4 Lessons From Two Months of Selling Books

Do you want to see a grown man whimper in terror? Place him in a new bookstore with zero experience selling books, and sic a 7-year-old girl on him to ask him what he’d recommend if she really liked Dory Fantasmagory. And then ask him to gift wrap it.

But you soon learn. (The answer, I think, in this case, is Space Taxi, but I’m open to other suggestions. Gift-wrapping aptitude, however, is still very much a work in progress.)

RoscoeBooks, Chicago, indie bookstoreA few months ago, I was ecstatic to learn about a new indie bookstore opening in my neighborhood in Chicago. On a whim, I messaged the new owner to congratulate her, and to see if she would be hiring booksellers. I’ve always wanted to work in a bookstore — during college and the lean financial years thereafter, I must’ve applied to work at Barnes & Noble more frequently than James Patterson publishes novels. But it just never worked out. So I was even more ecstatic when the owner messaged back, we met for coffee, and a few weeks later, I was standing behind the counter in a brand new indie bookstore, talking to people about books they should buy. It was, and continues to be, amazing!

And but so, the store’s been open for about two months, and while I’m only there 15 hours a week, I’ve learned some amazing lessons about people. And books. And why and how people read books. Let’s take a look:

4. The Death of the Indie Bookstore HAS Been Greatly Exaggerated — My favorite reaction when I tell people I’m working at a new indie bookstore: “Wow, someone opened a bookstore in this day and age? That’s pretty brave. Or crazy. Or crazy brave.” Yes, it is brave. But evidence suggests indie bookstores are making a rather emphatic comeback, partly because people like to shop local. Look, I know it’s a privilege to be able to spend a few more dollars on a book than you would if you bought it online. But I am truly was amazed by how frequently people tell us that a) They’re super excited to have a bookstore in their neighborhood, and b) They’d rather buy local than online. (One guy commented on our Facebook page that he stopped into the store and bought a book, not because he wanted a book, but because he wanted a bookstore. How good is that?!) During the holidays, we had dozens and dozens and dozens of people special order books — books that would take a week or more to arrive, and then they’d have to come back to the store to pick them up. They did this because, “I’d rather buy it from you.” Man, is that heartening.

3. Work In a Bookstore Doesn’t Feel Like Work — I was mopping the salt-crusted floor at closing the other night, and a weird thought occurred to me. It was this: “Man, I’m pretty happy to be mopping this floor right now.” This may change at some point as the “honeymoon phase” wears off. But I can tell you this, I’m glad I didn’t follow the stupidest piece of advice I’ve ever been given: Don’t work in a field that overlaps your hobby because your hobby will start to feel like work. Insane. (And I realize “hobby” is an inadequate way to describe reading. But you got the idea right?)

2. People Are Endlessly Fascinating — This may sound creepy, but I’m totally fascinated watching people browse. I’ve been caught a few times, and it’s a little uncomfortable, but you gotta break a few eggs… People will pick up the same book and put it back four or five times, before buying the one right next to it. People will endlessly circle a display, as if it’s going to be different the fifth time around. People have great stories — last week I met Dave Eggers’s fraternity brother. He had just had dinner with Dave, and he bought a copy of The Circle because he felt bad he hadn’t read it yet. And finally, and this is important: People are actually smarter than you think. Every bookseller has incredibly funny stories about odd requests or stupid questions they’ve been asked, but these have honestly been few and far between. My best one so far (and it’s pretty tame): “My mom saw a news report this morning on a book about how to use cell phones. Do you have that book?”

1. Oh Yeah, THE BOOKS! — You’re going to think this is crazy, but I just read Goodnight Moon for the first time a few weeks ago — it was part of a flurry of reading children’s books, which also included The Day the Crayons Quit and The Book With No Pictures, and which started purely as research, but wound up being incredibly fun. But here’s the rub: First as a book blogger, then as a Book Riot contributor, and now as a bookseller, it still never ceases to amaze me how many good books can fall through the cracks. You think you know some things? You think you’re well read? Trying selling books for a few months! You have no idea what you don’t know. And this has been my favorite thing about selling books — learning and discovering new books that would’ve never blipped my radar before. So the lesson here isn’t just to read kids books. The lesson (if you’ll excuse a minute of choir-preaching) is to read widely, diversely, and far outside your comfort zone. Throw a dart once in awhile and read the book it lands on. There are so many good books out there you’ve never heard of or dismissed for stupid reasons. Take a chance. It may not work every time, but I bet it works more often than not.

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