never, in a million years, would have chosen puke olive green for the spine lettering on a book about France. Every time I look at those stupid three words in shades of  scum I want to punch somebody. I have very little tolerance for shoddy thinking.

The Chinese and Korean editions of Le Road Trip didn’t go along with the blue, white, and red color palette either …

… but I wasn’t in on the editorial meetings so I’m OK with that.

Next post about my fabulous incarnation as a volunteer co-manager at the used book store will be all about the staff, all retirees, one of which who asked me, “Do we alphabetize our books by author, or by title?”

Or maybe we will discuss How I Never Want To Get Old And Stupid.

My Darling Readers, have a glittery, glitzy, stupidity-free weekend. May all your theme songs make you want to get up and dance, dance, dance!

24 Comments, RSS

  1. Kirra June 8, 2018 @ 5:38 am

    Thanks for the advice about having a mix tape for my time in Salzburg Vivian! Even though I am a music teacher it’s really good to be told to do it as sometimes I’m a bit lazy……great you can relive your freezing 22nd year in Paris through music!

    I like your book display with the colours, who knew green was the least popular colour for book covers?! Sorry that they didn’t do the right colour on the spine of Le Road Trip, now you’ve pointed it out it looks silly. Of course bleu/blanc/rouge should be the colours! I agree design is important and should not be left to amateurs.

    I feel sorry for Nabokov having to teach that student.

    • Vivian June 12, 2018 @ 2:42 pm

      On second thought, maybe Nabokov was a creep who deserved dunder-headed students.

      You probably know ten times the amount of music than I ever did, and I am sure your mix tape would have real connoisseur stuff on it. You can go much deeper than The Sound of Music…and I’m sure there is more to Salzburg than Mozart. Besides, you want to bring the music of home with you. Crowded House counts, right?

  2. Elizabeth Wix June 8, 2018 @ 6:23 am

    Yes, they should have done red white and blue. What thoughtless beasts.
    Decor-wise – where are the black book spines?
    When I did my shelves color coded for fun there was a lot of that and gray
    not a lot of yellow. You are right about green.

    What fun it would be to alphabetize by title……
    I am very old and stupid. I could come to your bookshop and do that anytime.
    Nabakov makes me queasy. I read Lolita with such joy – so seduced was I by the voice – that it only occurred to me later that it was about a child being raped on a regular basis.
    Happy weekend.

    • Vivian June 12, 2018 @ 2:38 pm

      It seems the 2/3 of the books in our store have black spines. It’s all the rage. Yes, these days Nabokov would be drummed out of publishing with that book. And they even made a MOVIE of it! Times change, sometimes for the better.

  3. Casey June 8, 2018 @ 7:19 am

    Cute book shop! I would like to see all your books sorted by color, shelves of rainbows, stacks of accidental poetry, etc. What a crazy shopping experience.

    About my favorite Vivian Swift book, Le Road Trip, good thing I don’t display the spine because your book sits out on my coffee table, face up, and I agree that it’s a beautiful cover.

    I want that “Royal Sisters” book.

    • Vivian June 12, 2018 @ 2:36 pm

      I like your idea, of making all the shelves color-coded. Psychedelic, man…but I wold have to be very, very, very bored to go to all that trouble!

  4. jeanie June 8, 2018 @ 7:31 am

    I never thought to color code my books. I have a hard enough time finding them when I don’t! But the shop display looks great and I wish I’d thought of that. Very clever. And your home shelves really look lovely. And yes, diverse.

    Weird about the side art for Le Road Trip. You’re right, of course (you knew that!) — it should have been the red, white and blue like the flag. And knowing that, I am so embarrassed to say I never thought anything about it. But yeah. Someone wasn’t paying attention.

    Yay for Kirra! A mix tape is a great idea. Now I’m thinking — what would be on mine?

    • Vivian June 12, 2018 @ 2:35 pm

      Toast and Marmalade for Tea, by Tin Tin. Remember that one, c. 1970? That one has to be on your soundtrack!

  5. Alex June 8, 2018 @ 10:23 am

    In an earlier century, I spent four years working at a used bookstore, and we bought books from folks who all thought the torn, mildewed Reader’s Digest condensed novels were worth something because their Aunt Milly treasured them so why shouldn’t we?

    We also got lots of fun questions from book shoppers–my favorite was from the woman who insisted she wanted “nonfiction novels.” We puzzled over that for some time before finally pointing her towards the True Crime section, which made her quite happy. Go figure.

    May you have a stupidity-free weekend, too!

    • Vivian June 12, 2018 @ 2:32 pm

      More than once a customer has stepped inside the book store and asked, “Is this where you sell the books?”

  6. Steve June 8, 2018 @ 11:58 am

    I love your colorful display! As for the “LGBT” books you chose, well, you sort of have to work with what you have on hand, right? I imagine most younger LGBT people couldn’t care less about Elizabeth Taylor, but that’s OK. Is there any poetry by Elizabeth Bishop or Adrienne Rich or Frank O’Hara? Or Walt Whitman, for that matter? Poetry is often fertile territory for LGBT content.

