The Mysterious Workings of an Independent Bookshop

bookseller jobsI’ve been pondering and concentrating upon what I used to do all day as a bookseller. That aside, there was the slight difficulty of deciding which place of employment to remember–there were a few over the years, and each individual shop had its quirks and perks. Foul Play, a small well established mystery bookstore in the heart of the Village, NYC, popped up. I figured let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start, according to Julie Andrews and the Von Trapp family. So I am.

The Village is about a zillion miles and a 3/4 hours subway ride and 5 minute walk from where I lived, in Queens. Therefore I wasn’t what you’d call a regular customer. I went to an acting school on Bank St. very near the store, and saw a sign that they were hiring. I’d already had the Lorry’s Book Company extravaganza experience behind me and figured with my vast knowledge of vintage paperbacks (consisting of collecting Dell Mapbacks) and winning personality (remember, Actress!) I would slay the competition and undertake the position and  get it dead to rights.

I arrived at the appointed time and thought I’d confused my locations, the clamor and bulk of people standing around waiting seemed like a general casting call, not a place to be paid minimum wage hawking Christie and Sayers. A clearing and a path disclosed, that yes, this was Foul Play, and overhearing some chattering extras talk about a quiz, I felt I’d better inquire what was up, regarding applying for this job.

A woman who seemed likely to be in charge, since she said she was, to anyone within hearing distance, was standing with little booklets, the kind you’d get if taking an essay test in high school. As I approached she shoved one into my hand and told me to fill it out to the best of my ability. Not to be difficult, but I sort of wanted to know, what the hell was going on! I questioned her.  Turns out, too many people turned out for one job, and to wage prospective employes’  knowledge they had devised a Murder 101 crash course in mystery fiction–the crash part was no info, the student went straight to being tested. Well! I silently huffed. I’ve been reading mysteries since just a mite and hardly think I need to prove it via a blue book, but, whatever!

The usual suspects were easy targets, answer, answer, answer, and then, newer fiction questions came up. I can remember thinking, who the hell is a strong British female detective? The only ones I knew took tea and knitted, when did they take up guns and trench coats? Then the quiz slid into current male writers, titles, characters. One of the clever test parts made you draw a line from a list of authors to their characters name–the columns being across from one another, so you’d end up with strings back and forth over the page. And it got worse, way worse. As I plowed through the answer graveyard, a lightbulb went off (for those who grew up with Oprah, this is the expression used before she created the ‘aha’ moment) and I realized the mystery fiction I knew was probably 10 to 20 to 30 years behind the times. Why? I didn’t buy new books, I couldn’t afford to, an actress, ha ha, was on a stingy budget and every penny was needed for subway tokens and head shots. I picked up books from library sales mostly, or flea markets, or thrift shops, and had done so, even before the acting bug devoured me. Buying a new book was an extravegance  I only indulged in for large classic movies and movie star books, or biographies. Therefore P. D. James’ An Unsuitable Job for  A Woman was Sanskrit to me. Authors names danced the fandango as I stared at the page, didn’t matter how long I kept looking, I still couldn’t come up with who any of these people were, let alone what they named their characters.
Still, I held out hope until the woman in charge allowed me my minute interview and when catching where I lived on my resume sheet, interrogated me about commuting  ‘that terribly long distance’  as if I would be arriving daily via elephant across the Sahara to the bookshop door. Needless to say, I didn’t get the bookseller job.

Not then, not in the early 80s.

By the early 90s, I had read contemporary authors, knew characters, character’s character friends, authors’ type of mystery, and was ready to face down another test and come out ‘winning’ to quote a deranged current celebrity.

I first applied at the Upper East Side branch—Foul Play had two locations, and the east side would be about a 20 minute ride–to Bloomindales, and a hop skip and pole volt to the store. A rather meek and wandering manager was in charge puttering around muttering to herself. I eagerly awaited the booklet, and wasn’t disappointed, she had a test for me, although I was the only one apparently applying that day.

Not one question was about cutting edge authors this time. All classic crime fiction. And I answered every one correct, I was absolutely certain of that, except for Perry Mason, of all darn characters. For the life of me, my brain wouldn’t unstick and hand me over the most obvious answer asked! The easiest one, and I couldn’t retrieve it from my data banks.

To my surprise, she graded right then and there and said I did very well, and they’d be in touch. In touch? When, for crying out loud I shouted inside my cranium. What needs to be discussed?

What I didn’t realize –she didn’t do hiring, the owner did, and of course he was at the other store. I didn’t like this turn of events-I was concerned because anyone could be hired before I had a chance to meet him. So, I went down to the other store, was sent across the street to a card store, another property of the bookshop owner, and was given the same exact test as I just took. I explained this fact to the card manager, making sure he understood that I’d already knew the answers this time, even Erle Stanley Gardner, for Perry Mason. He blew it off.

I was sent immediately over to the bookstore and given an interview with Wendell, a small rather tense, but genial fellow, who took one look at my test score as perfect and decided it was between me and this other guy who also did well. I explained, again, that it wasn’t fair to go by this test, as I’d  blah blah blah uptown. He didn’t seem to be paying attention to my confession. The other guy up for the job turned out to get a part time one at the store, and I did land the manager’s position.

