Robert Gray: Bookselling Is Harder than It LooksThey say it all the time. Right this minute, somewhere in the world, a customer is waiting at the POS counter, chatting with a bookseller while purchases are rung up, appropriate currency exchanged and selections bagged (or not, depending upon local custom and environmental awareness). They may be talking about one of the chosen titles or the weather, favorite authors or town politics. But sooner or later the customer will be compelled by some mysterious cosmic force to embark on the requisite traditional litany.
"It must be so wonderful to be surrounded by books all day," he or she will say. "You have the best job in the world. I've always wanted to work in a bookstore."
If you are that bookseller, you will smile and nod... knowingly, yet still guarding a secret of the ages that only those in the trade understand.
Bookselling is harder than it looks.
Customers enter your bookstores because they want to. By contrast, they enter grocery stores because they have to. Bookshops are both a refuge and an adventure for them. Once inside, they move through a sensory wonderland--row upon row of books; soft strains of music in the air, mingled with the scent of coffee or baked goods.
All over the world, booksellers greet them courteously, ask how they are. Perhaps no one has asked them that question all day, not even their families. They say "fine" in the language of the land because, quite suddenly, at this moment and in these special places, they are fine. There are empty chairs in quiet corners. Maybe they will just sit and read for a little while... in paradise.
Ten minutes later, they glance up from their reading to watch booksellers shelve a few novels. It's a beautiful, universal and almost ceremonial tableau. They think about the jobs they must return to when this break is over, the bosses who are mad at them for no reason, co-workers who are driving them crazy and the mountains of work piling up incessantly.
They can't help but consider an alternative: How pleasant it must be to just work in a bookstore.
You know the truth. It is pleasant most of the time--you can't imagine doing anything else--but it's also complicated. It's bookselling.
Labor Day weekend is an appropriate time to celebrate the work of booksellers. Your totem animal is the duck, which appears to float serenely on the water's surface while paddling like hell underneath. That is also your job description.
Here's just a bit of what those customers nestled in their comfy reading chairs planet-wide don't see because you are doing your jobs so well: today's deliveries stacked up in shipping & receiving; cartloads of as yet unshelved books; sections needing to be culled for returns; returns waiting to be boxed and shipped; staff meetings; internal staff rivalries; scheduling conflicts or sick days that result in overstaffing/understaffing (whichever is the worst one that could happen at this particular moment); ordering to be done; bills to be paid (or strategically delayed); websites and blogs to be updated; author events to be planned and executed....
Part of the magic and mystery of bookselling is never letting customers see below the surface. Who wants to look at a duck's feet when they can just watch the tranquil pond? The other part is that you wouldn't have it any other way because, for the lucky ones, bookselling is a vocation as much as a job. You could have done something else and certainly made more money. You chose this profession. If you're one of the best, it also chose you.
When you interview a prospective bookseller, you probably don't tell them about the phone calls from lonely people who'll talk to them for 15 minutes and may or may not order anything. You probably don't mention the occasional customer who takes a day's (or a lifetime's) worth of frustration out on you at POS because your books are more expensive than Amazon's. You probably don't ask them how heavy a box they can lift or if they can fix plugged toilets or shovel snow. If they are meant to be booksellers, they'll find all that out soon enough and it won't really matter.
You're a bookseller. You work hard, so enjoy Labor Day and a well-earned rest, though you're probably working this weekend.--Robert Gray (column archives available at Fresh Eyes Now)