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How to Handsell Books You Don't Like

Shelf Awareness: Thursday, December 6, 2007

What I'm about to reveal is a closely guarded secret among frontline booksellers, and I may have to pay the ultimate price for my indiscreet revelation. Still, as this warm-hearted, blissful time of year wraps us in the simple joys of holiday consumption, I believe a confession is in order.

Booksellers sometimes handsell books we haven't read. We handsell books we don't even like that much. This is not usually a sin of intention. No one wants to handsell a "bad" book. It is, at worst, a sin of omission. What we refrain from saying to a customer during a conversation about a particular title can be more important than what we do say.  

A bookseller's life would be ideal if we could just spend the day recommending titles we absolutely love, but often we are caught in discussions about not-so-great books with customers who love them passionately and would like us to suggest comparable works.

By "not-so-great," I mean books that we've dismissed for any number of objective, subjective, and even irrational reasons. This list can consist of anything, including works that have been well-reviewed, popular or award-winners.

For example, I've handsold dozens of copies of one particular novel (which will remain title-less to protect the innocent) over the past few years. I remember the moment when I first read it and thought, "I'm not crazy about this book, but it's going to be very easy to handsell." I just tell the right customers I believe they will love it, and they do.

Conversely, there are books I love that I couldn't handsell at a 100% discount.

The reasons why we like or dislike books are many, but since a bookseller's job description is to express--or withhold--judgment depending upon the situation, we must occasionally walk a conversational high wire.

Nodding and smiling help; saying "a lot of people liked that one" or "he's very popular" or "it's been getting good reviews" will get you through, too. A personal favorite, which I've leaned on more than a few times, is that a particular author "knows his (or her) audience well and always writes with them in mind."

If you are feeling pressured this holiday season for your opinion on a book you just don't like, may I prescribe a small dose of retail therapy consisting of scenes from two Bill Murray films? These should prepare you to face any impending crisis with a spotless conscience.

In How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, Pierre Bayard devotes a chapter to the movie Groundhog Day, in which a snarky weatherman, Phil (Murray), is caught in a time-loop on the eponymous day and forced to relive it again and again.

He puts his unfortunate circumstances to good, if unethical, use in his seduction of Rita (Andie MacDowell). When he surreptitously discovers that she studied nineteenth-century Italian poetry, Phil memorizes and then passionately recites excerpts from the libretto of Rigoletto.

"By training himself in Rita's preferred reading material," Bayard writes, "and thus penetrating as deeply as possible into her private world, Phil is straining to create the illusion that their inner books are the same."

Sounds like handselling to me. Not love, precisely, but a subtle illusion that "inner books" can match even when they don't.

And I can go Bayard one Bill Murray movie better by citing the epic American film, Caddyshack, and a scene that eloquently sums up a dilemma booksellers face every day.

Loudmouth contractor Al Czervic (Rodney Dangerfield) bursts into a posh country club's pro shop and starts buying everything in sight. He notices a particularly garish hat on display and says, "This is the worst lookin' hat I ever saw."

Then he sees the club's president, Judge Smails (Ted Knight), standing nearby, wearing the same hat. "Oh, it looks good on you, though," Czervic adds. 

Welcome to the world of handselling, where we often must smile and utter the book equivalent of "Oh, it looks good on you, though."

Mea culpa.

Is that wrong? Absolutely not. In fact, it is a kind of biblio-diplomacy. We want customers to be comfortable with their choices. We don't want them to feel judged. We hope they walk away from a handselling conversation thinking, "That was fun."

Well, to be honest, we want them to walk away with a huge stack of new books, thinking, "That was fun."



Selling Books & Remembering to Breathe

Shelf Awareness: Friday, November 30, 2007

I didn't really need any clues to know it was Black Friday, but I drove straight into my first piece of evidence on the New York State Thruway as I was heading north to Vermont after spending Thanksgiving with friends in New Jersey.

Scheduled to work the bookstore's afternoon/evening shift, I was cruising comfortably on Route 87, knowing I had allotted plenty of travel time. My overconfidence was literally stalled, however, just a few miles south of the toll booths near exit 16, where I suddenly found myself stuck in what became a three-lane, interstate highway parking lot.

What had happened? An accident? Too many cars trying to squeeze through the toll booths? A tsunami on the Hudson River?     

The mystery wasn't solved for an hour; an hour spent driving at a cool 5 mph. Finally, as we neared exit 16, the gridlock culprit was identified--Woodbury Common Premium Outlets.

