Bookselling is not for the weak.
There will be times when a client will pick up a book and you’ll want to pry it carefully from their hands, put it back on the shelf, pat their back and say yeah, you don’t really want to read that one, while kindly directing them to a less problematic book.
Once in a while a client will say something like “oh, I don’t read women,” and you’ll feel the urge to guarantee (lie) that an author is a man, be confronted months later by the client and play the game of, wow what a terrible bookseller I am, I was convinced they were a man, thanks for letting me know.
Other times people will come in and ask, “I’m looking for a blue book that I saw in a magazine three months ago but I do not know any other detail whatsoever about the book”, and you start considering murder again, but eventually you do find the book, and you realise the work is tough, but someone’s gotta do it, and that someone is you. Obviously.
As I said, not for the weak.
The job is romanticised, and hey, I’m not saying there isn’t a reason for that. It is clearly fun to be surrounded by books all day long, to hold in your hands all the volumes you want to – and often will – take home at a discount at the end of the day, and all the ARCs you get to read for free, but there are a few things I’ve learned doing this job that I wish I knew back when I started it. I would have tackled the profession in a different way earlier. Because it can be tough, and it can make you feel maybe liking books isn’t enough to be good at it (which isn’t exactly wrong), and at the end of the day it is, in fact, still a job, with its difficulties and challenges.
So here are a few tips for new booksellers, or for those who have been doing this for a while and feel something is missing to make the job more enjoyable.
Read What You Like
This is a very important point for me, because for a while this past year I was getting anxious, feeling lost, and regarding reading in ways I had never before.
I convinced myself I needed to prioritise reading for the bookstore above all else. You can guess what happened next: I found myself in a reading slump, worrying I wasn’t reading quickly enough to keep up with all the books we had in the shop.
Often, by the time I got to one particular book, the book would be removed from our assortment (I work at a very small indie bookstore, so we need to be strict about which books we keep on our shelves). It felt like a race against the clock, where I also tried to fit in all the books I wanted to read because I wanted to read them, whether or not they particularly helped my job (a truth: reading whatever books you want to read will ALWAYS help you in this line of work).
At the end of this year I took some time to figure out how I could stop the feeling of dread I felt, how not to feel like I was a failure at my job. And I understood I needed to start reading for pleasure, rather than reading just to be able to make the sale. So that’s what I started doing.
You are still able to help people, and suggest good books to people, when you haven’t read them; read the blurbs, a couple of pages, pay some attention to reviews, and you’ll get the gist of what a book is about and who might like it.
Of course, it is infinitely easier to talk and recommend a book you have read, than one you haven’t, but since it is pretty much impossible to read everything out there, prioritise what you enjoy reading. And don’t be afraid of recommending something you believe fits what the customer wants, even when you haven’t read it. It usually works.
In two years on the job, I’ve had people telling me they loved books I recommended, books I hadn’t read but was pretty convinced would be appreciated by that particular reader. And I was right. You need to remember: some people will not like a book you loved, so recommendations are always subjective.
Read what you want to read, go with your gut, and avoid the trouble of spoiling the joy of reading for yourself.
It’s A Job, Not A Hobby
Okay, maybe it is both. It certainly feels like that often, but you won’t always have a chance to talk to people about the books you love, and you won’t always end the day energised by the work. A lot of it isn’t even related to books the way most readers are used to, and it is still retail, with the customers and trouble retail entails.
Some days a client will tell you they know more about books than you do, and they’ll be right. But at the end of the day you’re still the one with the job, and the one not worried about whatever competition that client thinks you’re both in. And you’re improving daily – hopefully learning how not to be a jerk to other people in the process.
Sometimes it will be frustrating, and tiring, just like any other job.
You Better Like Emailing, Pricing, Shelving, And Alphabetising
Depending on what type of bookstore you work at, and what exactly your role is there, most of the working hours will be spent replying to emails, pricing books, shelving, and alphabetising them.
It can be a bit of a systematised work sometimes, so yes, you will do better in this job if you are a somewhat organised person and have patience for a job that can be repetitive.
I went to an interview at a bookstore where they were very explicit about the fact that it was also a heavy job. They didn’t have an elevator and most of the time it was required to carry full boxes of books to the first floor, without any time to read them on the job.
Personally, alphabetising is what I have most trouble with, because I still have to start over with my ABCs each time I need to put a book back on the shelves, but practice eventually makes perfect.
Google Is Your Best Friend
I mentioned above that people will come in asking for a blue book, and it will be frustrating trying to find the right book with so little. I mean, you really want to help the client, but on the other hand it’s like, really? That’s all you’re giving me? You don’t even deserve that I find it (but I’ll do my best because I totally get it).
Good news: Google is your best friend in these situations, so writing on Google everything the client has told you (hopefully they’ll give you more than just the colour of the cover), often does the trick.
In my shop we have a group app where we ask for help by providing whatever info the client brought and hope the group effort collects any seeds, and while that sometimes works, most often than not it’s the search engine who’s usually got our backs.
And trust me, there’s no other feeling like finding that book. It’s the closest to being Sherlock Holmes I’ve ever felt.
Remember…It Is Still A Business
Even an indie bookstore, which usually has the client’s needs in their best interests, needs to sell to be able to stay open and provide a service (and keep your job).
As a bookseller, you simply want to spend all day sipping tea, reading books, and showing up from nowhere to clients with a magic recommendation that will immediately become their favourite book, like a mystic mind-reading creature who deals with books. The truth is, sometimes you’ll have to put aside your own romantic ideals to keep the machine working.
Maybe that book isn’t the most amazing book ever, but the shop needs to sell it, so you can only hope the client will like it.
Sacrifices need to be made, and you’re a very important cog keeping that machine working. Blame it on the capitalist world we live in, and try to have fun during the process.
Of course, this is my own experience, and others will have different tips and views of this work. In 2020, for example, my fellow contributor Sheila Loesch wrote why they found working at a bookstore disappointing.
I definitely struggled with the job this year, with my own limitations, and with wanting to do everything for it, rather than understanding that, outside the job, I am also an individual who wants to continue to enjoy their favourite hobby. And it is necessary to find a balance.
Clients won’t always leave the store happy with a book you chose for them – or with a book at all – and you may feel like a failure, but don’t let those experiences taint all the things you do for your work space, the passion you bring to the job, and those clients who will definitely leave the store 100% satisfied with your recs.
I hope these tips will help you keep the job as fun as it is supposed to be. If anything else fails, remember: what other job allows you to buy books at a discount? You’re literally working for your hobby. And I bet you are doing a hell of a job!
For any reader reading this article to know what a bookseller goes through: please, try to remember more than just “the book is blue”. Very appreciated.
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