I’m going to paraphrase Spider Robinson. A long time ago I read something he wrote. I forget where it was written and I forgot when it was written, but it was about the idea that retail staff are seen as interchangeable cogs. It went something like “the man selling computers doesn’t know about computers and the man selling books doesn’t know books.” They were both selling other things last week, and next week they’ll be selling something else. They didn’t know their product. This idea has stuck with me. It is the justification that I feel partially drives my desire to own and operate my own bookstore. It’s why I feel that the local bookstore thrives and will continue to thrive despite market pressures exerted by the eBook, chain stores like Indigo or Barnes and Noble, and online bookstores like Amazon. This is the personal feel that can come only from local bookstores. It’s nice to walk into a store and have the person working there recognize you and say “Hey Matt, there’s a new book in by Terry Pratchett. I have a copy right over here, take a look.” Or “You liked The Linguist and the Emperor, right? Try this book.” This is rare, and goes far above and beyond what is needed, but any store that does that is guaranteed my business for life (or as long as I live within biking distance, at any rate.)
While I was studying Library Science in school I was introduced to a topic that really grabbed my attention (other than digital preservation): Reader’s Advisory. There is an entire area of any masters level library science program, and of library science in general, that is dedicated to the idea of figuring out what is good for a library patron to read. There are books written on this, reams of journal articles, there are entire databases dedicated to it. (If your local public library has purchased access to NoveList, do yourself a favour and take a look at it. Ask a reference librarian for assistance if need be. It’ll make his or her day.) I’m not suggesting that all bookstore staff need to have an encyclopedic knowledge of all books, all genres, and the reading tastes of all customers, but being aware of publishing trends, popular books in a variety of genres and for different age groups, and feeling comfortable recommending titles (and being aware of your stores inventory and the locations within the store) can go a long way to gaining the goodwill of customers.
Although local bookstores might not be able to sell books as cheaply as a bigger store that buys in larger orders and therefore gets deeper discounts from the publisher and wholesaler, they bring a level of service that is not available. Quite frequently I have gone into large bookstores and either not been able to find a staff person, or have found a staff person who knows little, if anything, about the product on the shelves. To be a good bookstore you have to know books, and not just the books you like, you have to know about lots of books in lots of different genres. You don’t have to read them but you do have to care about them.
There are lots of resources for bookstore staff to teach themselves about what books are hot and what they might expect people to be asking about. Look at movies that are coming out. After the movie version of Eat, Pray, Love was announced there was a sudden resurgence in people reading it (see also: reprinted editions using movie posters as the cover). As well, check bestseller lists. When I have worked Reader’s Advisory positions in libraries I always made sure to stay on top of the New York Times bestseller lists, both fiction and non-fiction, as well Quill & Quire’s monthly lists of Canadian bestsellers, hardcover fiction and non-fiction bestsellers, kids bestsellers and general bestsellers. Even some local bookstores, such as Bakka-Phoenix in Toronto will publish bestseller lists on their websites. There are plenty of resources available to learn what books people are currently reading, and don’t be embarrassed to suggest personal favourite books if someone is looking for something new to read.
Most importantly: know your inventory! There is nothing more frustrating than having a book suggested and then finding that it’s sold out. I know in past retail environments I’ve worked that it’s also embarrassing as a salesperson to suggest something, talk it up, and when the customer is ready to buy have to say “ooops…I coulda sworn we had one. Want me to order it?” More often than not the customer will answer with an emphatic No!