Bartender or Bookseller? A Tale of Whoa

bar made from booksA regular customer, whom I’ll call Phil, loved his grandchildren. When he checked out at the register, he would relate a story or two about their antics, or latest achievements to who listened, and when finished would take his bagful of Clive Cusslers and Vince Flynns and breeze out the door. A not atypical grandpa, full of pride and genuine excitement, sharing with the world.

Time moves forward, and one afternoon I see Phil get out of this car and walk across the parking lot to the store. It had been a while since I had seen him but I noticed something unusual. His gait seemed much slower, and it seemed to take him such a long time to get across the parking lot I found myself checking for traffic. When he got to the desk to check his books in, I was shocked to see his face; while still the rotund gentleman, his face was haggard and gaunt.

“Mother died,” Phil said, “and I lost my wife.”

In hushed tones, he went on to relate all the details on the sudden deaths of the two women who had been a part of him his entire life. He took off his glasses, wiped away tears, and stood there looking at me.

Fellow current and future bookstore owners, as a general rule, I don’t believe this happens at the Wal-Mart or the Barnes & Noble.

If you are going to succeed in this business, you have to like people. I don’t mean the nod your head, cluck your tongue, kind of like. I mean Like. Yes, the capital L version. In reality, we’re not in the book business. We’re in the people business.

I have more inside information than Edward Snowden. I know about boyfriends, girlfriends, dead cats, trips to mundane places, car wrecks, burned houses, romantic honeymoons, custody battles, broken promises, and implants (both dental and breast). While the stories may get a bit tedious and repetitious, I enjoy the connection with my customers. And I can keep a straight face, which sure helps at times.
In addition, when it comes to hiring, you need to make sure that your employees have a similar perspective on people. No shrinking violets, no loud brassy types, and definitely no one with a hint of “better than thou.” When you are not at the helm of your bookstore, these employees represent you and they have to maintain the same high level of connection.

In addition to a sympathetic ear, always have a plethora of personal anecdotes and snappy comebacks that are suited to your personality type ready for the varied questions you are going to get as payment for being the good bookstore host. Here’s a few I’ve gotten over the years.

Q: Are you and (insert sales associate name here) married?
A: If that were true, I’d be the luckiest man in the world. Since it’s not true, apparently SHE’s the luckiest woman in the world. (Except for the time a customer thought that my daughter was my wife.)

Q: Do you have an adult room?
A: Not since the raid.

Q: I’ll bet you’ve read most of the books in here.
A: Yes.

Q: You’ve lost a lot of weight. Do you have cancer?
A: No, I’m on a hunger strike until Led Zeppelin reunites.

It’s hard to be “on” all the time when you are working retail, so when you start getting tired of your customers a bit, (it will happen, trust me) do the best you can to take some time away, whether it be an afternoon or a weekend off. Recharge. People come to the bookstore for books and the company. If the company sucks, they can buy their books at Wal-Mart.

That’s why I won’t do more than two shows a day.

After a moment, I walked around the desk and gave Phil a squeeze around his shoulders. He sighed, nodded his head, and went and picked out some random books. These days he’s still not the man he used to be, but he still tells the occasional tale of grandchildren. Sometimes, that’s as good as it gets.

Now, for something a little less somber, check out this site with some hilarious bookstore stories.

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  • We’ve had used bookstores for almost 40 years and that’s one of the best parts of the business.

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  • Great post, and, again, so true! People have said that our shop is the only one they know where one gets introduced to other customers and has real conversations — it’s like a small-Southern-town version of a salon. People tell us about their travels, work, illnesses, children & grandchildren… and, yes, deaths in the family — and sometimes even books they have liked. I think only our hair stylists know more about what’s going on — but that makes sense, since you have to talk about SOMETHING in that chair!

    But what makes bookstores such conversation-y places? I’m not sure. But you’re right, a willingness to converse definitely has to be part of the job description.

    I do find it hard to keep a straight face when people come in and point out all the books they already have…. “Oh, that’s a good one. I have that! Oh! I have that one, too. And that one… and that one, too… This one’s good. My aunt gave it to me.” Um…OK? Good for you? [Do they go to Macy’s and tell the salesperson, “I have that skirt… oh and a sweater like that… and my grandma gave a purse like that one…” I don’t think so.]

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  • I have yet to read a Blog on this site that is not pertinent and accurate – this particular one is no exception. As a bookstore owner, I love being part of this unique “club” and sharing both the highs and the lows of a wonderful business with my peers! Thank You.

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