When do I hire staff for my bookshop?

To Hire or Not to Hire That is the Question!

By Louis Gereaux, MBA

Many of us who have entered the independent bookstore business wanted a low overhead business, and the opportunity to work on our own – in our own way.  Hiring part-time staff can compromise that dream.  After all, there are some downsides to hiring employees.  Your time is no longer your own… you lose some freedom when you hire someone else, and you add responsibility to your job 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 spent setting up meaningful work for an employee.

At this time, my book business is very small and entirely online, but I have had times when I needed help from others, so I know the difference between freedom and obligation.  As a business grows, (and you will want it to grow), you might encounter being swamped with work.  What at first seemed fun – you controlling and working in every aspect of the business, becomes burdensome.  Worse than that is when you end up losing some passion for what you do.  In the end, you may also miss the camaraderie of teamwork if you were previously in the job world.

It has been discovered that one of the main reasons that customers are turned away from a business is an attitude of indifference.11 You as business owner should not blame yourself.  Too much work for you to do can get you down.  You might need that extra help, but how to go about making a smooth transition from working alone to hiring part time employees?

Your browser may not support display of this image. One of the first things you’ll need to do is to create a job posting, along with a job description.  Keep in mind that you want to create a position which is fulfilling and eliminates the attitude of indifference.  A job description, after all, is not simply a listing of job duties.  People work in the book business because they are passionate about books.  There is another side to duties at work, and it is a big word called responsibility.  It is very tempting in the casual work world of independent bookselling to give your future employees drudgery and gopher type tasks devoid of responsibility.  That is a big mistake because it leads to indifference.

There are a number of places to post your job applicant wanted listings. On the other hand, the small independent bookstore is very likely to hire from their local community, and the employees you bring on board could be some of your best customers, or possibly family members or close friends.  For a job application, you can probably get away with a general application form that you find for free online or photocopied from a business book.  Another idea is to take an existing application that you find somewhere and modify it to your purposes.  Some of you will be sophisticated enough to turn that form into digital format on your website.

Your browser may not support display of this image.As far as legal issues are concerned, you will definitely be confronting the Civil Rights Legislation, and the Americans with Disabilities Act.  You may also encounter a need for medical exams or drug testing which you should inexpensively outsource somehow.  My personal opinion is that most of the requirements for a bookstore are fairly lightweight, and rather than your typical bookworm bookstore employee, why not hire a person who is disabled?  Reading is a great hobby for a disabled person, and they have the potential to be very well read.  The deaf, the blind, and those confined to wheel chairs may surprise you in what they know.  You may carry large print books, but do you carry books in Braille?  How about audio books – or are sound books not part of your business plan?  Whoever you hire, use the chance as an opportunity to expand your circle of colleagues and your horizons. College kids and retirees can also use the extra dough and are quite knowledgeable.

An appropriate way to end this article is to consider some interview questions you might ask your candidates.  Yet, I am sure you will think of some good questions on your own.  Make sure to keep your interview questions job related because candidates may have a tendency to talk about their personal lives too much.  The topics you should cover in an interview include:  past work experience, job requirements, fitting in, working with others and don’t forget about your customers, resilience, passion for the industry, what the candidate can do for you, and how professional they present themselves.

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  • Hiring is one of my least favorite things about my job. I’ve had my store for 14 years now – hired my first employee after five years and she is still with me. But in the meantime I hired and fired 7 other people. Here’s what I learned about hiring in the book business:

    1. I refuse to hire anyone under 35 years old.
    2. I refuse to hire anyone who cannot have a decent discussion with me about authors they love, books they’ve read etc…
    3. I refuse to hire anyone who can’t hand sell a book whether they’ve read it or not.
    4. I refuse to hire anyone who tells me they just want part-time, won’t work weekends, don’t really like nights…
    5. I refuse to hire a smoker.
    6. I refuse to hire anyone who tells me they’ve always wanted to work in a bookstore because they love to read – (we don’t do a lot of sitting around reading here!)
    7. I refuse to hire anyone who isn’t competent on the computer.
    8. I refuse to hire anyone who doesn’t ask any questions during an interview.
    9. I refuse to hire anyone who has never been in my store.
    10. I refuse to hire anyone that shows up covered with tattoos, pierced all over, dyed unusual colors or wearing outrageous make-up or clothing.