Black Friday had officially begun, and I was still three hours from home. By the time I hit the bookstore sales floor that afternoon, the crush of book buyers seemed like a nice change of pace. In fact, I soon realized that they were walking faster than I had been driving.  

What was Black Friday like?

One of the first stories I heard when I arrived was about cell abuse. A customer had approached one of my colleagues and asked if we carried a particular book. As he responded, her cell phone chirped and she turned away to answer it. She talked while he stood by, waiting patiently. Then she put her hand over the phone and asked if he'd show her where the book was. As he led her to the section, she went back to her cell conversation.

Human interaction is a beautiful thing.

Most of the day wasn't like that. Despite the rush, there were moments for simple conversations with good readers about good books. In the end, you have to catch your breath and realize that bookselling is bookselling. Black Friday numbers don’t change that. Somehow, in a bookstore, in a crowd, you can still have those conversations, one customer at a time.

Stanley Hadsell, a fine bookseller who works at Market Block Books, Troy, N.Y., wrote to me on the day before Thanksgiving, and what he said stayed with me through the weekend:

"I have to say, reading your columns this week added to my agita. What people go through and the chaos. Yes, there will be a new breed of customer in the store. Not just the regulars, but the Desperate Seekers for anything to fill the void. Those are the scary ones. They come with cell phones permanently on, scouting out the best bargain, seeing no one in front of them, just merchandise. Happily most of our customers are nothing like that. But this time of the year brings a heightened awareness of consumerism and what drives this country (mad). So, when I read your column, I tensed up. My back was in spasms. I managed to have two migraines in one week.

"But today I felt a calm and a realization that I don't have to go to any malls. I can walk to work or take the bus. I can only sell what is within reach. I have a limited amount of wrapping paper. And I have a great staff to work with. We are open on Thanksgiving Day. Yes, it's true and odd to tell folks that. But the Turkey Trot, a race that gets its fair share of international runners, starts and ends practically in front of our store. It's a delight to be there for it. We're only open a few hours and it's such a leisurely pace that it barely feels like work at all. But that's the way I feel about bookselling as a whole; it barely feels like work. It's a joy. I love it. I love seeing a customer interested in books, even when it's not one of my recommendations. Isn't that why we do this?

"As for Black Friday, well, we have that same flight to the malls. We're not overwhelmed or frantic. We start the season with a sensible surge in business because we're selling books, which have a different energy than the latest handheld gadget. So, I feel calmer today. I know it will be busy. I can handle it. I don't have to do it alone. I breathe. That's the key. I always have to remember to breathe."



Transcending the Holidaze

Shelf Awareness: Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Take a deep breath, folks.

In Monday's column, we heard from booksellers regarding their Black Friday game plans, but for some bookstores BF is simply a prelude to the busy holiday sales season rather than a retail lightning strike.

"Honestly, Black Friday in Hardwick does not usually include frenzy--a lot of people go out of town to shop," says Linda Ramsdell of Galaxy Bookshop, Hardwick, Vt.. She opted for a preemptive strategy to "create frenzy" by offering a Sirius Reader sale and party on America Unchained Day last weekend. "So, in a way, that is a tip--if Black Friday is not a big shopping day in a small town, create other opportunities for big sales."

Valerie Kohler of Blue Willow Bookshop, Houston, Tex., plans to "take off Thanksgiving weekend and go to the beach with my extended family. Throughout the year, I am very liberal with staff vacations (they all work part time). In return, several key staff members keep the shop open for me. It's not a particularly big weekend for us as we are in a strip center and our core customers are weekday shoppers."

Blue Willow is, however, "in full holiday mode now that the temperature has dropped below 80--free coffee and cider; homemade cookies from the cookbooks we want to sell; free gift wrap, which means keep the wrap counter clean and remember that we are all in this together."

Having Fridays off greatly helps Linda Bond deal with the BF issue at Auntie's Bookstore, Spokane, Wash., but she does offer a few survival tips for her colleagues: "Remember who and where you are (it helps to stay focused); remember why you are working at a bookstore; remember these people are your friends--they are working to keep you in business and bringing you money to back up their promises; they, too, are frustrated, pressed for time and a tad bit out of sorts--take a deep breath and let it pass over you! And remember, above all, THIS TOO SHALL PASS!"

Perhaps the most important survival skill is to remember the ideal spirit of this particular holiday.