    As for the donations, I can relate. We get boxes and bags of stuff here in our school library and eventually had to stop accepting donations because 99 percent of it is CRAP. (We turn around and give what seems usable to another charity, but the textbooks and the waterlogged stuff we throw out.)

    • Vivian June 12, 2018 @ 2:32 pm

      Stay tuned, Steve. I re-did the display and found the perfect accompaniments, if I do say so myself.

  7. Mary June 8, 2018 @ 1:05 pm

    A million years ago I worked in a small independent bookstore. We received a large display for paperback copies of a new John Irving book. They printed the cover in several colors, including green. The green did not sell, at our store or anywhere else. Even now, I shudder when I see green covers in my middle school library.

    • Vivian June 12, 2018 @ 2:31 pm

      A-ha! Proof of my green hypothesis! The only books that can use green covers are gardening books and books about golf.

  8. Susan June 8, 2018 @ 1:43 pm

    Regarding your book cover/spine, I don’t know why you did not have final sign-off on the mock-up? Having worked in publishing, I always insisted on a sign-off. Yes, it is amazing how things can go wrong. Despite, the wrong colors, your book is still outstanding. Volunteering is both fun and sometimes frustrating. I guess, that is dealing with the random public. My late, 99 year old Uncle used to say, “Life would be boring if we were all the same.” I hold that thought. Love your creative book displays!

    • Vivian June 12, 2018 @ 2:30 pm

      My publisher also used to tell me, for my first two books, that we had to have new art work on the cover because we couldn’t use an illustration that appeared inside the book. It seems that that just wan’t “done”. For my third book, guess what? They wanted one of the images from inside the book on the cover. Publishing is like Hollywood: Nobody Knows Anything.

  9. Karen June 9, 2018 @ 7:26 pm

    Love the rainbow display and the Nabokov story.

    • Vivian June 12, 2018 @ 2:28 pm

      The Nabokov story is a hoot.

  10. Patricia June 10, 2018 @ 3:32 pm

    I’m a color blocker but not nearly so artistic. Which figures since you’re on art book # four and I’m not. I only color block the books I currently own. But sometimes I keep books just because they play well with the other books on my shelves.
    I’m also a Friends of the Library volunteer. Currently I just volunteer for their sales and learned NEVER to volunteer in the DVD section because you get elbowed and nearly knocked down by internet bookstore owners hauling in rolling suitcases to fill with merchandise for their online stores. Since we were running two day sales, we just plunked it out and the hordes descended. My favorite book buyers were kids who would start reading their stack of books while we were trying to count them. Loved that because that would have been me at age 8 or 9 and, well, up to current day.
    I later worked in the sorting rooms where we prepped for the sales. We didn’t accept any travel or finance books over 10 years old, any books with damage, and of course, no Reader’s Digest books.

    • Vivian June 12, 2018 @ 2:27 pm

      We don’t take ANY finance books. We have limited shelf space and we just don’t like ’em. I will always snag the travel guides from the 1970s…they bring back so many memories of living on $5.00 a day.

  11. Marilyn June 11, 2018 @ 7:31 pm

    Yes, let’s dance when we need to cheer ourselves up.
    For some reason your post of this book store and Paris too reminds me of the first time I visit the Shakespeare and Co. bookstore in Paris. Someone told me there was a tearoom at the top of the stairs and since I liked tearooms I headed up the stairs. The the very top I went, well no one was around, but the door said tearoom. I opened it slowly and there were a small group of people inside sitting on the floor in almost darkness. They invited me in, which I now regret now taking them up on. The image still sits in my head. I believe they were reading poetry, but not sure that was tea in the cup.

    • Vivian June 12, 2018 @ 2:26 pm

      Well, that is quite a story! I can only imagine that you were very cute, and that’s why you got the special invite to the in-crowd. Me, I’ve been going to Paris since 1975 and I have never set foot in Shakespeare & Co. I always got a vibe from that place that it was too cool for me, and your story proves I was right.

  12. Mae June 14, 2018 @ 12:37 pm

    Immediately on reading about books with green spines I pictured the original/still existing edition of Franny and Zooey. Strong memories. And I’m not that sensitive to the color of my books, which makes it harder to find them in my unorganized shelves. I organized my fiction by author — never thought of doing it by title, but that might be another way to never find anything.

    best… mae at maefood.blogspot.com

  13. Judy Jennings June 22, 2018 @ 12:17 am

    How did I miss this bookstore thing? Used books stores are the highest on my list of stores, second only to the books themselves. And there you ARE! I am so jealous. I want to own my own, but really couldn’t let go of any of the books unless they were fiction. Have fun and please tell us more! (Found a good one this week in the lower level of Pike Street Market…I’m with Beth again in Seattle. Luggage will be heavy!)

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