Robert Gray: Bookselling Is Harder than It Looks
They say it all the time. Right this minute, somewhere in the world, a
customer is waiting at the POS counter, chatting with a bookseller while
purchases are rung up, appropriate currency exchanged and selections
bagged (or not, depending upon local custom and environmental
awareness). They may be talking about one of the chosen titles or the
weather, favorite authors or town politics. But sooner or later the
customer will be compelled by some mysterious cosmic force to embark on
the requisite traditional litany.
"It must be so wonderful to be surrounded by books all day," he or she
will say. "You have the best job in the world. I've always wanted to
work in a bookstore."
If you are that bookseller, you will smile and nod... knowingly, yet
still guarding a secret of the ages that only those in the trade
Bookselling is harder than it looks.
Customers enter your bookstores because they want to. By contrast, they
enter grocery stores because they have to. Bookshops are both a refuge
and an adventure for them. Once inside, they move through a sensory
wonderland--row upon row of books; soft strains of music in the air,
mingled with the scent of coffee or baked goods.
All over the world, booksellers greet them courteously, ask how they
are. Perhaps no one has asked them that question all day, not even their
families. They say "fine" in the language of the land because, quite
suddenly, at this moment and in these special places, they are fine.
There are empty chairs in quiet corners. Maybe they will just sit and
read for a little while... in paradise.
Ten minutes later, they glance up from their reading to watch
booksellers shelve a few novels. It's a beautiful, universal and almost
ceremonial tableau. They think about the jobs they must return to when
this break is over, the bosses who are mad at them for no reason,
co-workers who are driving them crazy and the mountains of work piling
They can't help but consider an alternative: How pleasant it must be to
just work in a bookstore.
You know the truth. It is pleasant most of the time--you can't imagine
doing anything else--but it's also complicated. It's bookselling.
Labor Day weekend is an appropriate time to celebrate the work of
booksellers. Your totem animal is the duck, which appears to float
serenely on the water's surface while paddling like hell underneath.
That is also your job description.
Here's just a bit of what those customers nestled in their comfy reading
chairs planet-wide don't see because you are doing your jobs so well:
today's deliveries stacked up in shipping & receiving; cartloads of as
yet unshelved books; sections needing to be culled for returns; returns
waiting to be boxed and shipped; staff meetings; internal staff
rivalries; scheduling conflicts or sick days that result in
overstaffing/understaffing (whichever is the worst one that could happen
at this particular moment); ordering to be done; bills to be paid (or
strategically delayed); websites and blogs to be updated; author events
to be planned and executed....
Part of the magic and mystery of bookselling is never letting customers
see below the surface. Who wants to look at a duck's feet when they can
just watch the tranquil pond? The other part is that you wouldn't have
it any other way because, for the lucky ones, bookselling is a vocation
as much as a job. You could have done something else and certainly made
more money. You chose this profession. If you're one of the best, it
also chose you.
When you interview a prospective bookseller, you probably don't tell
them about the phone calls from lonely people who'll talk to them for 15
minutes and may or may not order anything. You probably don't mention
the occasional customer who takes a day's (or a lifetime's) worth of
frustration out on you at POS because your books are more expensive than
Amazon's. You probably don't ask them how heavy a box they can lift or
if they can fix plugged toilets or shovel snow. If they are meant to be
booksellers, they'll find all that out soon enough and it won't really
You're a bookseller. You work hard, so enjoy Labor Day and a well-earned
rest, though you're probably working this weekend.--Robert Gray (column archives available at Fresh Eyes Now http://www.shelf-awareness.com/ct/uz3642037Biz11655785)
I will admit to being one of those people who longs to be a bookseller, but, as I have no money to start a bookstore, it's just a long-held dream.
This is a great idea, from a wonderful blog called Mr Micawber Enters the Internets:
Sometimes the customer is really right. A few weeks ago, a patron of
Micawber's http://www.shelf-awareness.com/ct/uz3642037Biz11649970 bookstore, St. Paul, Minn., asked co-owner Hans Weyandt for a list of his top 100 books. He thought she
meant the shop's all-time bestselling titles, but she quickly said, "No,
I mean your personal favorites." From that catalyst, a great idea was
born. Weyandt has since contacted several other booksellers nationwide
with the aim of getting top 50 lists from at least 20 different people
Last night, he posted his own selections on Mr. Micawber Enters the
Internets blog http://www.shelf-awareness.com/ct/uz3642037Biz11649971 and plans to add a new
list each weekday. Thus far, he has received 20 lists (a total of 1,000
books) from booksellers in 17 states.
"All contributing stores will get copies to place in-store or use
on-line as they please," he noted. "Once I've posted all of the lists, I
will compile the most frequently mentioned titles. What I told everyone
was that I was looking for either a top 50 list or 50 favorite books to
handsell. Some booksellers chose to add their own restrictions, such as
fiction only, deceased authors only, etc."
Weyandt added, "All of this has been a great deal of fun and an
incredible way to touch base with some old friends and a way to open the
door on new ones."
To whet your biblio-appetite, these are some of the booksellers who have
agreed to contribute to the project:
Staff lists from Subterranean Books, St. Louis, Mo., and the Harvard
Bookstore, Cambridge, Mass.
Neil Strandberg from the Tattered Cover Bookstore, Denver, Colo.
Michael Boggs of Carmichael's Bookstore, Louisville, Ky.
Libby Cowles of Maria's Bookshop, Durango, Colo.
Liberty Hardy of RiverRun Bookstore, Portsmouth, N.H.
Jay Peterson of Magers and Quinn, Minneapolis, Minn.
Toby Cox of Three Lives & Co., New York City
Matt Lage of Iowa Book Co., Iowa City, Iowa
Emily Pullen of Skylight Books, Los Angeles, Calif.
Emma Straub of BookCourt, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Paul Yamazaki of City Lights, San Francisco, Calif.
Paul Ingram of Prairie Lights, Iowa City, Iowa
Stacie Michelle Williams of Boswell Book Company, Milwaukee, Wis.
Joseph DeSalvo of Faulkner House Books, New Orleans, La.
Weyandt noted that if "there is a bookseller out there that would like
to join this you can contact me and I will continue this project until
its very end. Being involved in this has been the highest honor
This is totally because of the luscious Alan Rickman!
In an upset, potions master Severus Snape was voted favorite character
from the Harry Potter series
the boy wizard himself--in a recent fan poll conducted by Bloomsbury.
The Guardian reported that Snape garnered 13,000 (20%) of the 70,000
votes cast, with Hermione Granger finishing second, followed by Sirius
Black, Harry and Ron Weasley.
I love this, that Ian Fleming wrote a letter to ease his fans fears about the death of a main character...Jim Butcher, take note!!
In 1957, Ian Fleming tried to quell the fear among his readers over the
apparent death of James Bond
at the end of From Russia with Love. Letters of Note featured one of the
"charming letters" the author wrote to thousands of worried
correspondents. It includes a "confidential" bulletin, signed by
neurologist Sir James Molony, that had been "recently placed on the
canteen notice board of the headquarters of the Secret Service near