"I told our staff the other day that I am very thankful to be in the book business during the holiday season," notes Vivien Jennings of Rainy Day Books, Fairway, Kan. "For us, it is not the make-it or break-it for our financial year. It is just a wonderful opportunity to get more people of all ages excited about reading and books by matching their interests with selections from the amazing array of books that are available. We are so lucky to be able to believe in what we sell. Books can make you laugh, keep you on the edge of your chair in suspense, take you back in history, help you be healthier, and encourage you to live a better life in a better world. Best of all, they are always the right color and size, won't wilt, are non-fattening, lead-free, and are recyclable. What more can we ask?"

Her husband, Roger Doeren, offers a Thanksgiving weekend checklist that will resonate for many of us:

  1. We give thanks for our loyal customers.
  2. We familiarize ourselves with our inventory selection; on our sales floor, in our back room, and in our warehouses.
  3. We remain calm, capable, competent, and confident about our knowledgeable service and selection.
  4. We welcome our new and loyal customers with the same genuine friendly greeting and smile and look them straight in the eyes when we offer to assist them in their shopping experience.
  5. We match our customers' interests with the best choices of reading and listening material and sidelines.
  6. We offer complimentary high quality gift wrapping service while they shop with us or with our neighbor merchants.
  7. We encourage our customers to "Shop Local and Buy Local." In the present and future it is best for them and their community.
  8. We thank our customers as they leave with their packages.
  9. We restock and re-straighten our sales floor.
  10. We breathe deeply and welcome the next customers and repeat the same steps as often as possible.
Happy Thanksgiving. Have a sane and profitable Black Friday. Let me know how it all turns out.



Black Friday Success Is All About the Game Plan

Shelf Awareness: Monday, November 19, 2007

Why do they do it? What compels so many Americans to wake up on the day after Thanksgiving and say to one another, "It's the busiest shopping day of the year. The stores will be mobbed; people will be rude and annoying; and traffic will be absolutely unbearable. We sure don't want to miss that!"

Chuck Robinson of Village Books, Bellingham, Wash., offers some pointers:

  • Pre-wrap hot titles so folks can get-and-go. This will not only speed up transactions but will provide a little relief to your gift-wrap folks.
  • Make sure you have plenty of copies of your holiday catalog in prominent spots around the store.  Readers love to use these as shopping lists in our store.
  • Check out your section signage. There will likely be a lot of new buyers in the store. Don't assume they'll know where to find things.
  • Review the shelf-tags and make sure they're current.  
  • Get those Thanksgiving books out of the way . . . one way or the other.
  • Plan to get out on the floor a lot. This isn't the time to be hovering waiting for folks. Circulate and you'll sell a lot more books.
  • And, of course, get plenty of rest, drink lots of water, wear good shoes, and eat well. It's the holiday season. Just remember, all things in moderation . . . including moderation.

"The day after Thanksgiving is just when it starts getting exciting for us here," according to Steve Bercu of BookPeople, Austin, Tex. "Bryan Sansone, our floor manager, advises booksellers to relax; take one customer at a time; and know the strengths and weaknesses of your co-workers (so you know who to get help from and when someone else may need help). We get the gift wrap table ready, make sure our check-out lines are set up well, have all our supplies, and start selling. For this year we will have our 'Leftovers with Leslie' event featuring Leslie, our local iconic cross-dresser, signing his exclusive Leslie Christmas refrigerator magnets. It should be lots of fun."

Thanksgiving is also the official beginning of the dreaded holiday song season, and Kelly Justice of Fountain Bookstore, Richmond, Va., offers a remedy for staff musical torture: "At the beginning of the season, each staffer is required to put their least favorite holiday album or song in writing in our pass down log (our notebook that we use for in-store communication between shifts). No one is allowed to play the hated tune during that bookseller's shift. You'd be surprised what can make a bookseller crack and turn to a worthless pile of jelly in the eleventh hour. Respect and take care of each other first and you can better take care of the customers."

Mary Alice Gorman of Mystery Lovers Bookshop, Oakmont, Pa., advises booksellers to "keep a good sense of humor as this time of the year." She notes that you "will see old friends and those folks who 'don't have time to read' but want to give someone who reads a book but they don't know anything about them. Then there's my personal fave--the person who wants to punish (my word) a child who doesn't read by giving them a book to make them read. It is the greatest fun to be the detective who finds the perfect book for folks who are buying for a mystery lover based upon the one or two clues that the gift given reveals."

She also urges booksellers to "sell lots of gift certificates. At Mystery Lovers, anyone who redeems their GC on Boxing Day (12/26) gets a free paperback of their choosing and a free coffee. That's a day to make it all worthwhile."

