confessions of a bookseller

By Harriet Bartle

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to sell books? I used to; I’d worked in retail for three years before I became a bookseller and as such I knew the ropes of customer service. I thought that it might be different, though; almost a romantic sort of job, where you spend your days surrounded by books of all genres, chatting to the quiet customers as they wander in out of the cold and expect to find fellow book lovers carefully shelving new stock and listening to peaceful, interesting music. As a literature student, it became the ideal prospect, the dream job; when I was lucky enough to be presented with the opportunity to enter the group of people that can call themselves booksellers, I jumped into this new world of pages head first. I was eager to see how this fascinating industry worked, particularly in the new era of internet shopping.

Have you ever wondered what a bookseller would say if you could ask them for the truth about bookselling? Lucky for you, I’m here to confess just some of our usual thoughts…

The first confession is going to be about what I’ve called the “magic shelf reveal”. If you’re anything like me (at least, the me that existed before working in a bookshop) you’ve probably wandered through a shop or two in your spare time, running your fingers over the spines of shelves and shelves of all genres, not looking for one specific title but still enjoying the atmosphere of the gentle music playing and the smell of fresh pages, the perfectly organised books, stacks and shelves and displays all made of beautiful books. Maybe you’ve wanted a certain title, but you haven’t been able to spot it and you’ve headed over to a member of staff and asked them to help.

They probably walked right up to the shelf you were looking at for five minutes and pulled out the right book with a little flourish and a bright smile, the book suddenly just like a white rabbit from a magician’s hat at a children’s magic show. The bookseller has apparent omnipotent powers in their realm of pages and shelving and it’s extraordinary, you realise – how did they do that? Just produce that book when I’d been looking for it for ages? It can be remarkable. You could, with a small suspension of disbelief, believe that booksellers are magicians and books are our rabbits. It gives us a little buzz of happiness when we find the right book and get it into the hands of the customer.

Following on from this version of the magic shelf reveal, maybe you’ve gone into a bookshop and had a book in mind, but you didn’t really know for sure who the author was, or what the title was, but it’s a black and grey book and it’s a crime novel – or maybe fantasy, or was it a biography? – and you’re sure you saw it on TV or heard about it on the radio. So, you find a bookseller and describe the book and they do one of three things. One – the preferable reaction – they smile brightly and gesture for you to follow them as they stride confidently to a shelf, produce a book that solidifies the concept you had in mind and hand it to you – magic shelf reveal.

Two, they frown a bit, standing at the enquiry point, before typing a few things into the computer and then lighting up and telling you that they know which book you mean and they can get a hold of it for you.

Three – an uncommon occurrence – the bookseller gives you a vaguely worried look, tries searching the system, tries looking on the shelves, asks a passing colleague if they know anything about the book you described to them… You get the point. They’re stumped, their colleagues are stumped and we, the booksellers, have lost our magic spark. The rabbit is still in the hutch behind the desk. The essential ISBN number cannot be found, and we cannot locate the book. No magic rabbit/book this time and it annoys and disappoints us as much as it does the customer. We like finding books. Quickly and by all the means available to our ink-stained, dust-covered fingertips.

 Yet, the magic ability to find a book on the shelf is, as you’ve likely gathered, a little less spell craft and a little more science and elbow grease. Booksellers are, by the nature of the job, creatures of repetition. As a new bookseller, you can’t find a thing; a new seller can be found, following an experienced bookseller around, asking where titles are and where they could be if they aren’t where they should be. However, give it a few months and suddenly you can find the most obscure book from a scant description because you’ve had the practice. You can find Alan Bennett, Chuck Palahniuk or Professor Brian Cox and all the rest because they come up often; you jog up and down the shop all day long finding books and selling them back at the till point. We know where Shakespeare is because there are tonnes of his plays uniformly arranged by type on the bottom shelf in drama – I know where Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett are because fantasy is my favourite part of the shop. The science is this; the more you go to the shelves, the more familiar they become. If we can’t find something, it means it’s going to upset our literary apple cart.

Take for example my confession here. I’m being brutally honest and say that I don’t know very much about the TV and Film section because, well – I don’t like it! I leave the re-shelving of books from that section to my colleague that likes those books, unless we absolutely must get them put onto the shop floor. If you want a book about Pulp Fiction, ask my colleague. If you want Discworld, well, I would be your ideal bookseller. Does that mean we get to stick to our favourite places? Absolutely not. It just means that we know those areas a tiny bit better than we do the others. I can still find that movie book, but I might not be able to do the magic shelf reveal like I would if it were a copy of The Hobbit. The science and the magic of finding a book in the world of the bookseller are one and the same, but it all comes down to one little thing – knowing your stuff. Knowledge is power, and books are knowledge. Unfortunately, there are usually obstacles in between those two ideas, like missing ISBNs and incredibly vague descriptions from the customer.

This next confession is a short one, connected to the last one by four letters. ISBN. If you have a book in mind – a bookseller would mention in a dream scenario – please write down the ISBN. It stands for International Standard Book Number and it means we can find the book by typing in thirteen digits and hitting the enter key. Unfortunately, this happens so rarely that when it does occur, we treat that customer like a treasured friend and will go even further above and into the greater beyond than what we normally manage, all because of thirteen digits. Miraculous, but true. You can usually find it near the barcode, this blogging bookseller stage-whispers to you, hoping that the message gets out there…

A third confession, then, and likely the last for this post. Booksellers love recommending books, because it’s a natural part of our job, but it can get difficult quickly if a customer is asking about a genre outside your favoured area of reading. Even if you try to push yourself to read books outside your go-to genre, your knowledge in that field is bound to be lacking. I can tell you a whole lot more about the fantasy, fiction, horror or history sections than I can about travel writing or true crime because that’s where my knowledge lies. Of course, I badger my colleagues, as well as my friends and family, about the books they read if they’re out of my area of expertise because that means I’ll be able to help more customers if they have questions in those genres. The main confession about recommending books is this though – if we don’t know anything about the book and can’t see a colleague to help with recommendations, we’ll find a book we know a bit about and tell you about our colleague that really enjoyed the book. It’s the same colleague we talk about if something goes wrong with an order; that person, that elusive colleague that knows about the books that we don’t, handled the order that went awry… May or may not exist at all.

Those romantic notions I started off with? They’re not how bookselling works, but if that’s what the customer sees when they come in out of the cold, the job of bookselling still functions fantastically well in the age of internet shopping. It’s still, in my opinion, a dream job for a book-lover. After all – who doesn’t want a personal recommendation from a fictional colleague?