How much book knowledge should booksellers possess?

Ignorant in your own shop…
Shane Gottwals
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?
portrait of charles dickensWe 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…


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  • I chuckled while reading your solution for those rare and infrequent occasions you don’t immediately recognize an author or book when asked by a customer. I, too, consult the computer. Search engines are my friends. I find most customers are happy to have the information and don’t really care much whether the answer is mine or Google’s.

  • I can relate to the part about ging blank. The answer being on the tip of my tongue an nowhere near my brain. Seems I go blank continually when peoples names are involved. My stock reply when this happens is, “Wait! I’ll remember. Give me your phone number and I’ll call you at 3 in the morning when I wake up with the answer.” (This is said in my best Columbo imitation)

    I agree that a bookseller, especially a B&M seller and staff should have a working knowledge of the classics and some of the more popular current best sellers but as you said an employee with a “tenacious work ethic” is even more important.

    As Bob Teague said in the comments on Jo Canham’s posting
    – “My only advise to recruiting the right person is to avoid those with biz / admin degree’s – they don’t seem to want to do any real work,like moving boxes about.” –

  • I had a lot of panicky, sickening moments like that during my first summer as a bookseller. It doesn’t matter how many books you have read, either, because there will always be customers with interest and/or expertise in other fields or other kinds of books, and–this is what I finally realized, though once you think of it, it’s pretty obvious–NO ONE HAS READ EVERYTHING! When a customer shamed me (he wasn’t kidding, either) for not yet having read a certain work of European literature, I could think silently to myself that he probably has not read all three of Kant’s CRITIQUES.

    Answer on the tip of your tongue? Don’t beat yourself up. Own your forgetfulness with a laugh, and any decent human being will admit to having similar moments.

    Besides the Internet, there are handy book resources on books (surprise!), and one that I’ve consulted year after year is the ENCYCLOPEDIA OF LITERATURE. So glad I didn’t sell the first used copy that came across the counter! What would I have done without it?

    We will keep learning as long as we’re reading. Isn’t that encouraging?

    • I am in process of becoming a seller. I want to know what did you do to start selling your first book and how did you keep it going. I have been buying new books and collecting old books that a well kept.

  • I worked in a bookstore for 5 years and when I entered I had good fiction and classic lit knowledge, helps it was my major in college. I became a mgr and when I hired people I hired those that were passionate about books and reading, because in the end, a lot of what they will need to know they will learn given the right tools and support. Hell, to this day I blank on authors every now and then, just a lot going on in your head, it happens to everyone. (and I’ve been working with books for about 15 years now, imagine my brain freezes.)

    I do agree, no biz or admin degrees, they do have a tendency to over analyze it and they are not fans of unpacking boxes, hauling the trash out or really getting into a genre or author and having knowledge about it, to them it is a stepping stone for something else.

  • […] as business owner.  When you hire an employee, it means that you take a step back and a step up to bookstore manager.  You are doing less of what you love – that of dealing with books – and more of your time is […]

  • A lot of the time, I find in my bookselling that the author sells the book. The big names sell the most books. Without name recognition, a book does not move.

    While I agree that knowledge of the classics are important, I often sell non-fiction books as well, and so it is a different type of knowledge which is necessary to effectively sell those books — such as knowledge of the subjects the books are about. How can you sell computer books, for example, if you don’t know what all the acrynomyns used mean? That goes for all the other hobbies and disciplines as well.

    On a final note, I run my own online bookstore and I do have a business degree. I have done my share of hauling books around, but true, I don’t like hard work that much!

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