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"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.

'They aren't hesitant to try to communicate that,' says Stephen Gordon, chief executive of the Sundance Catalog, which this season is selling refurbished manual typewriters from the 1940s, including the Royal Arrow ($695), 'a steadfast companion during Hemingway's frequent stays in Havana.'

At Assouline.com, 'Le Questionnaire de Proust,' a $295 leather-bound facsimile of the French writer's famous list of interview questions and his handwritten replies -- plus blank pages so contemporary questioners can live out their own Proustian impulses -- is temporarily sold out. Modern Library's six-book boxed set of 'Remembrance of Things Past,' meanwhile, is ranked 27,318 on the Amazon sales list.

The smart look is partly rooted in the sciences, both natural (astronomy, geology, zoology) and applied (architecture, forensics, medicine). Sales of minerals such as amethyst geodes and fool's gold at the American Museum of Natural History in New York have soared more than 130% this year. The museum store recently added provenance certificates to some of its gold and meteorite samples, attesting to where and when the rocks were mined or found. Several pages of Restoration Hardware's holiday catalog this season are devoted to astronomy-themed gifts. And 'Cabinet of Natural Curiosities' is one of the most popular items from art-book publisher Taschen, which released a smaller, more affordable $60 edition last year. Its distinctive red coral cover made it an instant hit in design magazines and stylists frequently use it as a coffee table prop.

'People like science stuff that subconsciously has a lot of weight because it doesn't seem frivolous,' says David Thompson, president of Vagabond Vintage Furnishings, an Atlanta-based wholesaler that sells to Williams-Sonoma Home and other companies. 'They want things that seem sophisticated.'

Some retailers are increasingly veering into the unusual or the macabre. A series of decoupage plates by John Derian ($880) depicts a 19th-century image of a skeleton. The Evolution Store in New York City, which sells replicas of skulls (a replica of the Australopithecus 'Lucy' is a top seller) and other bones, has opened a new department devoted entirely to insects. Companies are also exploring funkier parts of the natural world, such as fungi, sea creatures and crustaceans. A stylized faux sea-urchin condiment bowl with a gilded interior and a silver spoon is the best-selling new item from Vagabond Vintage Furnishings.

Not everyone approves of decorating to look brainy. 'Queer Eye' interior designer Thom Filicia compares it to wearing eyeglasses without a prescription. 'It's creating a facade,' he says. Literary and culture critic Harold Bloom is similarly unimpressed. 'I find it too absurd to stimulate me to any comment,' Mr. Bloom wrote in an email. Others object solely on visual grounds. 'Personally, little bird skeletons frighten me,' Mr. Gordon says."


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 29th, 2006 01:20 am (UTC)

i wanted to stab a lady who came into michael's looking for somethings that "look like books" to decorate her home. uhm, have you tried books? or did all the words confuse & scare you?

& the first lady in the article, if you're a standardized test tutor who uses words like "cerebral" in a conversation, why do you need a book to look smart? unless you're drooling on yourself, i'd think ppl would already assume you're "cerebral".
Dec. 29th, 2006 03:10 pm (UTC)
That first chick confused me, too. She must be overcompensating for something.
Dec. 29th, 2006 05:19 am (UTC)
But could they win at Trivial Pursuit?
HA. Very funny. Reminds me of one of my favorite lines in my favorite movie, Auntie Mame, where the debutante, Gloria, tells Mame, "Books are awfully decorative, don't ya think." Come to think of it, if you watch that movie you might think that the middle class always tried to make themselves look smart. It's the American dream--to get something for nothing...including intellect.
Dec. 29th, 2006 03:31 pm (UTC)
Re: But could they win at Trivial Pursuit?
I'm not winning much at TP myself of late so I can't cast aspersions at others. Hehehe!

I love that movie. The scene at Upson Downs when Mame tastes her first daiquiri and the Upsons keep calling her "Mamie" always gets me.
Dec. 29th, 2006 04:44 pm (UTC)
It was just ghastly!
There's no sugar in a Claude Upson Daquari! Give me a gin and I can recite the entire movie! I finally got it on DVD last Christmas and may be wearing it out!

As for Trivial Pursuit, I'm the queen of trivia. I know a little about a lot. It's why I am forever doomed to be no higher up than middle management. Or my current career as stay-at-home mom.

And, what's wrong with Muriel Puce?
Dec. 29th, 2006 08:21 pm (UTC)
Re: It was just ghastly!
"You wanted him married off to some Aryan from Darien with braces on her brains!"
Dec. 29th, 2006 08:01 am (UTC)
At least once or twice a year, Undine & I would have a customer at our bookstore who would be looking at the arty, oversized books and then ask for a ruler.

We would cringe. We knew they didn't care about the content of the book, just whether or not it would fit in their bookcase/display area properly.


It was nice to get a sale, but it was like a bogus adoption: we just knew the child/book wasn't going to a kind, loving home.
Dec. 29th, 2006 03:40 pm (UTC)
Cretins! I have to chuckle that the NY Public Library board member got publicly outed for his decorative use of books. If the owner of The Strand spilled the beans, it wasn't a smart move if she wanted to sell them more books by the foot in the future.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )


romance, flower
Fleur de Dee

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