Selling the perfect bookshelf to Zoom users

With all the videoconferencing taking place during COVID-19, the business of selling books to people for their backdrop picked up:

Books by the Foot, a service run by the Maryland-based bookseller Wonder Book, has become a go-to curator of Washington bookshelves, offering precisely what its name sounds like it does. As retro as a shelf of books might seem in an era of flat-panel screens, Books by the Foot has thrived through Democratic and Republican administrations, including that of the book-averse Donald Trump. And this year, the company has seen a twist: When the coronavirus pandemic arrived, Books by the Foot had to adapt to a downturn in office- and hotel-decor business—and an uptick in home-office Zoom backdrops for the talking-head class.

The Wonder Book staff doesn’t pry too much into which objective a particular client is after. If an order were to come in for, say, 12 feet of books about politics, specifically with a progressive or liberal tilt—as one did in August—Wonder Book’s manager, Jessica Bowman, would simply send one of her more politics-savvy staffers to the enormous box labeled “Politically Incorrect” (the name of Books by the Foot’s politics package) to select about 120 books by authors like Hillary Clinton, Bill Maher, Al Franken and Bob Woodward. The books would then be “staged,” or arranged with the same care a florist might extend to a bouquet of flowers, on a library cart; double-checked by a second staffer; and then shipped off to the residence or commercial space where they would eventually be shelved and displayed (or shelved and taken down to read)…

Located in Frederick, Wonder Book’s 3-acre warehouse full of 4 million books is a short jaunt from the nation‘s capital. While the company ships nationally, it gets a hefty portion of its business from major cities including Washington. And, over the past two decades, Books by the Foot’s books-as-decor designs have become a fixture in the world of American politics, filling local appetite for books as status symbols, objects with the power to silently confer taste, intellect, sophistication or ideology upon the places they’re displayed or the people who own them…

Another force at work, however, was the rise of the well-stocked shelf as a coveted home-office prop. When workplaces went remote and suddenly Zoom allowed co-workers new glimpses into one another’s homes, what New York Times writer Amanda Hess dubbed the “credibility bookcase” became the hot-ticket item. (“For a certain class of people, the home must function not only as a pandemic hunkering nest but also be optimized for presentation to the outside world,” she wrote.) And while Roberts makes an effort not to infer too much about his clients or ask too many questions about their intent, he did notice a very telling micro-trend in orders he was getting from all across the United States.

A lot could be said about books as status symbols. In certain circles, books imply a certain level of education, curiosity, and acquisition. Books and refinement and culture go together. Just having the books present is meant to impress in the same way a flashy car might be impressive driving down the street or the same way a McMansion looks to impress people passing by with its facade.

Think about the supply side of these books. There are companies that can acquire many many titles for relatively cheap. They can store all of these books until someone is willing to pay a decent price to put those books in their spaces. These books with all of their accumulated knowledge and status are simply another commodity that can be moved around to boost someone’s status when needed. And when COVID-19 ends or video conferencing slows down? The books can be discarded until needed again as a status symbol.

An interesting contrast would be between certain commentators and networks. I have seen at least a few bookshelves behind sports commentators. They often have a few books but also more prominently features sports equipment or trophies. The bookshelf is not just about education; the books are mixed with symbols of achievement or fandom.

Without asking how the books in the backdrop were acquired, viewers or other participants might ask about favorite books or how many books have been read. I have been asked this multiple times in the last few years, whether with bookshelves in my office and at home. It could be interpreted as an invasive question – taken as a challenge about whether the books are just there as status symbols – or provide an opening for the person to explain more about their reading (and the connected education and status) and/or share about books that really matter to them.

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