Porter Square Books Launches Virtual Bookseller

Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., has launched the Virtual Bookseller, an online resource that allows customers to receive personalized bookseller recommendations without having to visit the store.

"I think readers really do value those conversations [with booksellers] even if they don't feel as though they can really fit those conversations into their daily lives," said bookseller Josh Cook. "As useful as reviews and data can be, there is something special about the associations, intuition and serendipity that happens when you talk about books with someone who's got a ton of books in their brain."

Shoppers fill out a form on the Porter Square Books website, including information on books they did or didn't like, preferred genres and other reading preferences, which is then sent to the team at Porter Square and circulated among the staff. Within a day or two, once a solid list of at least 5-10 recommendations is compiled, Cook will create a custom page on the store's website for that recommendation list and send a link to the person who originally filled out the form. On the list, each recommended title will come with a short description explaining why it should be a good fit, and from there, customers can buy the book directly from Porter Square, share the list on social media, or send it to family and friends.

The team at Porter Square Books has been trying to come up with some kind of personal shopper or recommendation service for a while but never found a way to make the staffing logistics work, Cook explained. At around the same time, it occurred to Cook that online book discovery tools and book-related apps are really just trying, in a plethora of ways, to replicate the experience of talking to a knowledgeable bookseller. Added Cook: "So, we thought we could bring those two elements together and essentially put the one-on-one conversation with experts online."

Once Porter Square Books decided to go online with the personal shopper idea, it took about three or four months to put the project together. Much of that time was spent figuring out how best to work it into staff members' workloads, deciding how to describe and explain it, and working with the ABA to add the functionality to the Porter Square website.

"This is very much an experiment, and we're really curious to see if readers use it, how they use it, and what other conversations might be inspired by it," said Cook. He acknowledged that there is a chance that the service might not be instant enough for those who prefer online shopping and not personal enough for people who prefer real conversations, "but part of the strength and fun of small businesses and independent bookstores in particular is the freedom to experiment, to try to find new ways to reach readers and get them the right books." --Alex Mutter

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