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Prospecting vs. Prospective Bookstore Owners

"I always dreamed of owning a bookstore," says almost every new bookshop owner to the media once the doors have finally opened. Most of us who worked as longtime frontline booksellers have probably entertained the ownership fantasy, if only briefly. In my case, the dream hit while I was in still college during the early 1970s. When I actually became a bookseller two decades later, the vision was long gone. By then I knew my limitations (and strengths, too, I suppose).

Jessica Stockton Bagnulo and Rebecca Fitting at Greenlight

We've all known colleagues in this business who wanted their own bookshop and eventually realized that dream. For example, I recall meeting two people when their bookstores were still long-term goals, and then watching as they carefully planned and executed those visions--Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, co-owner (with Rebecca Fitting) of Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn; and Janet Geddis of Avid Bookshop in Athens, Ga. From the beginning, they were genuine "prospective bookstore owners." The real deal.

On the other hand, one of my bookselling colleagues long ago had joined the staff to learn the book trade while she scouted for possible locations in New England to open her own bookshop. Less than a year into her research, she decided the dream was not for her, and that decision was also carefully thought out and, for her, absolutely the right call. She was also a genuine prospective bookstore owner.

So I've been thinking this week about the difference between the words prospective ("of a person expected or expecting to be something particular in the future") and prospecting ("look for; search for") as they relate to running a bookstore.

What led me to this Dog Days of August rumination was Kat Kruger's recent piece in Quill & Quire about her tenure as a prospecting bookseller at the Open Book in Wigtown, Scotland. We wrote about the AirbnBookseller concept last year: guests pay a nominal fee and are "expected to sell books for 40 hours a week while living in the flat above the shop. Given training in bookselling from Wigtown's community of booksellers, they will also have the opportunity to put their 'own stamp' on the store while they're there."

I was just a little cynical when I first read this. Bookselling, even in a quaint used bookshop in Scotland, is complicated, and Kruger begins (you guessed it): "Many book lovers, myself included, dream of running a bookstore." Her account is a chronicle of the bookselling fantasy: "After closing most days we'd grab a pint at the local pub, where a cat named Izzy would often sit with us. Then we'd head upstairs to the flat, closing all the room doors to keep the heat in before bundling up next to the faux electric fire. The bookshop holiday didn't deliver the chaos of a rom-com, but the adventure certainly made me pause and appreciate the revisions I've made in my life's script."

Earlier this year, Dan Dalton shared his Open Book experience on Buzzfeed: "Romantic notions of bookselling might not hold up in a national chain or a busy city, but here, in a small Scottish town by the sea, surrounded by the smell of used books, they just might."

He asked Shaun Bythell, who owns the Bookshop in Wigtown and whose parents own Open Books, about the romantic expectations of bookselling versus the reality. "I think people think it'll be sitting in front of a fireplace reading Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But it's mostly moving boxes," Bythell said.

Librarians Rosie and Liam wrote this on the Open Book's blog in March: "To work in a bookshop for two weeks has been a bit of a dream come true and we will definitely be taking new ideas and a fresh prospective back to our day jobs. Librarianship and book selling are obviously two very close professions. When we think of the fundamentals of librarianship, this has been reflected at some point over our two weeks in the Open Book."

A more recent "proprietor" of the Open Book, Diane Mawhinney, offered a few tips to future prospecting booksellers, including: "Finally, and most of all (besides the amazing hospitality), I will forever remember the first moments of opening the bookshop, the jiggling of the skeleton key, the tinkling of the little bell, the unique scent of the ages-old texts probably combined with the weekly deliveries of fresh shortbread from Nanette (customers would ask, What is that smell, like exotic gingerbread?!), and the fairy-like quality of the lights as the electricity slowly flows from the switch to announce with ethereal music that business is open."

Maybe prospecting booksellers aren't so bad after all. The dream lives on, vanquishing my cynicism.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2921


The Reading Life You Save May Be Your Own

This has been a banner week for celebrating booklovers and booksellers, as if we needed an excuse. Tuesday was National (or, really, international) Booklovers Day and tomorrow is National Bookshop Day in Australia. We also received the equivalent of a Fountain-of-Reading-Youth prescription with the release of A Chapter a Day: Association of Book Reading with Longevity by Avni Bavishi, Martin Slade and Becca Levy from the Yale University School of Public Health.

