In the age of Zoom, a nearly 200-year-old antiquarian bookstore is helping professionals dress their library shelves for success.
The Brattle Book Shop, founded in Boston in 1825 and acquired by the Gloss family in 1949, inhabits a three-story gray brick building near the Boston Common. Ken Gloss, president and owner since 1985, believes his used-and-rare-book business can survive up to a year of pandemic with no layoffs. For the time being he, his wife, and their staff of eight are trying to be productive while awaiting the return of foot traffic. The store's new service: selling curated selections of books for display in the backgrounds of video meetings.
"People want to project an image of prestige and expertise," says Gloss, who is also an appraiser on Antiques Roadshow. "They are looking to show off intellectually, politically, and business-wise."
The idea emerged last month when two of the store's managers working from home started tweeting about the questionable titles they noticed lurking on bookshelves in the backgrounds of video calls on news shows and YouTube.
"There were junky paperbacks. Why would you want someone thinking you're reading this?" Gloss says. Others' shelves exposed highly partisan political views or too-much-information subjects like marriage counseling and sex. Some Zoomers had decades-out-of-date college textbooks on their areas of supposed expertise.
In response to those tweets, the store got a few calls requesting upgrades to biblio-backdrops, and the service was born. Customers supply their interests, budget, and the image they're trying to project. Then Gloss and his staff choose the books, arrange them on shelves at the store, and send photos back.
Orders range from about 50 books--a couple of shelves' worth--to several hundred. Most of the books are just a few dollars, so the total cost is usually less than $500.
Projecting the right image
In the first few weeks about 15 people have ordered display books from the Brattle. They included several lawyers, a doctor, an investment banker, and a political journalist. Historical books--particularly biographies of U.S. presidents and titans of industry--are the most popular choices.
"No matter what business you're in, if you have something by Doris Kearns Goodwin or other books on leadership, that is going to be interesting," Gloss says. "Someone might notice you have Chernow's book on Grant and think, 'That person reads really good books.'"
Intellect isn't all that customers try to project. Books by the likes of P.G. Wodehouse or Douglas Adams, which show off customers' lighter sides, also are popular. Or they will signal their varied interests with a sprinkling of titles on subjects like baseball, music, or classic cars. Several have requested books on golf, which suggest both a love of sports and a degree of worldly success.
Gloss recommends displaying books that best convey the customer's desired image at face level. Titles on upper and lower shelves matter less because they are less visible. He also considers the contrast between the color of a book's spine and the printed title, to attract eyes in less-than-optimal Zoom lighting. "If you are using used books, you don't want ones that are faded, even if it is a good book," he says.
A new spin on an old service
The backdrop service is not a complete departure for the Brattle Book Shop. In normal times, about 5 percent of revenue comes from decorators and production designers buying or renting books to stage open houses or furnish movie sets, or accent restaurants, waiting rooms, and offices. Non-bibliophile homebuyers use the Brattle's volumes to quickly fill acres of empty library shelves. "People want specific colors or themes," Gloss says. "We once got an order for 6,000 red books from a department store doing a display for 60 locations."
Most customers for this new service differ from that decorator crowd, though. One or two have requested sets of leather-bound volumes to create a general aura of scholarship and elegance. But most value the books for their contents as well as for their covers.
"Some have said we also want something that, when we are not on Zoom, we can actually read," Gloss says. "The hope is that some of these people may become good, ongoing customers later on."