The Compulsive Reader: Bookselling in December

Friday, December 18, 2015

Bookselling in December

I love the Christmas season. When I was a kid, it seemed to stretch out for ages and ages, and the only thing to do was just relish it. Now that I'm older, it zips by merrily and I'm often left wishing for an extra week of merriment and baking and Christmas music and at least three more viewing of A Christmas Story and always more time to read. I've been busy working on novel revisions each morning, and working extra long hours at the bookstore, which leaves very little time for reading (and blogging) but requires lots of talking about books and stories, which is my second favorite thing ever.

I think of the Christmas season Bookselling Olympics. It warms my heart to see so many people flood the bookstore looking for gifts, and every year my Christmas spirit is bolstered by so many people who still want to give and receive books for the holiday. For me, Christmas and new books have always gone hand in hand. Books are one of the few gifts that really endure, and I still have many of my Christmas books from childhood. As a friend recently exclaimed at a birthday party--"That's a forever present!"

I love it when people come in with lists and I get to go pull things from the shelves, but more often than not I see customers who don't know exactly what they're looking for. This is fine--hand-selling is my jam. I love telling other people what to read. But how successfully I can hand-sell a book depends on how much a customer is willing to tell me about themselves or the person they're buying for, and how willing they are to trust me. I love a person who is open to suggestions but honest with their feedback. When looking for a new book, this is not a time to spare my feelings. I'm tough. I can take it. I might go fume a bit after you leave if you tell me that Melina Marchetta's book was less than brilliant, but I will not let my emotion show during our interaction. I am a professional. This is not about me.

People who hold back a little trickier to hand-sell to, but I'm always happy to rise to a challenge. However, this Christmas season has seen an unprecedented number of people who reject my book suggestions for inscrutable reasons. Reasons that leave me standing in the middle of the store with a politely confused expression while my mind scratches out static. Observe four of my most puzzling interactions:

1. Customer presents herself at the counter, asking for recommendations for her fifteen-year-old granddaughter who enjoys horror, but grandma doesn't want to buy anything too gory. Understandable. Grandparents are tricky to sell to because 83% of them know nothing about YA, and the chances are good that they think their grandchildren should either be reading Nancy Drew or Homer, no middle ground. Forget genre fiction.

But I got this! I pull Gretchen McNeil, Libba Bray, Kendare Blake, Holly Black. The grandmother looks on in mild horror and I realize I've overwhelmed her. I try to dial it back. Too late. She looks like she's about to flee. I start pushing books back on the shelf, but she picks up the slimmest paperback I've pulled. She weighs it in her hand. "I'm just afraid..."

Yep, I've overwhelmed her. I've let my zeal for YA ruin another customer interaction. When will I ever learn?

"I'm just worried that it'll be too big for her," the customer continues. "My granddaughter is just a tiny little thing."

She holds up her hand to indicate how short her granddaughter is. Very, very short.

"She's tiny and I just think these will all be too heavy for her to carry around."

I sag with relief. My tastes are not off.

"Do you have anything smaller? Or lighter? Not as many pages?"

2. Customer presents himself at the counter. He looks vaguely familiar, like I've seen him around in the bookstore before, which is likely. He asks for some mystery recommendations. I enthusiastically show him the section and babble on and on about Robert Galbraith and Tana French. He nods as he scans the shelves, half-listening, like I'm just pleasant background noise to his book-browsing experience.

He picks up The Cuckoo's Calling, cracks it open, examines a page. Turns the page. Turns another page. And another and another, faster and faster now. I match the tempo of my spiel to the rate at which he turns the pages until he smacks the book shut, looks at me and says, "There are a lot of quotation marks in this book. On almost every page."


"I hate quotation marks. Does this book come in an edition without them?"

"I'm afraid not."

Disappointed sighing ensues. From both of us.

3. "Oh yeah, that sounds good, definitely sounds like something my brother would like. He likes weird stuff, but he's smart too. He's a professor."

I glow with pride as I hold out The Bone Clocks. "Great! Do you want me to set this on the counter for you?"

"The only thing is..."

Glowing dims.

"Is this the only copy you have?"


"Does it come in any other cover?"

"No, the covers were the same for the paperback and hardcover editions."

"Oh...that won't work. My brother doesn't like the color blue. And I don't want to give him a blue book, you know? Because it's a Christmas gift. You know what I mean?"

I don't, but I nod enthusiastically.

4. "And, Umberto Eco does have a new one! It's called Numero Zero!" I pull a copy off the shelf and proffer it to the customer.

"Hm." He examines it, then hands it back to me. "How much?"

"Twenty-four dollars."

"How many pages is it?"

I flip to the end. "Looks like...204? 205? A little better than 200."

Customer pulls out his iPhone, brings up calculator, punches in numbers. Looks up from iPhone. "I'll pass. I don't buy books that cost more than ten cents a page to read."

And with that, I leave you. I'm due at the bookstore.


LinWash said...

Loved this behind the scenes look at a bookstore. :-) I too am glad that people head to the bookstore to find gifts. But my goodness. It's tough to deal with customers who are so specific or critical.

Emma A. said...

I don't know if you have been getting this one recently, but last week I had at least 3 grandparents come into the shop and ask for a book for their "intelligent 10 year old." Whew! The Christmas rush sure is fun though!