What Makes a 'Good' Bookseller

This question has been around for a long time, and naturally I have my firm opinions about what qualities and tasks booksellers should focus on. I’ve had a variety of bookselling experience-particularly in Lorry’s Book Company because of its unique stock–a blend of new titles, older but non collectible books, and some things at the bottoms of piles that probably no one saw for decades. I ordered the paperback stock, learned what *not* to return via stripping, and how to gauge the correct amount of stock needed. I made plenty of mistakes, including the famous Dianetics story but as time went on, began to get the hang of it.

Much later, when I started selling again at a small mystery bookstore, I had to relearn some of the tasks–particularly because this store-bought all of its stock from a jobber–the middleman–not a sales representative from the publisher. After that job, for the next I needed to learn many other skills; ordering hardcovers, invoices, special orders, how to shelve rarer titles; familiarize myself with the new ‘hypermodern’ market-new books as collectibles; find and keep important publishing contacts such as publicists, reps, editors; set up author drop in signings, and the occasional formal signing where the public attends; wait on rare book customers; deal with book collectors on the phone;  juggle communication with an interesting superior and more interesting co-workers;  dress the store window;  ship stacks of boxes of books to authors who would not be coming in to sign, so they could still put their name down; greet and facilitate the author who has to sign 10 or 300 copies–that meant carrying stacks of books open to the title page for signature, and whisking the books away again. And, yes, talking to, helping out, and recommending books to customers. Plus the daily minutia in any job.

The next bookstore I expanded into writing a newsletter for a signed book club–still did author signings etc, plus worked the floor, cash register, ordered books, unpacked and shelved books, helped customers, and worked to sell a very special collection of rare American crime fiction, all on a part-time basis. In between  Lorry’s and the mystery bookstores, I volunteered at a local store in exchange for books, some new, but mostly used titles in a nonbook loving location, so the store was slow and I got some reading done.

And all this stuff means. . . nothing, or everything, depending on how the owner, authors and customers perceive your work.

I wanted others points of view regarding what makes a good bookseller, so I asked friends who are authors and/or readers to comment. And here is what I’ve heard so far:

My favorite shops have always been the ones where I felt comfortable hanging out and browsing or talking books, where I could find out of print books I’ve missed by my old favorite authors as well as the new releases. My argument with the big box stores is that there are never any surprises.”  Elena Santangeloauthor of  Agatha Award Nominee for By Blood Possessed for Best First Mystery Novel – 1999, Agatha Award winner for Dame Agatha’s Shorts for Best Nonfiction of 2009, author of  the Pat Montella mystery series.

 

 ‘Im ignorant about kids books but love to buy them for the offspring of friends. I rely on book sellers’ recommendations. So — a good bookseller must know appropriate reading for multiple age groups.”  Suzanne Frisbee, customer and avid reader

 

“Someone who is well rounded, knowledgeable….must be able to suggest an action packed book for me to read one day and something that tugs at the heart the next…he/she must also be friendly and helpful, take you to the book you are looking for not just point to the area you should go towards to find it…not make you feel like you are bothering him/her but welcome you…” Eva Nagy, customer and avid reader

 

“A good bookseller listens when I describe what I want, and will come up with a great recommendation. Beyond that, a good bookseller brave enough to suggest something I may think I don’t want, would never in a thousand years considered, and end up loving.”  Barbara Jaye Wilson, author of the Agatha Award Nominated Brenda Midnight mysteries and avid reader

 

“Can I comment as a bookseller? Someone who will go out of the way to help you find what you need, who will remember what you like and suggest new authors to you, who tries to make every shopping trip fun, fast and friendly. Suzze  Myers Tiernan, seasoned bookseller, avid reader

 

I was quite impressed by these responses, and they came within minutes of my asking the question. I think that is quite telling. Customers obviously know what they want from their independent and chain store bookseller. And can articulate it. I was also struck by the general similarity within each response–friendly, knowledgable for all genres and ages.

