I’ve recently fulfilled my years-long dream of becoming a bookseller – I now work at East City Bookshop in Washington D.C., a lovely woman-owned bookshop on Capitol Hill, which is a picturesque neighbourhood of engaged, passionate readers and thinkers. So far, I love it – my colleagues are great, the customers are friendly, and I feel like Rory Gilmore every time I walk into work.
There’s a lot more to bookselling than I ever knew, though. I’ve used skills I never knew I had, stretched some that don’t come so naturally to me, and watched my colleagues deploy others while I can only watch in awe. Skills like…
Obviously, that’s the best one, the one I enjoy most, am naturally good at, and want to get better at. It’s 90% of the reason I wanted to work in a bookshop to start with. There’s nothing like the feeling of handing someone a book you’ve loved, knowing it matches up with what they’re looking for, and then waiting in anticipation to see if they will actually take it to the till and buy it. I could swear my heartbeat increases and I get an adrenaline rush at such moments. (The first book I handsold was The Secret History by Donna Tartt, to someone who’d just finished and loved The Goldfinch.)
Sometimes, though, people come to you with requests that you don’t know the answer to immediately. My bookshop has been super supportive of me as an author, and for a while they had a little photo of me next to a display of my book, encouraging people to ask me for romance recommendations. But when I was asked for the steamiest romance book I could think of, I drew a blank – I tend to read more at the “fade to black” end of the spectrum. Never fear, though – with my army of fellow Rioters and some judicious googling, and cross-checking against Anthology, the system that tells us what we have in stock, I found Alicia Rai’s Wrong to Need You, and was told by the customer that it was perfect. I loved solving that challenge.
I’ve lived in the U.S. for seven years, and I’ve basically avoided using coins the whole time because I was hopelessly confused about, in particular, dimes and nickels. Added to that, maths has never been my strong suit. But now I give customers change, and when I’m on a closing shift I count the contents of the till. I’m getting there!
Whether it’s wiping the windows clean at the beginning of the day, sorting out the bathrooms at the end of the closing shift, or climbing on ladders to dust the top of a bookshelf, this is undoubtedly the less glamorous side of bookselling, but it’s also a vital one – part of creating the welcoming atmosphere that we and our customers really value.
Customers’ eyes light up when we suggest we can wrap their books for them. We have shiny paper and different colour ribbons, and a cool cutting device that means we can tidily rip the right amount of paper off the roll rather than having to imprecisely use scissors. I’m still working on getting the gift wrapping as pretty as our star wrapper does (to be fair, most of us are), but I no longer panic in the process, so that’s something!
This is a fun skill, and one I take seriously! It’s a delicate balance – ideally, you want something crowd-pleasing yet non-intrusive. I love the French Chill playlist on Spotify – I used it for the first time when we had some French comic book artists in the store, though I don’t think they noticed. The day after seeing the movie Yesterday (which includes scenes filmed at my old high school!) I put on an Ed Sheeran radio – but then found it very, very hard not to sing along, which was an occupational hazard I had not planned for.
Knowing the Alphabet
Okay, so I’m better at the alphabet than at counting, but I never knew I’d end up using it so much in my daily life! We spend a considerable amount of time doing what’s called “shelf-reading”: checking the books on the shelves are in the correct order so our customers can easily find them. You might think this is easy – and it is, relatively – but what about hyphenated names? Surnames in two parts with no hyphens? Books with multiple authors? Those are things I had never considered before I worked in a bookshop.
There are so many books! And there is so little time! One of the best things about being a bookseller is the advance review copies, and the fact that we get to hear buzz about books a long time before they come out. I wish I could be one of those 100-books-a-year people so that I could recommend more books from my own experience of them and enthusiasm for them rather than relying on what colleagues or fellow Rioters say. Maybe one day I’ll get the hang of it.
Playing the Ukulele
This one will, in all likelihood, never be in my skill set – but we have storytime at our store twice a week, and the ukulele seems to be a crowdpleaser there. I’ll happily bow out and admire my colleagues’ skill on that one.
I’m an extrovert who loves books, and a bookshop job is the ideal thing for me – I get to be out of the house, interacting with people, and sharing my enthusiasm daily for one of the things I love most. I hope people enjoy that enthusiasm, as well as my British accent, my eagerness to sign them up for our indie shopper program – which basically equates to free money to spend on more books – and to help them find just the right thing to read. It’s truly a pleasure.