Alexander Atkins

Mar 31, 2021

5 min read

Shopping for Books Virtually, Shelf by Shelf

The coronavirus pandemic had a tremendous impact on small businesses, particularly small, independent bookstores who were forced to close their doors to customers as the shelter-in-place orders were rolled out across the country, eliminating much-needed foot traffic. As of October 2020, the American Booksellers Association (ABA) noted that 35 member bookstores had closed their doors — a rate of about one store closure each week. Not only are independent books struggling during the pandemic, even after the CARES act financial relief packages and an infusion of $2.7 million of relief funds from the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, they face a very difficult and uncertain future. According to the ABA, 20% of indie bookstores are dangling by a thread. Some stores were able to shift sales from in-store to online with a certain level of success. From time to time, some book stores issued cries of help and were quickly inundated with online orders which overwhelmed scaled-down staff but brought in critical revenue.

As a long-time bibliophile and book collector, I have been visiting indie bookstores over the years (online and brick-and-mortar) as well as friends of library book sales for decades. I pondered, how can I assist some of these stores, and at the same time, enjoy the best part of book collecting: the thrill of the hunt, searching for the unknown unknown (the book you didn’t know existed). In my recent book, Serendipitous Encounters from the Bookshelf, I coined a word for that: bibleuphoria, defined as: “the euphoric feeling experienced when you finally find a book that has been on your wish list for years or a special book that you didn’t even know existed.” The word bibleuphoria, pronounced “bi blyoo FAW ree uh,” formed from the Greek word-forming elements biblio- (meaning “related to books”) and euphoria (meaning “power of enduring easily,” but more generally, “a sense of elation”).

Any true bibliophile will tell you that pure, unadulterated bibleuphoria can only occur in a bookstore. Finding the book and then holding a precious book in your hands, smelling it, feeling it beats typing in a keyword or title and finding a book on an online database. Sure, there is a slight eureka moment that you found it — but you don’t own it, you do not have it in your hands. You click here, you type some information there, and you hit the “purchase” button, but the only thing that has been exchanged is keystrokes and data. It’s not very fulfilling — it’s like drinking a chocolate milkshake and you have consumed all the ice cream and you just suck up air. So after placing your book order, it takes days — sometimes weeks — for the package to arrive before you can actually hold it in your hands. Only then do you experience true bibleuphoria. It’s true.

One night, after an evening of fighting off the withdrawals that bibliophiles occasionally experience when they haven’t visited a bookstore in a while (that glorious smell of books and ink, the joy of getting lost in stacks of books — you know the feeling) I had an epiphany: why not shop for books virtually, shelf by shelf? Thanks to modern technology and the ubiquity of the smartphone it didn’t require too much effort: it would require for a bookseller to take a photo in landscape mode of each shelf of a certain section of book inventory at about eye level, to mimic the view you would have if you were standing in front of the bookshelf. Then the bookseller would take those image files (typically JPEG files) and send them to me via email or through a messaging app to my mobile phone. The next step was to contact indie booksellers and see if they were game.

The next day I wrote the email and sent it to an indie bookstore. Since I am currently writing a book on rare words I focused on word reference books. The owner was happy to receive the email and said she would send photos by the end of the day. In the early afternoon, the email came in with 10 photos of attached. I eagerly opened the photos and examined all the spines. I had many of the books already, but I found three unknown unknowns. Eureka! While it wasn’t the same as being in the store, and holding the book and reviewing it, the experience did capture on some level the thrill of the hunt — seeking out that book that seems to be peeking out from surrounding books, or that book that is laying on top, as if in basking in the limelight. I inquired about the prices (which were very reasonable) and placed my order. About a week later the books arrived with a lovely thank you note — the bookseller was so appreciative of the innovative process and the order of several books. I continued this process in the months ahead and enjoyed exploring the bookshelves of so many small indie bookstores across the nation and eventually around the world.

Although it seems the end of the pandemic is drawing near, bookstores will be struggling for months, and perhaps years, until the economy stabilizes and customers return to the normal, pre-pandemic way of shopping. So if you are a book lover, or know someone who is one, try this wonderful way of shopping virtually, shelf by shelf. I think you will be pleasantly surprised at how fun it is, provides a fix for your bibliomania, and helps indie bookstores at the same time. Let me know how it works for you.


If you enjoyed this essay, you might enjoy my book, Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf, based on my popular blog, Atkins Bookshelf. The blog explores the world of ideas — through books, movies, music, quotations, and the English language — for the intellectually curious. At the heart of Atkins Bookshelf is a lifelong love of books and literature; its goal is to educate, entertain, and inspire.
The book can be found here.
The blog can be found here.