Tag Archives: bookselling

How I became an ex-bookseller

book tombstoneSo, it’s been a month since I quit the bookshop and, as I’ve neglected this blog for a while, I thought an epitaph might be a fitting way to kick things back into action.

For almost six years, I’d honed my book-recommending skills. Every day was a combination of shelving, ‘curating’ and waiting for a suitable victim customer who didn’t yet know that they were about to leave with a little piece of magic.

In the past four weeks, that has been the thing I’ve missed the most. How many other jobs can give you the opportunity to talk to strangers all day about your passion? That, I suppose, depends on your passions, but the world of bookselling attracts a specific bunch – people who love books so much that matters of salary and financial stability pale into insignificance.

And there you have my one and only reason for leaving – I simply couldn’t afford to do a job that I loved. Some people might be surprised to learn that bookselling is among the lowest paid professions you’re likely to find. A career in retail is, by itself, not very lucrative but even on this scale, bookselling ranks fairly close to the bottom.

Strangely though, this is the very reason that you’ll always encounter true passion whenever you go into a bookshop. The people shelving the books, writing the review cards and, indeed, gushing about their favourite books are there, not for the money, but because they love what they do. Either that or they lack ambition but this, I assure you, is a small contingent.

Even if you take the money out of the equation, there are other drawbacks to being a bookseller. Everyone who works in a bookshop will be familiar with the occasional doom-bringer. Every couple of weeks, this strange person arrives eager to remind you about Kindles and Amazon and how insecure your future is. Personally, I’d like to think that bookshops can hold their own. There are enough people willing to spend their money in a real bookshop to prevent the doomsday scenario that keeps anxious booksellers awake at night. However, being naturally cautious, I wasn’t prepared to take my chances.

As I write, it’s Saturday morning and I’m sitting in Nero’s waiting for my old stomping ground to open. I want to visit my ex-colleagues and say hello but I also want to visit the books and make sure they’ve been loved in my absence. It’s a ritual I perform every week and each time, I find myself unconsciously tidying, reorganising and filling gaps. I don’t expect to be paid. After all, nobody does this job for the money.

A Challenge Overcome

earthDid you know how many countries there are in the world?

Lots – and some of them have authors living in them. Ann Morgan knows all about that. In 2012, she set herself the challenge of reading a book from every independent country, all 196 of them, to celebrate the Olympics. Writers do mad things, don’t they? You can read the whole story over on her blog – it’s quite inspiring, especially if, like me, you’re somebody who mindlessly sets themselves challenges for no apparent reason.

Today was a typical case in point. In Ann’s latest blog post, she asks her readers to pop along to their local bookshop and count how many countries are represented on the shelves.

“I can do that”, I thought. But then I thought I could do so much more. I decided to find out how well represented each country was within the fiction section, create an Excel spread sheet, and make a pie chart.

piechart3

It got a little out of control and, between helping my beloved customers and chatting to my colleagues, it took all day. Now that it’s done, I have to wonder what I’ve gained from the experience…other than a pretty rubbish-looking pie chart.

I suppose the joy of a job thoroughly completed is reward enough. I’m better equipped to do my job as well. Let’s say somebody comes in looking for a book from Kyrgyzstan. Can you name one? Did you even know there was such a thing as Kyrgyzstan? I can’t say I did, but today I discovered Jamilia by Chingiz Aytmatov…a guy from Kyrgyzstan!

I learned something and you can’t put a price on that.

In closing, here’s the list for all of you anoraks out there.

table

 

Have fun!

The Difficulties with Selling Short Stories

tgssI’ve noticed something in my time as a bookseller – a lot of people, most of them in fact, think they don’t like short stories.

Me, I love them.

A couple of years ago, I went through a strange phase which left me without any attention span. I’d get about three chapters into a book before throwing it at the wall in exasperation. It was bad – nothing could hold my interest. Maybe I was just choosing the wrong books, who knows?

Now, for Joe Soap on the street, this isn’t an issue, but the inability to finish a book is a pretty fundamental handicap when you happen to be a bookseller – how are you going to recommend something you haven’t read? You could lie, I suppose, but here at your favourite bookshop, we don’t do that. This is the kind of moral quandary that was keeping me awake at night.

It was around this time that I discovered short stories.

For the better part of a year, I read short stories exclusively and looking back on it now, it was like eating a box of chocolates without a map – very exciting with surprises around every corner – some pleasant…some not so.

By the end of it, I’d sampled a wide variety of authors whose larger works I’d found intimidating and I’d gained an enormous repertoire of collections to recommend to my valued customers.

“How happy they’ll be,” I thought.

I was wrong.

The scene is always the same. I’ve built a good rapport with someone, we both enjoy the same things, we’re joking and laughing and it doesn’t even feel like work. And then I ruin everything.

“So, do you ever read short stories?”

I’m met with an awkward grimace usually reserved for street pamphleteers and the same tired excuse: “I prefer something to get my teeth into.”

That’s fair enough, I suppose, but sometimes I’ll persist and make a few suggestions – all of them titles I know they’ll like – but we’re not friends anymore. I’m just some raving idiot in a bookshop and they’re an uncomfortable stranger backing slowly away from me.

Now I’m not saying short stories don’t sell at all. Your Chekhovs and Carvers tick over fairly regularly but what hope can a budding author hold when all they have is a first collection of short stories. These could be the greatest, most inspiring tales you’ll ever read – but you’ll never read them – because you want to get your teeth into something.

I’ll leave you with a friendly suggestion. The next time you’re stocking up on books, grab a collection of short stories. It could be just one author or, if you prefer, an anthology. Ask your friendly bookseller for advice if you’re not sure where to start. Take your book home and read one a week – pick a time when you’ve got a few minutes to kill and you’ll see. You’ll see that you’ve always liked short stories – you just thought you didn’t.