Confessions of an Ex-Bookseller
No, we don’t know that book with the blue cover. And no, I don’t
understand the paper shortage either.
Christmas in a bookstore—or any retail job for that matter—is what some sadists might call a “bonding experience.” Anyone who’s worked in customer service can attest to this. It’s not unlike sharing a life-raft, going to battle, or getting mugged with a friend. Sure, the injuries, physical and mental, sting. But beneath that is a sense of camaraderie. A camaraderie I will no longer share as, just a month ago, I hung up my bookseller’s cape (and nametag).
For the past five years, I’ve been proud to call myself a bookseller, specifically at Book Warehouse, an indie based out of Vancouver. It’s a place I’ll always be grateful for—it was here that I worked through university, and where I earned my paycheques while writing my first novel. And while the absolute insanity that is customer service was . . . interesting, never did it eclipse how wonderful it was to be selling books. I left that indie with a heavy heart, and nothing but fondness for those formative years.
But not without first burning my bridges! See, reader, I’m setting down for the first time all the gritty secrets no one dares expose about bookselling. Consider it an expose or, maybe, an early Christmas gift. I ask for very little in return except for a general kindness to the retail workers of the world this year. Especially after a year where we’re all a little bit burnt out from asking if you can, please, just pull that mask up over your nose, ma’am.
Let me get an embarrassing first confession out of the way—I’ve never read 1984. Neither have I read Vonnegut, or War and Peace. I lie about this daily. And I don’t feel guilty at all. Picture this: you spend eight hours a day in a bookstore, moving the books, living with the books, smelling the books, really getting to know the books. Especially at Book Warehouse, so many eclectic titles are constantly passing through your hands. And in the process, your “To Be Read” pile grows and grows and grows. Which am I more likely to read, then? 1984, which everyone tells me is just like what’s going on right now, man, and I’ve absorbed via osmosis at this point? Or would I rather pick up an eccentric debut, or some lost classic by Lispector or Gazdanov? I imagine my fellow booksellers feel the same.
That’s not to say that I lie all the time, however. In fact, it’s not uncommon for a conversation to go like this:
Customer: “Have you read [book I deem culturally important]?”
Bookseller: “No, sorry, but it’s on the list!”
Customer: *scoffs* “Really? I thought you were supposed to be well read.”
Bookseller: *gouges out own eyes*
Here’s another confession—when you walk in the door, we probably already know what you’re going to buy. Young, college aged, intellectually curious? You’re headed to the classics—young men lean towards Dostoyevsky, young women like Plath and Austen. All great choices. I’ve read them all, of course. Literary fiction tends to skew towards adult women, while men of the same age can be seen at the counter recommending the new Steven Pinker. Mysteries are universally loved, and fantasy skews female, sci-fi skews male (as a general rule, of course). And as far as the reading habits of older gentlemen go, well . . . let me draw you a graph.
Older women, naturally, read some of the dirtiest smut I’ve ever laid eyes on. Power to you.
Here’s a positive confession. We don’t judge what you bring to the counter. Ever. I say this as it’s not uncommon for someone to plop down a stack of novels, and at the very bottom, turned face down, is a self-help or relationships book they’re too embarrassed to be seen with. So here’s what I have to say, from bookseller to book-buyer: we’re the ones stocking it, aren’t we? So much absurdity comes with working at a customer service job, that a book on rekindling intimacy or dealing with debt won’t even make us bat an eye. That book you’re holding has probably been read by three or four people who work here. Hell, we probably staff-picked it. There’s very little shame in a bookstore.
Final confession: we can absolutely recommend books better than an algorithm can. Even more, it’s our favourite part of the job—not the shelving, as you may have guessed. This is especially pertinent this year, when paper shortages and shipping snafus have made it increasingly difficult to get exactly what you want. But a bookseller has you covered. Buying a book for an aunt you don’t really know, but is always reading WWII fiction? Well, she’s probably already read Nightingale,but has she read Radio Girls? Your son hates reading and is always playing video games? Ready Player One is the obvious choice, but why not try Snow Crash or Neuromancer? And if you’re looking for something a little obscure—oh boy, do we have suggestions.
A quick aside—the absolute champion of the hand-sell at my store was Debbie. As my grandfather might put it, she could sell veal to a vegan. It was like magic, watching her circle her target, gauging where they’re lingering, what books they’re grazing, their amble, developing a highly complex reader profile far beyond average human understanding. Just when the customer seems overwhelmed, she swoops in and, with a strategic touch on the shoulder, goes:
Oh, that’s a great one. But have you read this?
I was very happy, then, to have her in my camp. See, in my final year at the bookstore, I was doing double time. Satellite Love, came out in early 2021, making me a caped crusader of sorts. Bookseller by day, author by night. Debbie seemed to take the presence of my book as a challenge.
Oh, it’s wonderful. It’s about a young girl in Southern Japan who falls in love with a satellite. Perfect if you love Murakami, and, you know, you just get this whole sense of Japan, and this kind of magic realist . . .
Let me amend my earlier adage. Debbie’s so good, she could sell a debut novel about lonely teenagers in Japan to a trucker. And she has. Multiple times.
I think I’ll wrap it up here as far as the confessions go. There are certain trade secrets that could get me killed or, even worse, banned from the store. And I still have a 20% off coupon burning a hole in my pocket. So let me end this with a wish, then.
These last few years have been the hardest of our lives. I believe, too, that more than a fair share of this burden has been placed on the shoulders of retail and service workers alike. For the first time in years, some of us are having a Christmas that borders on normal, finally buying gifts, seeing family, and giving each other vaccinated hugs. Let’s keep in mind, then, those who have weathered the storm. Who worked on the front lines throughout the pandemic, and are gearing themselves up to explain the paper shortage a thousand times a day, reminding people about masks or that, no, we don’t make the rules about the pandemic.
And hey! Pop by for a recommendation or two while you’re at it. After all, the best part of bookselling is just that—selling books.