Our Reading Lives

How Not Being Cataloged Made My Bookstore Better

Zoe Dickinson

Staff Writer

Zoe Dickinson is a poet and lover of language, as well as a newly minted librarian with her MLIS from Dalhousie University. She now lives in Victoria, B.C., where she works at Canada's largest used bookstore, and gradually adds to her vast cardigan collection. Zoe is a literary omnivore, devouring everything from ancient poetry to contemporary romance to science fiction. The only genre she doesn't read is horror, because she is kind of a wimp. If Zoe had a superpower, it would be the ability to walk and read without bumping into anything. Her two favourite places are the beach and the library. Twitter: @zoeidadickinson

As a library science graduate, I’m all about the cataloging. And yet… there’s something to be said for using your brain to find books without technological enhancements.

I work at Russell Books, a busy used bookstore. Seriously, anyone who thinks the independent bookstore is dead should come visit us. We have three spacious floors filled with books, and a satellite location for our online stock and shipping department. Thousands of books enter and leave the store every day. To give you a sense of scale, this photo from our Instagram account shows just one corner of one floor:

Here’s the catch: the majority of those books aren’t in any kind of catalog. Sure, our satellite location’s stock is online, and our Vintage area with the older, collectible books is also fully cataloged. But the two main floors, the bread and butter of the bookstore, are completely unlisted. This isn’t uncommon for used bookstores, but most used bookstores aren’t as big as we are. It’s one thing to have a medium sized room full of uncataloged books; it’s another altogether when you have two huge stories of floor-to-ceiling books.

This January, at the beginning of my fifth year at Russell Books, I’m hoping to use my newly acquired library science degree to help the store’s owners set up a system for cataloging the two main floors. We’ve been talking about this for years. It’s a huge undertaking, especially because we’re dealing with used books.

(For my fellow information science nerds: this means we not only have to record quantity, location, and bibliographic information for each title, but also the condition of each individual copy. To make things even more fun, many of the books we deal with were printed before ISBNs existed, so that handy shortcut for importing authoritative information will only get us so far. Now imagine keeping all that information accurate when hundreds, sometimes thousands, of books are being acquired each day, and many more are being sold!)

As I ponder this conundrum, making lists and flowcharts as any good nerd would, I realize that I am also pondering the heart of what has made the bookstore what it is. I’m excited about finally taking the next step of the store’s evolution. But I’m realizing that not being listed is an integral part of what has made us special.

Being a large store with no catalog has forced us to have extremely knowledgeable staff. Customers can’t just search our website to know if we have something, and neither can staff. Rather than recording the location of each book in a computer system, we are currently keeping that information in our brains. At our store, the person who asks if you need help is an expert who spends hours every day thinking about where each book belongs based on subject matter, and where people are most likely to search for a book (not necessarily the same place). We, the staff, carry a massive and constantly shifting catalog of books in our collective brains. You can’t work here without a deep knowledge of both books in general, and our stock in particular.

This has also forced us to be an extremely cooperative team. We are constantly asking each other for advice: Is there anywhere else you can think of to check for this book? I’m pretty sure I saw one in the overstock above Anthropology… and so on. I may not know where to find a particular book, but I always know who to ask. We depend on each other to keep the hive mind awake and accurate, and we have developed strong bonds. I’ve met some of my best friends working here. When I left my partner of eight years, I went straight to the bookstore with my suitcases, and spent the next month sleeping on a coworker’s couch. Like any retail job, there’s a fair amount of turnover, but a lot of the people who leave eventually come back. No matter where I go in my career (and I do hope to use my library science degree in an actual library some day), this bookstore will always be home. I don’t know if that feeling of belonging would have grown so strong if we had had a complete catalog all these years, if we hadn’t been depending on each others’ brains so much.

Give me an incomplete description of any reasonably popular book, new release or classic, and nine times out of ten I can guess the title and tell you where to find it. We pride ourselves on having ALL THE BOOKS, and on being able to find them for you. In some ways, that job will get a lot easier once we have a complete catalog. But I don’t think I’d be the person I am today if I hadn’t spent years doing it the old fashioned way. And I don’t think we’d have the store we have today, either.