Finding Good Bookstore Staff: Be Picky

Bookstore StaffIn 1997, I acquired my used bookstore. It had a decent revenue stream, and looked like a good turnkey investment. There were two good employees, a steady flow of customers, and I had bigger fish to fry: the ultimate CD store. I would check in on the bookstore on occasion, doing the accounting and deposits.

On occasional, I would look around at the stock, on occasion acting like a martinet (“Man, there seems to be way too many Executioners and the like. Do people really read this stuff? How many Harlequin Romances can we cram in here?“). I would then snap my riding crop, and go back to my other business where I was actually much more familiar with what the customers demanded.

As time progressed, and I spent a little more time in the store, I took the time to speak to a few customers about our book selection, and on a whim I even asked several to give me a few thoughts on our two-woman staff. To my surprise, I received a number of unflattering comments:

“I don’t like Tanya,” one said. “I think she plays favorites.”

“You never know about Elizabeth,” another said. “Sometimes she talks to you like your bothering her too much.”

“They seem nice, but they don’t seem to know much about anything other than romances.”

And, upon further review, my employees didn’t think much of each other. Both thought the other was lazy and a slacker, and they were carrying the load.

Oh, and it turns out one of them liked to entertain the others by dropping her pants and lighting her own farts. Yes, pyroflatulence, a job skill she had sadly neglected to put on her application under “carnival talents.”

Then one of them treated me like one of the customers she so detested, so I gave her a pink slip, and the others dodged the ax by slipping away quickly into the night.

I couldn’t fire the last idiot. He just needed to be retrained. Obviously, I mean me. You want to make money in the book business? Run it yourself.

Eventually though, you will need some time off. Maybe a vacation. A hernia repair. Your daughter’s class play. Lunch at a restaurant, because it gets awfully annoying eating lunch standing behind a counter every day.

Who did I hire as my first employee in John’s bookstore , version 2? My store is a general bookstore, so I was looking for someone who had a broad knowledge of books, would show up in a timely manner, and could handle good, as well as unruly customers. In a nutshell, a 5th grade English teacher. My eldest daughter’s former teacher, in fact. She had been a regular store customer, and was looking for part-time work after retirement to give her structure and a little bit of retirement income supplement. I stalked her for three years until she acquiesced. She stayed with me for ten years, re-retired, and became a regular customer again.

These days the store has grown a bit, and our staff size has grown to around 5-8 part-timers. Here’s a few things I recommend you do when planning for a bigger staff:

  • I don’t bother accepting applications when I don’t have a job opening, running ads in the newspaper, or going through the local employment agencies. Most of those applicants are looking for any job, and in my experience, will have no good answer for one of my standard opening questions “How many books did you read last year?”
  • I like hiring customers. They are familiar with your layout, have a general idea about books, and you’ve had plenty of time to look them over.
  • Watch applicants walk from their car to the door. If they move like molasses in winter-time, most likely they’ll do the same when you want them to shelve a few books.
  • Hire happy people. They don’t have to chuckle to themselves, or have a personality that indicates a need for some form of sedation. A good personality fills the store with positive energy.
  • I still like to have a few teachers, whether it be high school, preschool, or elementary. For one, they know lots of people, and usually have tons of Facebook friends. I’m in the people business, so the more the merrier.
  • In my application packet I always include a quiz. Yep, I have 15 fill-in-the-blank questions that range from “He wrote the popular mystery fiction series feature Spencer” to “How many Harry Potter books are there?” Feel free to throw in a good science fiction toughie: “His ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ was the basis for the film ‘Blade Runner’.” All my current employees laugh now when a new applicant fills out the quiz, but little do they know that it’s not really the answers I’m looking for, but it’s how they approach the quiz. If they blow it off, they’re out. If they make a bunch of excuses on why they’ve never heard of Nicholas Sparks, they can go work at the local B&N (a rant on them some other time). If they take it in stride, do their best, and keep a good face on, most likely they will make the cut.

Regardless of who you hire, each employee should be familiar with specific genre of books, whether it be YA, cozy mysteries or classics. One caveat though: your main employee has to have a good working knowledge of romance books. One sales associate who is very familiar with romance is worth their weight in gold. We can sell 20 Debbie Macombers in a day, but are lucky to sell a Huck Finn once a week.

With these general guidelines, you may not get the perfect employee each time, but it sure weeds out a lot of the imperfect ones. Remember, in your absence, your staff represents you.

Be picky.

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  • Excellent. I have been in the business for 6 years, in a small Canadian town, and you are spot on! Thank You.

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