Published in the September issue of Social Science & Medicine, the report specifically links books to a longer life span. Bavishi told the Guardian: "We found that reading books provided a greater benefit than reading newspapers or magazines. We uncovered that this effect is likely because books engage the reader's mind more--providing more cognitive benefit, and therefore increasing the lifespan." The study notes that there are two cognitive processes involved that could create a "survival advantage." Reading books promotes the "slow, immersive process" of "deep reading," a cognitive engagement that "occurs as the reader draws connections to other parts of the material, finds applications to the outside world, and asks questions about the content presented."

Bavishi observed: "We had seen some mixed effects in previous literature that seemed to indicate that there may be a survival advantage to general reading; however, we were impressed with the magnitude of the difference of effect between reading books and reading newspapers/magazines."

Reason enough to celebrate...

National Booklovers Day
The first good reading vibe I noticed under the hashtag #NationalBookloversDay came from Sir Paul McCartney ("Love that book! Happy Book Lovers Day."), but many soon followed, including:

Mr. B's Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath, England: "Today is #NationalBookLoversDay celebrate with us & shout WE LOVE BOOKS! What are you reading on this special day?!"
Brazos Bookstore, Houston, Tex.: "Ben's fantastic #nationalbookloversday stack, ft: THE SADNESS, or "The Author's Narcissism" #jkpleasedontfireme"
Books & Books, Miami, Fla.: "RT @newtropicmiami book recommendations from Mitch Kaplan at the @BooksandBooks in Wynwood #NationalBookLoversDay"
Square Books, Oxford, Miss.: "Happy #NationalBookloversDay!! All these staff picks are overflowing with love. What's your favorite book?"
New York Botanical Garden: ("It's all about that centuries-old book smell on #NationalBookLoversDay. Especially in our Rare Book Room.")
Maggie Stiefvater: "Happy #NationalBookLoversDay. Spending it in my office writing."

A prevailing sentiment seemed to be gently questioning the choice of a particular day for our everyday obsession:

Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe & Phoenix, Ariz.: "Today is #NationalBookLoversDay, a.k.a. Every Single Dayum Day around here. Happy unofficial holiday, book lovers!"
Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Mich.: "In honor of National Book Lovers Day (every day, in our opinion), here's an aerial picture of all those pretty books."
Copper Canyon Press: "How about #NationalBookLoversDay every day?"
Books Are My Bag: "Well, *technically* it's every day but let's be greedy and celebrate anyway!"

Kenny Brechner, owner of Devaney Doak & Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, Maine, summed up the National Booklovers Day bookselling spirit nicely in a CentralMaine.com article (while providing the health & wellness reference I needed to keep my theme intact):

The rise of digital media has made the physical book a source of not only refuge, but balance in people's lives. When you think about the term 'interactive,' in a very real way there is nothing more interactive than a real book, to have the words relay into your mind. There is a privacy there and there is a quiet and there is power. And bookstores provide a place for us all to connect and share reading. The physical book is just a different experience. It provides an experience that is a very healthy, balanced antidote to the more ephemeral experience the people are immersed in online.

National Bookshop Day
The reading-as-healing theme continues tomorrow in Australia with #NationalBookshopDay. As Joel Becker, CEO of the Australian Booksellers Association, wrote: "Whether you're having a 'book doctor' prescribing books; having visiting authors; putting on a party; presenting readings, or offering cupcakes (I always make sure I visit my local, Fairfield Books, for some home baked goodies served up by one of the many authors who visit the shop), National Bookshop Day is an opportunity to highlight your business, and have a party with your customers."

So, where's the party? Among many participating shops in the country are Matilda Bookshop in Adelaide ("Come and celebrate with us with free books all day... Share this to tell people who like books, bookshops or, for that matter, us!) and Avid Reader Bookshop in Brisbane ("Narrative busking? A literary kissing booth? Doggy dress-ups? The Great Bookish Bakeoff? It must be National Bookshop Day at Avid Reader!"). 