    There are probably other ‘I refuses’ – these are just the ones that jump to mind that I have actual experience with.

    What I do know is that when you find someone who will do as you ask, has a great work ethic etc… they are absolutly worth paying a living wage, giving vacation time & bonuses – treat them well – they deserve it!

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    • This hiring article was written from my perspective which is not quite managerial yet — I’ve never managed other workers officially yet. I am in my mid-thirties. While much of what you say, Judy, regards the pain of finding good help, I have to wonder about the Ageist comment.

      A lot of younger people — under age 35 — these days do suffer from a LACK of good reading habits — including many friends of mine — but there are those my age and younger who are avid readers and don’t forget that most college educated people are avid readers — many, many people in my generation have attended college. I also know older people who only watch television most of the time and haven’t picked up a book in decades.

      You say that you and your staff don’t read the books, but as I was a former salesperson of hardware tools which I had little experience in, I had a hard time selling a tool if I had never used it before. At least some reading should be part of a bookstore’s staff training. Maybe reading can be done on the staff’s own time, but they should be passionate booklovers — would you agree? You might try having a book discussion group once in a while — possibly meeting outside of working hours.

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      • I do agree that when hand selling books, a bookseller who has read the book is more likely to be successful at making the sale than one who has not. Also, shelf-talkers are best written by those who’ve read the book.

        I would welcome some shared thoughts on a quandary I face: I recently opened a small bookstore and have one part-time staff who is an avid reader. Since I wanted my assistant to be able to hand sell books well, I have allowed her to read books in the store when she has free time. My quandary is this – am I ethically/ legally right in permitting this, since the books read by the assistant are put back on shelf and sold at new-book prices?

        What is accepted practice re “Staff Recommendations”, “Shelf-talkers” and hand-selling – can the booksellers be allowed to read new books which are then sold to customers?

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        • I am in the same situation with opening a new used bookstore. I am the only employee, so I have chosen not to hire, but my mother helps me out occasionally, if I have to be off one day.

          As to reading the books, I wish there was more book sales information available — such as key pointers about features of the book, or promotional posters to display in my store.

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    • I clearly wouldn’t get hired at your shop as I’m thirty. I bought my own bookstore at age 23.

      When I bought the store, I left a job as the manager at a theatre and had been one of the longest running managers. (the owner was a manic depressive obsessive compulsive with attention deficit disorder. you can see why he ate managers) I was replaced by someone with bright green hair who stayed as the manager until the place was sold about five years later.

      Automatic disqualifications like that means you may miss out on very solid staff.

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  • Wonderful posting Louis and Judy has some good points with her ‘refuse to hire’ list.

    I would add to that list, “I refuse to hire somebody that does not know how to safely lift a box of books from the floor. (Always bend at your knees not your waist).”

    Better yet I WOULD hire somebody that refuses to set a box of books directly on the floor but instead uses a small four wheel cart or a small pallet so they do not have to lift it directly from the floor.

    Also I would hire someone that would make 3 trips with a few books each trip as opposed to one trip with too many.

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  • I found your article helpful, but again I think you are missing out on some possibly great employees with your list of disqualifications. I am over 35, but I have tattoos and have on occasion had blue, pink or purple hair. I’m in the process of starting my own bookshop.
    I have worked a variety of different jobs in the past and consider myself a very decent employee, while I’ve worked with people who looked quite ordinary and were caught steeling from the company or were just lazy employees.
    Tattoos and wild hair have become much more commonplace these days, not being limited to drug users and rock stars. I have had more than one management position where I was involved in hiring and firing and I believe it comes down to a ‘gut’ feeling, that and a little luck.

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