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    • Bookstores’ ‘Blind Dates’ Link Books and Readers Booksellers are enticing readers to take a chance on books wrapped in paper so the cover and title remain a mystery

    Bookstores’ ‘Blind Dates’ Link Books and Readers Booksellers are enticing readers to take a chance on books wrapped in paper so the cover and title remain a mystery

    The ‘blind date with a book’ table at Book Culture on Manhattan’s Upper West Side has been one of the store’s most successful displays. Photo: Book Culture

    Would you buy your next beach read if its cover were covered up?

    Booksellers across the country are enticing readers to take a chance on a surprise selected by store staff. To set up these “blind dates,” the stores wrap the book to hide the cover and offer a few clues to give a sense of the hidden work’s genre and tone.

    “It’s been the most successful table we’ve ever put together,” says Cari Quartuccio of the blind-date offerings at a location of Book Culture, where she is the store manager. Book Culture has three stores in New York City. The program started in the fall and focuses on what Ms. Quartuccio calls “under-read classics”—works she and other Book Culture staffers believe don’t get the attention they deserve.

    Booksellers cite various inspirations for their blind-date programs, including similar ones at local libraries or other bookshops. An employee of Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe in Asheville, N.C., recalls first seeing it at a shop in Germany.

    For customers, trusting the staff at their local store is part of the fun. The clues allow readers to select a gift for themselves. (And then, of course, immortalize unwrapping the mystery volume on Instagram.)

    At Book Culture, blind-date offerings are wrapped in brown paper and bear a note advising “Read me if you liked” and a list of three books staff members think customers are likely to have read. One of their most frequently selected blind-date books, Ms. Quartuccio says, lists the novels “The Help,” “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” and “The Secret History.” Inside, readers find Marisha Pessl’s “Special Topics in Calamity Physics,” a 2006 novel about a highly intelligent teen who finds herself simultaneously navigating new friends and investigating a suspicious death.

    One of the ‘blind date’ books offered at a Book Culture location in New York.
    One of the ‘blind date’ books offered at a Book Culture location in New York. Photo: Book Culture

    Figuring out which titles attract readers is a matter of trial and error. Ms. Quartuccio thinks a wrapped-up copy of Edward Abbey’s 1968 work “Desert Solitaire” didn’t do well because not enough customers loved its “Read me if you liked” list, which included “Into the Wild” and “A Walk in the Woods.”

    Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe rotates more than 350 titles through its blind-date section, which includes about 30 adult and 12 young-adult choices. Staff members use adjectives rather than titles to orient readers. For example, blind offering number 171, described on its wrapper as “sizzling,” “uncanny,” “rhapsodic” and “tragic,” is Jeffrey Eugenides’s 1993 debut novel, “The Virgin Suicides.”

    Staff members, who can add books to the blind-date rotation, enjoy coming up with evocative modifiers. Any sale in the section, owner Emöke B’Racz says, “strictly goes by how successful the description is.”

    Hooking younger readers is bookseller Rachel Strolle’s goal at the flagship location of family-owned Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, Ill. She focuses her blind selections on young-adult and middle-grade books and sells most within a couple of weeks of displaying them. Her clues include colorful drawings and whimsical synopses. Readers unwrap “Of Fire and Stars” by Audrey Coulthurst after being drawn in by the summary that, “Once upon a time,” a princess traveled to meet her would-be prince, “and ended up falling in love with his sister instead.” Since starting the program at the Naperville location a year ago, Ms. Strolle has sold 700 covered books to young readers.

    A description on a covered volume intrigued Rachel Vamenta on a recent visit to Chop Suey Books. The tag read: “We just came to America. Please show me your ways, don’t worry about my parents.”

    “I come from an immigrant family,” says the 30-year-old Ms. Vamenta, who is a longtime customer of the Richmond, Va., used bookstore. “When I saw that description, I thought, ‘Oh, perfect.’ ”

    She unwrapped “The Namesake,” by Jhumpa Lahiri. “It was so funny, because I’ve been meaning to read ‘The Namesake’ forever,” Ms. Vamenta says of her $5 purchase.

    New “blind date” books usually go for retail prices but Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck, N.Y., has devoted its surplus of advance reader copies—preliminary editions sent to stores before the actual book is released—to raising funds for the local library. For $1, customers can select a volume from a bin of adult and children’s wrapped books with either a short summary or similar authors as clues.

    At Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe in Asheville, N.C., the books are wrapped in brown paper and described with a list of adjectives.
    At Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe in Asheville, N.C., the books are wrapped in brown paper and described with a list of adjectives. Photo: Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe

    In addition to helping the library, the blind book grab-bag has been a great advertisement for Oblong, says Nicole Brinkley, the store’s director of special projects. She recalls one boy immediately loving his blind book about cats that are astronauts. He showed it to friends, Ms. Brinkley says, and two of them ordered the book.

    The Book Cellar in Chicago limited its blind-date section to the month of February, embracing a Valentine’s theme and adorning wrapped books with bright pink hearts and descriptions akin to dating profiles. The hints were meant to be “something airy that would give customers enough information to know if it was something they were interested in, but hopefully without spoiling too much,” says Liz Rice, of the Book Cellar. Clues with pop-culture references did well, she says, like the one reading, “Intelligent, surprising, and witty. For fans of ‘Arrested Development.’ ” Inside the wrapper was Maria Semple’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?”

    Illustration: Michael Witte

    An honest description of a blind-date book, such as David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest,” doesn’t always captivate many readers, Ms. Rice says. But the Book Cellar included his 1,000-plus-page work because the staff enjoyed writing the description: “For someone looking for a long-term commitment. At times I’m a bit complicated and bit hard to read. (Pun intended.) But totally worth it in the end.” A couple of people bought “Infinite Jest,” Ms. Rice says.

    Book Culture’s Ms. Quartuccio says customers seldom are lukewarm about the notion of blind-date books. Fans often make repeat purchases, with some even buying stacks as gifts. Other customers are perplexed by the idea. Finally, she says, there are those “who get really upset when we won’t tell them the title of the book. Mystery isn’t for them, but they still want to take part in it.”

    Appeared in the July 11, 2017, print edition as ‘when bOOKSTORES BECOME MATCHMAKERS BOOKS.’

     

    https://www.wsj.com/articles/bookstores-blind-dates-link-books-and-readers-1499701637

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