Now, what do I do? It had been a while since I was in charge of books and customers–I had helped out a local bookstore in my neighborhood in between Lorry’s and now, not exactly the same as being responsible for the workings of a store. I hadn’t been awake this early in the morning since around 1980–this early meaning 10:00 opening of the store. Like Lorry’s there was the big scary cash register, but lo and behold! I wasn’t expected to deal with it, at all! Oh joy, oh rapture! Turns out the front of the store carried general fiction, and the back, the crime. And David, a bookseller already established, dealt with that area and all monetary transactions. Naturally, it was a rather jam packed place, the walls were built in cases full of paperbacks. The only hardcovers were brand new titles, very few in small separate case. It was clear the patrons of this shop preferred the less expensive book, and weren’t desperate for the newest thing off the press.

My general working day started with me running into the store about 5 minutes before it opened, with a Diet Dr. Pepper for stimulation, a real must when a night person has to change sleeping patterns. As I recall, everything had been long established and sliding into the system was painless.

The last paperback of each title had an index card in it, with title, author, and I believe, amount of books ordered and the date, although, it’s been awhile and these particular aspects are murky. If for some reason a customer chose the paperback with the card, and we hadn’t sold out, I’d be able to check quickly on the shelf, making sure there really weren’t any there. The cards were taken from the book by David up front, and given to me later. If I checked overstock and found more copies, I’d replenish and insert the card in the back book. If the amount of books were small, and this title was selling well, I’d order more. If it was a reprint title, or staple, I’d probably let it be, so long as at least one copy was in the store. If none left–on the phone to order more, be it 2 copies or 25. This sounds complicated and confusing, doesn’t it? It frightened me, when first explained. I pictured index cards flipping out of my hand, flying around landing everywhere, all the info spread throughout the store; or misreading a card and ordering a bunch of titles no one had bought in 20 years; or missing the hottest title and a mob of customers shouting, holding signs protesting the lack of the book.. But, once doing it, it made perfect sense, since we didn’t order directly from the publishers–we got everything from jobbers.

Jobbers were, and maybe still are, the middlemen of the book trade. They ordered from publishers, and then sold to stores like us who needed things fast or didn’t have credit with the publishers. The books cost more this way, obviously, but if a store couldn’t keep up with payments and returns to major publishers they would be put on hold, and receive nothing. From a jobber, you paid right away, had to, to receive the books. And you could order very little, not an option with publishers. Also, it took a crazy amount of time to receive the book ordered from the representatives of the publishers. Everything had to go through paperwork, or stages, or hell and back again, I don’t know what exactly made the arrival of books so late. By the time a new bestseller was replenished from the pub, it was already being remaindered. Yes, an exaggeration. But a small one.

So parts of my day were spent checking titles from the cards for re-orders, calling Bookazine, talking to my pal Jim, the rep there, and deciding how many of each title I needed, which is always a bit of a crap shoot, but a fairly educated throwing of dice. Jim was a gem of a guy, he bent over backwards, sideways, upsidedown to get what you needed, and he was amazingly genial about it. He must have had to deal with a huge amount of different calls each day, with varying gradations of friendly buyers on the phone, and he never seemed to lose his cool.

Once this chore was out of the way in the morning, I would re-shelf, unpack, shelf new stuff, etc. The space being what it was, I had no place to sit; made the phone orders draped over a metal bookcase running down the middle; unpacked new deliveries in a corner that got the least traffic. The amount of deliveries was small. Since we had only paperbacks, the incoming new stock was obviously limited to new monthly releases and replacing of general back titles. Still, if a busy customer day, it was hard to manuver around boxes, while attempting to pull overstock down or find that elusive 15th installment of a John D. MacDonald. Helping the customer find the best match for their taste was something I worked into. Naturally, I wanted to give them the joy of my reading tastes, but, not everyone is me, thank goodness for them, and I had to learn to gage what they were looking for and fine tune my hunting skills to uncover the perfect next read. Sometimes, a snap. Other’s a nightmare. There will always be that one customer who will not be satisfied by any title, author, genre you choose, and you end up pulling enough books to fill the local library, just to watch them flounce out, sputtering on the lack of stock we have.

Essentially, these were my duties. Plus dealing with the part time booksellers, and determining new releases since no pub reps, and some other stuff I’m blanking on. Not nearly as convoluted as Lorry’s Book Company, nor as much responsibility at the stores I’d manage in the future. But a major learning experience and ridiculously fun time. Of course, there are many more tales to tell, but considering this article is running into a small sized novella, I believe it’s time to conclude for today.

Upcoming–Part 2–Characters in Bookselling, Both Customers and Co Workers

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  • I think this to be another fine posting Diane. A far cry from a bookseller/shop owner sitting in a big easy chair smoking a pipe, reading Dickens and getting perturbed at the pesky customers which is the way I would be running my shop if I had one. Of course I’d have to take up pipe smoking since I don’t use them now. Couldn’t do it without the pipe though…

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    • Thank you! Your feedback helps me a great deal. It’s good to know I’m on the right track. That way when I pen the next installment, I won’t be wondering if I should change style, etc.
      The pipe would be optional, I think, or forbidden, if smoking is outlawed in your community, tee hee.

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