For Diane Van Tassell at Bay Books, Concord and San Ramon, Calif., it's "all about planning ahead and having things ready to go. I don't expect Black Friday to be much busier than the whole week of Thanksgiving because schools are out so people are shopping. People who travel to this area to visit relatives will be in shopping also. So we expect frenzy for this next week. The bottom line is we are going to get lots of sleep, try to be calm and friendly and just have lots of fun and make the customers enjoy whatever time they have to spend standing in line at the register (maybe bribe them with candy)."

Look for more booksellers' survival tips in Wednesday's issue. Meanwhile, I'll work on my sales floor game face for my 16th consecutive Black Friday.



Celletiquette: 'I'll Have to Sign Off--I'm in a Crowd'

Shelf Awareness: Thursday, November 15, 2007

If you're on your phone, we don't want to interrupt, so we'll just help everyone behind you first.

This message is posted at Muddy Waters Coffee Co., Seattle, Wash., according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which also noted that Bizzarro Italian Cafe has a $5 cell phone "surcharge" on its menu. The P-I article ran two days after my column in Shelf Awareness last week, so perhaps something is in the air(waves).

Certainly e-mail responses were plentiful. No one called my mobile phone, though Melville House Publishing's Dennis Johnson admitted that "I was going to call you on your cell to say thanks but, well, I thought you might be in the store. . . ," and Susan Weis of breathe books, Baltimore, Md., considered waiting "until I got to my store and call you from my cell to tell you how much I enjoyed today's column . . . but I thought I'd email instead!"

Weis has mixed feelings about cell use. She posts signs, but "no one sees them. I have noticed, though, that once in a while people are actually telling the other person what they are doing and what they are reading. I remember feeling liked I'd 'arrived' when I heard someone tell their phone friend, 'I'm at breathe.' That was it--no breathe books, or at the bookstore in Hampden--just breathe! That was kind of thrilling for me."

At University Book Store, Bellevue, Wash., David Henkes has observed a societal shift: "It does seem people have forgotten how quiet, respectful, and unassuming they used to be when tethered to a phone cord at a public pay phone. Etiquette and common sense have definitely been tossed aside. I have heard people dispense personal information--credit card numbers, addresses, etc.--while roaming the aisles."

Sue Gazell, noting that Bookman, Nashville, Tenn., is near Vanderbilt University and Hospital, shared her favorite cell horror story, about a "pediatrician who, on her lunch hour, came in to shop for audiobooks. She was carrying her lunch and beverage. Her cell phone rang, and she answered. It was a business call. She set up office right there in the store--pulled up a chair, set her lunch and beverage on a stack of books and proceeded to talk about a patient's private case for about 20 minutes, loudly enough so all in the store could hear."

A "stroke of serendipitous beneficence" envelops Valerie Ryan's Cannon Beach Book Company, Cannon Beach, Ore., where "no cell phone receives a signal. Are we lead-lined? When some obnox starts the escalation from  'can you hear me?' to 'CAN YOU HEAR ME?' I smile sweetly (!) and say, 'There is no signal inside the store, but the porch seems to work for most phones.'"  

Jean Westcott, senior marketing and publicity manager for International Publishers Marketing, offered historical perspective from her "heady days of pre-Internet crash" bookselling at Olsson's bookstore, Arlington, Va.: "It was hard to work in a bookstore in the late '90s and not feel like a big chump for not grabbing a job in the Intelligent Economy and trying to earn some of the fabled stock options." Watching 22-year-olds being interviewed over their cell phones for dream jobs was bad, but even worse were the ones doing so while "sitting in the computer books section faking their way through their phone interviews by thumbing through books on web development."

For international perspective, Sarah Knight of the Northshire Bookstore, Manchester, Vt., has just returned from Tokyo, "where it is considered extremely rude to talk on a cell phone in public (text messaging is of course done and is okay). The few people I did see talking on phones would first walk down an alley and use the phone there and only briefly."

Michael Walsh, a Johns Hopkins University Press sales rep and publisher of Old Earth Books, sent a "blast from the past" in the form of a dialogue snippet from Space Cadet by Robert A. Heinlein, published in 1948. When Jarman says "your telephone is sounding," Matt takes a phone out of his pouch, has a brief conversation with his father and ends by saying, "Sure, sure, Dad. I'll have to sign off--I'm in a crowd. Good-bye. Thanks for calling.'"

Prescience points for the phone, if not the etiquette. Or as Walsh observes, "Sometimes SF gets it right, and sometimes almost . . ."

I'm typing this in a bookstore café. My car is being repaired next door and the garage will call soon. I'm in a crowd, but I'll have to answer my cell. I'll be one of them.