Opinions on the Realities of Being a Bookseller

[Editor’s Note: Pamela mentions our recent shift away from bookselling specific stories, while this is true we are looking for a bookseller to join us and help us get back to our roots. Details here…]
Bookseller’s Reply to Comment from Another Bookseller
Recently I wrote a post narrated in the voice of a book in a bookstore. The book felt overlooked by the public and sad to be unable to jump into someone’s hands. I had fun writing a piece of melancholy whimsy that turned an unremunerative day into something like fun. The first comment to the published post (who knows if others will follow or not?) got me started on a train of thought too long for a simple reply, so I’m taking the chance that Bruce Hollingdrake will once again let me up on a soapbox in his forum here.
First the comment left by the reader who is, clearly, also a bookseller. (If there are two comments here, I don’t mean to slight the second reader, but it looked like only one comment to me.)


My desire as a bookseller is to give every book a good home where it will be appreciated and above all, read. I had the good fortune this past week to sell an autobiographical book and after communicating with the buyer that the book was on the way received an email that said, “Thank you very much. I’m very excited to receive
it. I was looking at my family tree and found out that Jackson Graves (the author)
was my great great grandfather. So I looking forward to reading his
work. I’ll look or it in the mail.”  – – –  I love it when that happens.

Pamela, while I appreciate your viewpoint on doing this piece, my view of the books business is one with a different kind of vibrancy – an excited stimulating atmosphere generated by the never ending efforts required by owners and staff to do everything they can to make a books store a special resource for the community. 
The work is its own reward – the years it takes of being exposed to the needs and wants of our community teaches us our choice of inventory requires constant honing. 
When customers buy one or more books and tell us “I saw so many more I would love to have!”, we feel we are on the right track.
Desperate books? We don’t have any! Our stores should be an expression of joy – and service.
What do I have to say in reply? So, so much!!!
First, I completely appreciate the comment and am in total agreement with it! I am immensely grateful to the wonderful customers who have made it possible for Dog Ears Books to reach its 19th anniversary this July and forge ahead into our 20th year of business! Many of those customers have become good, good friends over the years. This life has been very good to me, and I wouldn’t have missed the experience for anything in the world.
Excitement? Stimulation? Anyone visiting my shop or even reading my blog, Books in Northport, will see plenty of enthusiasm, excitement, stimulation, gratitude, and joy. Why would I keep doing what I do if this were not the case? Like the reader who left the comment, I too have had happy, grateful customers thrilled with books they found in my bookstore or ordered from me by mail (some sent as far as Reunion Island or Australia), and the satisfaction of these transactions goes way beyond business. Bookselling is a vocation, a calling, a way of life. I actually had an e-mail just this morning from someone who told me I am “doing God’s work.” I am not claiming that for myself, you understand, but it shows the kind of appreciation book-lovers bring to their booksellers.
When the Bookshop Blog was first launched, its mission was to give booksellers a forum to share experiences and wisdom, with advice on what had worked and what had not in terms of staying alive and making sales. Recently I’ve noticed a turn toward more general interest stories on books and bookstores, and while such stories are entertaining I feel strongly that there is still a need to reach out to other booksellers with “shop talk,” and for me part of that reaching-out must include honesty.
Here’s the truth as I honestly see it: Having a dream is easy; making a dream come true takes a lot of work; maintaining a dream year after year has costs as well as benefits, heartache along with joy. If you’ve been in business any length of time at all, you know this.
The general book-buying public does not need sob stories from booksellers, and as booksellers we need to express pride in our work and enthusiasm for our authors and our books–and that’s not commercial hype, either, because the pride and enthusiasm and joy and gratitude are real! But we do a disservice to would-be and beginning booksellers if we paint the picture in nothing but rosy colors, because the truth is that there are also dark moments, hours, even days. To gloss over that part of the picture as if it doesn’t exist is like telling expectant parents that they will feel nothing but joy 24 hours a day once their baby is born. That’s not true! Bookstore hours are long, bills come around with alarming regularity, and the whole future of the business is unknowable. Any bookseller who has never had a sleepless night is on drugs!
If you don’t like the baby analogy–or even if you do–how about riding a horse? That’s exciting! You thrill to the wind in your hair, the feeling of being one with your horse–and then one day the horse shies at a potato chip bag, and you fall off. What do you do? You already know: you get back on. That’s parenting. That’s riding. That’s bookselling. That’s life!

Pamela Grath
Dog Ears Books
106 Waukazoo Street
P.O. Box 272
Northport, MI  49670
(231) 386-7209
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  •  I never owned a store, but was in the battlefields waging war to keep the business alive. I completely understand your point of view, and where you are coming from. Sometimes the reality of business interferes with our attempts to make bookselling about the soul, not the pocketbook. It has to be about both, and no matter what lofty ideals we may hold, the rent still needs to be paid, and the publishers given a little towards the bulk of debt, to keep from being put on hold. It’s an amazing magic trick to keep things balanced, and I am so impressed by yourself and others like you that manage to continue balancing despite the tightrope becoming narrower.

  • Thanks, Diane. Just saw your comment today, as I’ve been swamped with author events and technical difficulties. Head is still above water, however, and the heat wave has abated, so my outlook today is sunny, and my old books are in a happier state of mind, too, if I read them correctly!

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