Adventures in Bookselling: A Few Lessons Learned

For the past year and a half or so I’ve been employed in a kind of noble profession, if such exist: selling books at a local independent bookstore. This is my story of things learned along the way.

Truth told, I was a little surprised I got the position. The job advert emphasized previous book selling as a prerequisite. While I had a year’s worth of such, it had been nearly fifteen years earlier. Following that, my job experience got a little weird & deeply unhelpful in terms of placing me professionally.* One of the owners was born & raised in Glasgow, Scotland, so I suspect my time spent there, conversational affection for Alasdair Gray, & anecdotes about getting in a fight following a Partick Thistle match helped. The lesson: embrace your odd-ball affections. 

My see-through knowledge of popular fiction has surprisingly not hurt. I’m a reasonably good bookseller, gross ignorance and all. I went through a period of lying about what I’d read — I’ve told so many people I’ve read Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, I’m no longer certain I’ve not — but during the past year especially, “No” has served me quite well as a response to the most common question asked to a bookseller: “Have you read this?” The bright of my eyes, though, surely power the neighborhood when I have. Lesson learned, and not all different from the one above: love what you love.

One will take a lot of guff for saying out loud, or putting in print, that they don’t see what the big deal is with David Mitchell or Haruki Murakami. Trust your instinct, though: piss in that pot and call it seasoning.

The greatest part of the job is receiving new books to sell. The worst part is returning those that haven’t. “How has this not sold?” is a my weekly cry of exasperation. When money permits, I buy a copy to warrant keeping it around for another three months. Money, as is its wont, does not always sign off on this, and good sense doesn’t permit to keep on the shelf all the good stuff I wish I could. Lesson learned: buy the sort of good shit from the local bookshop you vocally wish local bookshops would keep on the shelf. Buying things within a few months of its release will give it a lease on life in your store, I promise, & will likely keep it around longer than your inclination actually to read it. Don’t just tell your kindly bookstore worker “I can’t believe you don’t have ______.” Order the damn thing. Tell your friends & kin to order it. Two orders for the same book and it’ll be in one of my sections by the end of the week.

There are always going to be the parasites aiming $600 phones at $20 books to save a buck. I don’t have enough staplers to hurl at these people, and my aim isn’t good enough if I did. As loath as I am to admit it, even they might have their place. This is because customers bring in with them to the store as much as they buy. Talk to people like me about what you like & don’t. If stores like mine are to have any value that eclipses that of an Amazonian algorithm, it is to come from these conversations, whether you walk out with a book or not. There is a public spectacle to people talking about books, whether it is the latest Cees Nooteboom or first Harry Potter, that really should be encouraged simply out of principle.

* E.g., I left book-selling to work for a Hebrew Bible professor, scanning & publishing online the entirety of Charles Hodges’ Systematic Theology. During which I taught myself enough pre-millennial Java to adapt code I stole for a pretty snazzy-at-the-time drop-down menu. After that there was a dusky-dark period of glorious grunt work in the stacks of a public library by day, rounded out by night with graduate teaching a variety, Beginning to Intermediate-in-name-only, of Hermeneutics courses. This was followed by a considerably darker period, following the receipt of my PhD, temping at a non-profit that coerced me to walk the stairs of a skyscraper for donations and a for-profit tech company that dulled my sense of daily reality — some combination of them both, or perhaps it was just a kind of inevitabilty, sent me spiraling into a darkness out of which I’m only now somewhat emerging. This period, coincidentally, coincided with the Adventures in Church Attendance. Aren’t you happy I consigned this to a footnote?

5 Responses to “Adventures in Bookselling: A Few Lessons Learned”

  1. Ben Myers Says:

    “One will take a lot of guff for saying out loud, or putting in print, that they don’t see what the big deal is with David Mitchell or Hiraku Murakami” — Oh the hours of soul-destroying tedium I could have been spared if only I had a truth-telling bookseller like you when I first reached out my hand to that fateful copy of 1Q84…

  2. embzz Says:

    I’m truly amazed you managed to get into a fight outside a Partick Thistle match, what a wonderful Glasgow-Lite experience!

    Sadly my bookseller recommended the absolute crap out of “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” so I felt sort of compelled to finish it. By all accounts it’s a lot better than 1Q84 but still… Oh btw, you’ve cyclically permuted the vowels in Haruki!

  3. Brad Says:

    Indeed, I did, embzz. Edited. Thanks.

  4. mattintoledo Says:

    This is the experience I was hoping for when I went to work at Barnes & Noble out of college. Instead I ended up pointing customers to magazines, self help books and Oprah selections for almost two years.

    That said, I got to work with good people and met my wife at the bar one night after closing, so no complaints.

  5. Brad Says:

    This is roughly what a co-worker, who also worked for a time at B&N, says. Individual stores, I imagine, allow for more of the sort of autonomy I’m allowed.


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