History people tend to be book people. The first place I hit up when I visit a museum or historic site is the gift shop, so I can scope out the book selection. It’s a great chance to find titles I might not be aware of, and since I’m OCD, I have to get a sense of what I’ll be buying on the way out before I can settle down and enjoy the exhibits.
That’s why this tweet caught my eye the other day:
Books aren’t top sellers at the ALLM’s gift shop, either. The only exception is a history title that LMU publishes in-house, meaning we’re one of the few places you can buy a copy. Our most popular items are inexpensive souvenirs: facsimile Gettysburg Addresses (we sell a lot of those), novelty Lincoln items, mugs, pencils, postcards, and plastic Civil War soldiers.
It’s a little frustrating. If you want your gift shop to contribute directly your institution’s mission—if you want it to be something besides a simple income generator—then offering edifying books seems like a good way to make it happen. But if visitors don’t buy them, there seems little point in stocking them. A lot of gift shops thus end up contributing to the site’s mission only indirectly, by defraying the costs associated with other areas of operations. (Of course, a lot of visitors who scout out good books at museum and site shops might be trying to save some money by waiting until they return home to order them online.)
Maybe there’s a way to incorporate “teachable moments” into visitors’ gift shop browsing. Some chain bookstores have staff recommendation sections where the displays include a brief message from employees about why particular books appealed to them. Maybe museum shops should set aside some shelf space where curators and staff historians could highlight especially good works in their fields, complete with blurbs about why each title appeals to them. Besides encouraging people to pick up solid works, it would have the added benefit of putting a human face on the staff, allowing them to engage visitors on a personal level without even setting foot outside their offices.