December 28th, 2006


"Smart" Shoppers

Don't bother actually reading books. Just buy some so you can appear "well-educated, well-traveled or well-read."

"Sadia Bruce never studied natural history in school, but here's what she wants for Christmas: 'Cabinet of Natural Curiosities,' a $200 oversize book of plant, animal and insect illustrations from the collection of an 18th-century Dutch pharmacist. 'It might give the idea that I was cerebral,' says the 26-year-old standardized-tests tutor, who lives in Montclair, N.J.

Buying smart is taking on new meaning. From shadow boxes of beetles (pinned and labeled) to replicas of gibbon skulls, home-decor items and other gifts with an intellectual aesthetic are big sellers this season.

Aspiring eggheads sometimes want things they may not even understand. Nancy Bass Wyden -- co-owner of The Strand, a new, used and rare books emporium in New York, and director of its 'books by the foot' division -- says sales of insta-libraries, including editions in French and German, are up 140% this year. 'I'm not sure if those folks knew how to read those languages,' says Ms. Wyden of some recent customers.

Prices range from contemporary fiction for $50 a foot to leather-bound classics for $400 a foot. (On the whole, people don't seem all that interested in reading books: Bookstore sales nationwide fell 1.6% in the first nine months of 2006, according to the Census Bureau.) Other Strand clients include private-equity king (and board member of the New York Public Library) Stephen Schwarzman and his wife, Christine, who Ms. Wyden says spent $200,000 on books for their Park Avenue triplex, including pastel-colored books for a bedroom antechamber and movie-reference works and academic books for the family room. Through his spokesman, Mr. Schwarzman declined to comment.

Retailers and marketers say the interest in things that make people look smart is partly a reaction to the Internet, which has made hardcover encyclopedias, maps and models obsolete -- and hence more desirable. Baby boomers, in particular, are keen on items that make them seem well-educated, well-traveled or well-read.

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