Ignorant in your own shop…
Ever feel like you just don’t belong in the book business? Ever think that you don’t know half of what you should in order to be a proper bookseller?
We have recently hired two new members for our staff, and one of them ran into a particularly dicey question the other day: “Who wrote Oliver Twist?” Obviously, this question is not that difficult. Yet, in the moment, she went blank. I had to inform her that it was Charles Dickens.
For someone who claimed great knowledge of the book world, this was pretty embarrassing. In my years of bookselling, I have run across this many times. Someone asks you for a book, you don’t have any idea what they are talking about, yet you know that you should know what they’re talking about. It’s a sickening feeling… aren’t we supposed to know?
The answer is, “Yes, we’re supposed to know!”
Even if I am not sure, I appear knowledgeable to 95% of the people who come into the store. I do this by having a deep background with the classics, paying close attention to anything fiction, and asking questions all the time.
The troubling part, though, is when the customer is staring you in the face, demanding an answer with those cold, stern eyes. My solution? I simply go to a website and start typing and searching away! Before they know what I’ve done, I already know what the author writes, what the genre is, and can figure out where it should be in my store. I learn something while teaching my customers that I know it all.
No one wants to not get answers. As booksellers, we don’t want to not give answers. There are ways around our ignorance. Until you know it all, use the tools that are at your fingertips. Try your best… always… to not show your shortcomings.
If, however, you are constantly using aides to answer your customers’ questions, you have work to do. There are plenty of websites and books that will show you lists of classics, popular fiction, and the like. You can take those titles, read synopses, and get a better understanding of the materials you are selling. I’m assuming that none of the bookstore owners out there have much trouble talking about books (otherwise, why would you have gotten into the business?), but there will always be that staff person who brings meager knowledge to the table.
Right now, I have one new staffer who is limited in book knowledge. I hired her because of her tenacious work ethic. (I’d rather have a hard-working person who doesn’t know much than a bookworm who doesn’t do much.) She will be taking full advantage of websites while she is manning the store alone. This is fine… I know that she will learn soon enough. I’ve only been doing full-time bookselling for a few months, and it’s amazing how much I’ve added to my already extensive mental library.
Bookselling is a process. Learning about the books is also a process. Once people quit writing, we might have a reason to quit exploring authors and their works. However, that could also hurt business, I suppose…
More on Philip K. Dick