The Perils of Recommendations

Free­dom to Read Week, Feb­ru­ary 22–28, 2015.

Entry #13: poet and book­seller Lynn Davies on keep­ing true to the bookseller’s code.

“Has a cus­tomer ever object­ed to a par­tic­u­lar book on our shelves?” I ask my cowork­ers at West­min­ster Books, an inde­pen­dent book­store in down­town Fred­er­ic­ton.

Silence around the back desk as every­one pon­ders.

Hard­ly ever,” says Janet, one of the storeʼs co-own­ers, “except for Mein Kampf. A cus­tomer told me we should remove it from the store. But we car­ry every­thing. Itʼs not our busi­ness to cen­sor.” Janet con­fess­es that occa­sion­al­ly she is reluc­tant to order some books, like Fifty Shades of Grey (The Fifty Shades Tril­o­gy), but thereʼs usu­al­ly some­one on the staff who is open to what she doesn’t like.

Todd remem­bers a cus­tomer tak­ing offence at the rather gris­ly illus­tra­tions in the orig­i­nal Grimm’s Fairy Tales. “It was­nʼt our con­tem­po­rary san­i­tized ver­sion,” he says, “and the cus­tomer felt it was too cru­el to ani­mals.” He left the book on the shelf.

Some­times peo­ple need to know if there is a book they shouldn’t buy for a young read­er. Norine, who orders the YA (young adult) and chil­drenʼs books, says, “We get asked for sug­ges­tions all the time. What should I get for my 12 year old? And the first thing I say — it all depends on the 12 year old.”

For me, thatʼs one of the best parts of the job, strolling over to the chil­drenʼs side to help a woman find a book for a niece she bare­ly knows and is about to vis­it, and all she knows is that ten year old Don­al­da loves sloths, the colour pur­ple, and hot bur­ri­tos.

We often get asked about YA books appro­pri­ate for cer­tain age groups,” con­tin­ues Norine, “and that gets dicey for the mid­dle school grades. I want peo­ple to know what theyʼre get­ting — espe­cial­ly the teach­ers, par­ents, and grand­par­ents. If they take it home and read it first and donʼt like what they find, we lose cus­tomers. ” Itʼs a trust issue. Peo­ple trust us not to rec­om­mend a book with graph­ic sex scenes or the details of an axe-mur­der for a mid­dle school kid — although pri­vate­ly I think that most kids just skim over the parts they find weird or donʼt under­stand.

Dilem­mas abound though. Norine admits she had trou­ble rec­om­mend­ing The Hunger Games for kids under grade eight. “They are good books but basi­cal­ly books about kids killing kids. I always sug­gest­ed that kids under grade eight read it with an adult.”

The most recent quandary occurred with the award-win­ning YA nov­el When Every­thing Feels like the Movies. At last weekʼs book fair in Hal­i­fax, a num­ber of book sell­ers were scratch­ing their heads as to why the well-writ­ten book was aimed at a YA audi­ence — the char­ac­ters are mid­dle grade but the graph­ic sex­u­al con­tent seems out of con­text. Norine moved the book from the YA sec­tion to the adult fic­tion shelves. “Weʼre not remov­ing it,” she says, “sim­ply chang­ing where it can be found in the store.” And we do this all the time. If a pub­lish­er cat­e­go­rizes a book as “sci­ence” and we think it would sell bet­ter in “nature”, thatʼs where we put it.

Most con­tro­ver­sial books sell well. As soon as peo­ple are told they should­nʼt read some­thing, thatʼs what they want to read. “Salman Rushdieʼs book (The Satan­ic Vers­es) was a dif­fi­cult one,” says Janet. “We car­ried his book but kept it under the counter — we did­nʼt want peo­ple break­ing our win­dows. And a lot of peo­ple bought it. All that atten­tion increased the sales.”

Lynn Davies is the author of three books of poet­ry, the lat­est how the gods pour tea pub­lished by Goose Lane Edi­tions in Fred­er­ic­ton, NB. One of her favourite books for chil­dren is Har­ri­et the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, banned from sev­er­al U.S. schools in 1983 for being “a bad exam­ple to chil­dren” and chal­lenged for teach­ing “chil­dren to lie, spy, talk back, and curse” — good sur­vival skills in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions, thinks Lynn. Vis­it Lynn at