The University of Melbourne

File(s) stored somewhere else

Please note: Linked content is NOT stored on The University of Melbourne and we can't guarantee its availability, quality, security or accept any liability.

Crisis Book Browsing: Restructuring the Retail Shelf Life of Books

posted on 2020-11-25, 04:55 authored by Kenna MacTavish

Crisis Book Browsing: Restructuring the Retail Shelf Life of Books

What happens when the traditional book shelving practices of physical bookstores are forced online? Within physical bookstores, the bookshelf operates as an organisational structure that rationalises the act of bookselling and helps consumers browse effectively (Rak 2012, Miller 2006). In born-digital book retail, algorithms often drive this process, functioning as organisational tools guided in part by a consumer’s browsing history (Murray 2018). COVID-19 has forced independent bookstores to rapidly rethink the effectiveness of how they organise and display books for consumers. Consumers who choose not to engage with born-digital book retailers, but for whom the physical bookstore’s bookshelf has become an object that can no longer be browsed in-person, need new solutions. Independent bookstores have been challenged to offer new affordances—including images and representations of shelves, e-commerce structures and algorithms—to help consumers stay connected with their browsing experiences.

This paper examines three forms of browsable shelf experiences that have been developed in a time of crisis: bookstores virtually reimagining shelf experiences via Instagram, bookstores enhancing the accessibility and browsing experience of their websites, and bookstores posting unchanged images of their bookshelves to social media and asking customers to browse the books in those images. Using digital ethnography to examine these sites of crisis book browsing, and textual analysis of “COVID update” announcements, newly advertised job descriptions, and social media captions, this paper argues that COVID-19 has forced the restructure of shelf experiences in bookstores and that this will have long-term effects on book browsing into the future.


Miller, Laura J. 2006. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. University of Chicago Press.

Murray, Simone. 2018. The Digital Literary Sphere: Reading, Writing, and Selling Books in the Internet Era. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Rak, Julie. 2012. “Genre in the Marketplace: The Scene of Bookselling in Canada” in Ed. Anouk Lang. 2012. From Codex to Hypertext: Reading at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century. University of Massachusetts Press.