When you’ve held for a lifetime the dream of your own little bookshop, it’s more than likely that the dream didn’t include the Sunday helper that you’ll eventually need if you want a day off to enjoy some time away from your shop (as unlikely as that need would appear to be in the dream-state). It eventually becomes a necessity. In our case, it came about because I had two small children, and a husband with a fulltime job who did not feel it was completely fair to expect him to work a full week and then spend the entire weekend bound by the children while I had the shop open. It can’t be just a juggle between work and children. There must be room for little indulgences – simple things like a coffee with a friend, catching a wave on a surfboard, getting some writing done, family days out or weekends away – otherwise we find ourselves grumpy and fed up with the weeks rolling by like the distant waves.
I was very happy with the first helper I employed. He was going through his last year of secondary school and loved books. Unfortunately he moved on to university three hours away, so he couldn’t continue after that year. He still pops in to say hello when he’s in town these days, and I always enjoy that. He reminds me of my best friend 20 years ago. And it’s interesting to watch him go through an almost identical book list as my friend and I did back then. Kerouac, Hunter S, Camus, Zola, Conrad. The joy of finding books that can change your life, or at least your way of thinking about something. The only downside to this young man working for me was that he would bring in his own CDs to play in the shop (which wouldn’t be music I’d want to hear in a bookshop if I were a customer), and he’d spend a lot of time playing computer games. I think I eventually removed the computer! Customers often give you a bit of a glare if they catch you on a computer – god forbid! – when you could be reading!
After him came a couple of less than perfect choices. I have my own dreams and visions for this place – many, many of them – and while I don’t have much time at the moment with the two little ones, I do eventually hope to be able to put at least some of these into place. And don’t get me wrong, I do like to hear about what people think could be improved. I have taken many suggestions on board, and made changes accordingly. What I don’t like, however, is people who think they’ve got the answers. That they could do it better. I always feel that these people should have their own shops, and not try to tell me how I should run mine. One of these helpers would have her best friend in the shop with her all day, sitting directly in front the desk, where the customers needed to stand to make a purchase. This meant that customers would feel less compelled to approach the desk, afraid to interrupt what was clearly a private chat. Another one wouldn’t do anything useful in the shop. In fact, she would find books I’d priced differently on different days and had in different areas of the shop (some books, if I have doubles, I will have one, say, in general fiction and one in adventure, etc.) and place them together in one of the sections, highlighting my inconsistencies to the general public! (Tell me I am not the only bookseller who might price a book differently on different days, depending on mood, how much I’d paid for them, etc. etc.) She would also comment to me on how much dust was gathering under the shelves, while a broom would lie idle behind her. There was a lot of negative feedback from many of my favourite customers at this time.
With each of these situations I found it incredibly difficult to say anything. As it was at a time when I was trying to figure out how the balls should be juggled (kids, shop, life) I was able to dismiss each of these part-time staffers with a change of hours.
The best person in the shop was a woman who didn’t mind pottering around and doing stuff. She was organised, and did amazing things like sort the children’s section (one section I constantly have trouble controlling!), sweep, polish and shelve! I was sorry when her time in the shop ended. She left to start her own business, which is one of the best shops I have ever been into – The Spice Nook, also in Port Fairy. The gorgeous smells that waft out of her shop and up the laneway seduce everyone!
And now I have an equally wonderful helper. She’s young, doing her year 11 this year, so I’m hoping she’s still around next year, and she’s also a keen reader and enthusiastic. She shelves and tidies and greets customers cheerfully, and there is always positive feedback about her. She has been the first helper I’ve given a key to and had her open the shop on the weekends we’ve been away, but whether that’s more about the fact that I’m ready to get away a bit more now and hand the responsibility over a little, or more about my faith in her, or a combination, it’s hard to say.
The fact remains that the person behind the desk can change the mood, the atmosphere, of the shop, and it is important to get that mood right. Some people don’t fit the vision, others can. It is trial and error, but it is something that can become very awkward very rapidly if the situation isn’t quickly corrected. I would love to hear how other secondhand booksellers have handled this delicate part of the business.