Hiring is that time of incredible potential; gazing into the unknown sea of resumes and plucking out the chosen few who might just take your bookstore to a whole new level, or alternately, have you pulling out your hair and wondering why on earth someone would alphabetize the whole store by title while you’re on vacation (yes, I have heard of this happening to an unfortunate colleague years ago).

To date, we have employed well over seventy people during the twenty years that we have been in business. Some of those staff members have been with us for the entire 20 years, others proudly edging up on their first decade, while others only lasted two weeks before it was painfully obvious that this was not the right place for them. So what have we learned about hiring over the decades?

Define your position. Reading the The E-Myth is a great help in developing systems in your business, and consequently to establishing the duties of an employee. Perhaps you’re looking for someone to come in for two hours at the end of the day to do closing chores, cleaning and tidying around the store and do window displays once a week. Or maybe you’re looking for someone to shelve books, organize sections and telephone people when their requests are in. Whatever your position, the more clearly it is defined, the more likely you are to experience success with your employees. Now that you have your job description worked out, it’s time to find your employee!

Advertising your position is everything! An ad in the classifieds is a reasonably priced way to reach hundreds of potential applicants. Well worded to encourage people who “love people, books, and organizing” to apply, this is the time to make your position shine. INSIST on a cover letter, and choose a reasonable deadline of at least two to three weeks. I run my ads at least twice, if not four times, and usually in more than one paper; this is an investment that will be returned to you tenfold with the right employee! I also put a sign or two up around the store, and post the position on our facebook page and website as well.

One of the best things I have ever done was develop an employment page on our website to allow people to apply whenever they like. I drive people to this section of our website in all of my employment ads, and have a link to our employment page sitting on our homepage. Feel free to steal whatever ideas you like from it. Even if you can’t create a form yourself, you could outline the positions, and how you’d like people to apply.

Once the deadline is reached I take all the resumes home, and start the lengthy process of going through them. Several cups of tea, piles all over the place, and a few stretching breaks or a dog walk later, I have my firm Nos, my maybes, and my yes-to-an-interview pile.

NO: If there is no cover letter, I generally only give a resume a cursory glance. Job hopping, people with terrible presentation (crinkled/stained pieces of paper, etc), and those that obviously have no driving desire to be working specifically at a bookstore MAYBE: Solid cover letter, reasonable job history, but nothing extraordinary, I only dip into these if I don’t have enough yes-to-an-interviews right away.

YES: Keeners! By keeners I mean those who have taken the time to find out my name, wax poetic about their love for books or who have done something unique (I had a sock monkey with a book and reading glasses attached to a resume recently, have had people write poems, even received a whacky and amazing resume tree with all of their qualifications outlined on individually made leaves) are obviously after the job. I love people with longevity at jobs as well, and veer towards those with great spelling, grammar, and a sense of humour is always a bonus!

I do another sweep of the resumes hours later, or the next day, when my mind is fresh and able to view them without the twentieth claim of being a “team player” floating around in front of my eyes. This allows me to hone down my yes-es if my pile is still too full.

I aim to interview a minimum of 10 people for any given position, and I never interview alone. You’ll find that at least half of these people will be a “no” from the moment you sit down with them, and the second person will always be helpful to bounce opinions off of after the interview is over. Once I have my 10 firm yes-to-an-interview pile, I set aside a day for interviews, and call my applicants to schedule appointments no less than half an hour apart. I tidy up our office, set up a computer for a typing test, chairs, and resumes in a neat stack, and have my cohort and I dress extra professionally.
I get my interview questions ready as well, which can be a lot of fun to put together.

It’s now the big day! Your applicants start to arrive. I immediately look for further keener behaviour here: Do they have another copy of their resume? Have they brought references and obviously taken time with their appearance? I had one lady bring in a collection of antique bookplates that she collects in her spare time to show me, another brought in a calendar of availability for the next three months, yet another had asked two of her teachers at high school to write me personal letters of recommendation (she worked here successfully for years, and now manages a bookstore in Vancouver.)

Interview questions can range from personality based to practical. “What super power would you like to have?” is a fun ice breaker, while asking them to “Name an author from each of these genres…. Scifi, Mystery, Western, Romance, Classic Literature” will enable you to get an idea of where they sit with their current book knowledge. We work to get a good understanding of an applicant on a personal level, as well as impressing on them that our store takes punctuality, attitude and job performance seriously. I end the question portion by turning the table, and asking if the applicants have any questions for us.

I then move to a practical part of the interview. This allows you to see how they follow instructions, work under pressure, and to see their natural aptitude towards working in your store. We usually do typing tests, and organization of a pre-messed up section (with three or four books thrown in that don’t belong there for bonus points if they catch them) and give them some specific instructions, “When you’re done, please tuck in your chair and turn the computer monitor off.”

Now is the time when your cohort and you choose your final two, or three candidates. Often you will find that you both have a natural inclination towards one, but I always recommend keeping another one or two in mind. Once you have narrowed it down to three or less candidates for the job, it’s time to schedule working interviews.

Working interviews allow you to see your potential employees in action. I pay them for their time, and ask them to come in for a minimum of two hours; this enables me to see them work, without a huge investment of time on either party’s behalf if the fit is not right. You can decide what you’d like them to work on, but keep it simple enough that they can be successful, and you can get a picture of who they are on the job. Now it’s time for the big decision – or to call some of your backups in for working interviews if the fit with your favourites feels off.

I am a stickler for etiquette. I always let those that I am interviewing know when I’m going to make a decision by, and I make those calls, no matter how uncomfortable it may feel to tell someone that they did not get the job. Perhaps I am strange in this way, but I also favour EVERY single applicant with a reply from our store. I send them a brief letter thanking them for their application, letting them know that the position has been filled, and wishing them luck in their future. They took the time to apply, may have had their hopes up, and if nothing else, you’ll leave them with the feeling of being respected for applying. I have loyal customers that have sprung out of those rejection letters who told me how much it meant to them to hear back from me; a good karma bonus!

I keep resumes on file of anyone who made an impression on me that I did not end up hiring. I let them know that I am keeping their resumes on file when I send them their “rejection letter”, or when I speak to them on the phone, so that I keep a door open with them.

Amber Short
The Book Man

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6 thoughts on “Hiring Staff for the Bookshop”

  1. Wow! Amazing. I don’t think I would have been hired to sweep the floor in your store, lol. I can’t type, at all! And I’d have been so nervous in the ‘working test’ I’d have probably put A authors in the Z section.
    Not that I don’t appreciate this wonderful post and fantastic info on how to hire.
    What’s mostly interesting to me, is how *many* applicants you get! When I applied for the manager of the top mystery store in New York City, it seemed as though I was the only person who applied. Probably not true, but I’m positive there was not a huge turnout.
    I enjoy hearing about the creative cover letters. In my day, ‘professionalism’ was pounded into us–and any kind of deviation from the white typed paper was forbidden.
    I am going to remember all of these tips if I ever try to work in a bookstore again. They are extremely helpful.

  2. I’ll echo Diane … wow! What a fantastic post, Amber. Excellent advice for employers, and also for potential bookstore employees, This post deserves to be highlighted in some way so that every single person who visits here can read it and take the advice onboard.

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