So how well do current independent bookstores fare within these criteria? Only you independent owners and booksellers can gauge that. Given that customers want one on one help–what can that realistically consist of within a busy cramped store with boxes to be unpacked, books to be shelved, invoices to be written, titles to be ready for shipping, stacks to be prepared for author signings, etc., etc? My rule of thumb was to give rather intense attention to a customer’s needs for the first few minutes, digest their info, then suggest possible titles. I quickly lead them to said titles, and go back to unpacking, or whatever, always with an eye to helping them again if they require more. And many times they did. My suggestions didn’t work out, or they are looking for another type of book as well, and again, I spend the time necessary to get them in the direction they need, and then multi-task back to what some consider grunge work. More than one customer needing my attention? I do the same as above, but quicker and with zest! LOL. I’d try to get both customers interested in what I was discussing with the other, just in case the book I recommend for customer number 1, might intrigue customer number 2 and of course, vice versa. Sometimes that worked beautifully, and everyone is talking, interested, sharing thoughts on books. Sometimes a customer would rather not be social, and sensing that, I lay off the communal atmosphere. I’ve had days when a whole bunch of collectors came in almost the same time, and these were a joy to attend to, because there’s nothing book collectors like more than discussing collecting books. So while they are arguing the points on some volume, I’m quietly pulling out books laid aside or I know are perfect for each customer within the room. And in terms of new books, I know the book collector does not want a title without the important signature, so only a signed first edition in F/F condition is acceptable for them. And it’s my job to be certain what fine/fine is–no bumped corners, no creases, tiny tears, scuffs, marks, stains, etc–at all, period! This is non negotiable for collectors, and a good bookseller knows this, it’s a mantra singing in their heads. If I do my job right, each collector goes off with the newest signed titles that they will enjoy, and possibly, and this is of course iffy, have the books increase in value. Collectors know the risks and rewards, and the thrill of the purchase is almost as good as the book itself.

Readers are a completely different type of customer, and those I dealt with mostly at Lorrys, the first mystery bookstore, Foul Play, and the last, Murder Ink. In between my job was concentrating on the collectible and new hypermodern books.

Naturally, recommending the perfect book to a customer is my most favorite joy in regards to the entire profession. I almost revert to actress status when describing the plot and author of an old or new favorite read. I’m expansive, euphoric, and certainly enthusiastic. And sometimes too loud, lol. Too much stage training. The difference-everything I say is true from the heart, I believe what I am trying to sell you is worthy of your time, energy, and especially money. It occurs to me that my style could be similar to an evangelist! I KNOW that the novel I love will bring satisfaction and happiness to this customer in front of me, and I am conveying this in my best, ‘join me’ manner, ha ha. But unlike the religious, I will take no for an answer, there is no penatalization for not choosing my recommendation, and I’m happy to find another ‘religion’ for the customer that may fit better!

From the comments elicited, I believe the customer feels recommending the right books  is the most important job the bookseller has. That being the case, I believe that a ‘good’ bookseller knows his stock, his customer, and how to bring them together in the most harmonious way. 

The purest example of which I speak is described in a tribute to Enid Schantz, the owner and publisher of Rue Morgue Bookshop and press that I posted the other day:

“(The)special connection between reader and writer can happen by chance. By lark. By whatever. But more often than not, there’s a guiding hand involved. A recommendation from a friend. Maybe a phrase or a sentence in a review. That’s where you come in. Where your professional life with books, comes in. Why? How? More often than I can know, the guiding hand has been yours. It is hard for me to imagine that anyone in the world of mysteries has been responsible for creating that moment of acquaintance, that connection between reader and writer, more than you. Face to face, in the store, through countless reviews, through newsletter after newsletter, on line, on the phone, as editor, as publisher, as friend, as fan, and by proxy through the many, many people you’ve taught and inspired how to do what it is you do—the number of readers you have encouraged on a blind date with some author she’s never heard of is an unknowable number.

But you know, and I know, that without your introduction, that reader would never have met or had the chance to fall in love with that author or that title, or with that genre or that subgenre.
That reader, that smitten reader, then becomes your agent. Making the next introduction, to his friend, to her book group. To a spouse. To a child.
We all know booksellers who sell books. You and I have joked many times about the heavy lifting involved. But you were never a bookseller content to select inventory and stock shelves. That was never enough for you. You are a Bookseller, capital B, who was always determined to know books and to know the authors who write them. Who was always determined to know readers and the preferences that guide them. You are the bookseller who sees the bridge between here and there, and encourages the leap, introducing this particular book to that particular person.
One at a time. Over and over and over again.”  Stephen White, author of the New York Times bestselling Alan Gregory novels.

My thanks to those who responded to my question and allowed me to quote them.

 

 

 

 

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Comment (2)

    Nancy Ellis
    September 9, 2011 - 1:10 am

    Patience by the truckload was my first thought! And then I read your article and would have to underscore the one quoted answer that mentions kids’ books — “appropriate reading for multiple age groups” and say that is probably the most difficult, in my eyes, of all the attributes of a good book seller. Since I work in a library I don’t have the threat of a monetarily disappointed customer – whew – but I tremble anyway when a parent asks me for a recommendation!
    And once again, that tribute to Enid Schantz is very moving; thanks for adding it.

      Diane Plumley
      September 9, 2011 - 12:45 pm

      I agree, Nancy–parents asking for good titles would be difficult for me to respond to, given my long absence from general bookselling. But the way I got through these questions, was to listen to reps from publishers, read the reviews for young adult and children’s books, and listen to the customers as they purchase books. I tried to familiarize myself as best as possible. But within a huge independent bookstore, knowing stock for every genre can be very very tricky. But of course doable, by the ‘good’ bookseller, lol.

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