Friends and coworkers aren’t the only ones silently taking stock of what’s going on in the backgrounds of people’s daily virtual calls these days.
Staff at the Brattle Book Shop have also been scanning the scenes with a watchful eye. And as experts in the book trade, they’ve come to a conclusion: That shelf just beyond your upper torso? Yes, that one, with the torn edition of “Twilight” that’s next to the lilting fern. Perhaps it could use some touching up if it’s going to be on camera.
“Zoom calls: no one can see your legs,” store employees tweeted recently, “but everyone can see your apartment. We’re here to help, with the bookshelves at least.”
Like many businesses impacted by the spread of the coronavirus, Brattle Book Shop was forced to close its doors to walk-in customers back in early March. But to help fill the downtime while also staying connected to clientele both old and new, the downtown Boston business decided to tap into a niche market — one that’s been propelled by our newfound reliance on teleconferencing services like Skype, Zoom, and FaceTime.
In April, bookstore owner Ken Gloss and his team began offering to curate people’s shelves with hand-picked selections of books to display during video meetings. The service, staff says, can help add a pop of character to the otherwise disorganized backdrops being scrutinized by people on the other side of the computer screen.
To Gloss, having some aesthetically-pleasing spines perfectly arranged at eye level, or even a few well-known titles neatly stacked up for show, “offers a lot of prestige."
“When you look at someone’s books, you can tell a lot about them,” he said. “Put back there the impression that you want to give.”
This concept of cleverly organizing backgrounds specifically for Zoom calls isn’t altogether novel, Gloss explained. It’s more of an inventive take on a familiar practice at the historic family-owned business.
For years, the bookstore has fielded requests from customers looking to decorate their shelves with carefully selected reading materials and antique-looking books, items that create a more homey atmosphere.
The secondhand and antiquarian bookseller, which is known by many for its outside sales lot, has even been tasked with decorating open houses for real estate showings, the walls of bars and restaurants, and television and movie sets, Gloss said.
“If a movie takes place in the ’50s, you can’t have a modern bestseller or a John Grisham book, because it doesn’t fit,” he said.
Once, Gloss added, they received a call from a department store with multiple locations that was looking to purchases 6,000 books in various shades of red to feature in displays. The bookshop fulfilled the order.
As for curating shelf space in offices and homes for the purpose of adding a dash of sophistication to virtual calls, it all started with a tweet last month.
“We see your bookshelves in the backgrounds of Zoom meetings and TV appearances,” the bookshop wrote on April 7. “Let us help you curate your background. Books in all subjects.”
It was Nicole Reiss, manager of Brattle Book Shop, who fired off the offer. She was one of two staff members behind the concept, which, she said, was born from a bit of snark.
“We were watching a news program and were like, ‘This person still has their college textbooks in the background, and they’re supposed to be an authority’ " on a serious subject, she said. “We were joking, ‘Well maybe since we’re professionals and this is what we do all the time, we could suggest that we could curate your backgrounds for your meetings.’ "
The joke became the tweet, which was then picked up by the real estate website Curbed Boston. Soon enough, people started calling the store and saying, “ ‘Look, we’d like to get books that maybe we’d like to read anyways, but we’d also like to give that [good] impression,' " Gloss said.
Here’s how it works: A person interested in sprucing up their home or office reaches out to the bookshop with a general idea of what they want to pull off. From there, the staff compiles stacks of literature that might be a good fit. They then style the books on a display shelf in the store, and send pictures to the potential client. If the customer approves, the store either ships the books off, or holds them for curbside pickup from the shop’s downtown location.
Gloss said the store has received around 30 inquiries from people looking to specifically enhance the scenery around their heads during calls. Of those, they’ve curated around 10 backgrounds. Price points vary based on the types of books people request.
“It’s mostly been either professionals or young professionals,” Gloss said. “More corporate, like a lawyer, a doctor . . . people who have regular meetings, and now those meetings are virtual.”
One or two people who enlisted the Brattle Book Shop were looking for books to place in the background to boost their appeal during potential online job interviews.
In another case, a book collector actually wanted to tone down their personal collection with lesser-known books.
“When you’re doing Zoom or FaceTime, you’re inviting somebody into your house,” said Gloss. “If you’ve got books on the shelf that might be worth ten-, twenty-, fifty-thousand dollars, or maybe a painting in the background worth thousands of dollars, you maybe don’t want everyone seeing that.”
While this service certainly hasn’t been a major part of business operations since they closed their doors, and they don’t suspect it will keep them afloat by itself, it has lent itself to something else: a fun and interesting distraction “in the middle of what we’re going through,” Gloss said.
“You need something uplifting in all of this.”
Steve Annear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.