Unable, or unwilling, to escape medical references, I'll conclude with one last event. At Beachside Bookshop in Avalon Beach, "a clinic for frustrated book worms will open its surgery on Saturday to mark National Bookshop Day.... Owner Libby Armstrong has lined up writers including Kirsty Eagar and Helen Thurloe, Sophie Hardcastle and Louise Park as doctors."

Reader, heal thyself. The Yale study concludes that "the benefits of reading books include a longer life in which to read them... The robustness of our findings suggests that reading books may not only introduce some interesting ideas and characters, it may also give more years of reading." Time to refill that reading prescription, folks. Oh, wait. I don't have to tell you that, do I?

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2816


The Olympic Bookathlon


"Beach reading" takes on a whole new meaning for the next couple of weeks as the 2016 Olympic Games open in tropical Rio de Janeiro. And even though idealistic visions of Chariots of Fire dudes running in slow motion have been replaced by cautionary news reports of polluted waters, Zika virus and doping scandals, the beachy opening ceremonies will nonetheless be staged tonight with all the anticipated five-ring hoopla.

In the spirit of the Olympics and their long, if occasionally stumbling-at-the-starting-line, history, I thought I'd officially propose adding a Bookathlon competition for booksellers to the 2020 Tokyo Games, with the following events:

Weightlifting (stacks of books)
Precision Shelving (timed event)
High Jump (for books on top shelves)
Staircase Sprint (with an armload of books)
Sales Floor Speedwalking (dodging customer hurdles)

Yes, I'm just a bit of a cynic when it comes to the spectacle. Reading David Goldblatt's brilliant The Games: A Global History of the Olympics recently has only fanned my world-weary Olympic flame. But reading is my way through most things. Find the best stories, like the ones Goldblatt shares.

Signature recently featured a "Summer Olympics primer: 10 books for the Rio de Janeiro games"; and Electric Literature recommended "18 books for your Summer Olympics deep dive." The July issue of Words Without Borders, "Brazil Beyond Rio," offered a compelling and "different look at the South American giant that will host this year's Olympic Games. The writers here--both those from abroad and those from Brazil--set out to rediscover and portray the diverse Brazils within this dynamic country."

Olympic swimmer Missy Franklin reads Knuffle Bunny for One Book 4 Colorado.

On a lighter note, Olympic swimmer Missy Franklin shared her "Rio Reading List" with Travel & Leisure magazine. "I'm a huge reader," she said, adding that a visit to the bookstore is generally part of her pre-packing routine. "A few days before a trip, I have a great time researching what everyone is reading and picking the books for my flight.... I really have to make sure that I have a good library set for me before takeoff."

Don't forget the kids. "Read your way to Rio! Your family's summer Olympics primer," Brightly advised. And Changing Hands bookstores in Tempe and Phoenix, Ariz., have been in the spirit with a Summer Olympics Reading Program.

A Rio bookseller has had his Olympic moment, too. In June, we reported that Rodrigo Ferrari, co-owner of Livraria e Edições Folha Seca, had to remove a sign from his display window that included the word "Olympics" because of product licensing violations. "I was worried, so I took it down, despite finding it absurd," he said.

Absurdity is something of an Olympic tradition, as the amazing BBC Four series Twenty-Twelve proved in the run-up to the London Games. There's even a Rio connection in scenes where British organizers discuss the "proper gift for a visiting Brazilian Olympic delegation," and then take them on a less-than-successful bus trip to tour facilities under construction and meet Lord Sebastian Coe.

A notable 2012 Olympic bookselling moment was the Quixotic, if well-intentioned, effort by David Mitchell, owner of Scarthin Books in Cromford, to act on his belief that the Olympics "should mark the efforts of those who come fourth in their event" by creating a new medal himself. No word on whether the organizing committee set its licensing wolves after him.

The arts have long played a role in Olympic tradition. In his introduction to The Games, Goldblatt notes that Baron de Coubertin, who organized the first modern Olympics in 1912, "had long believed that sport was not antithetical to the arts, but a distinct and important component of a society's cultural life. It therefore seemed natural to him, though not too many athletes and artists at the time, that the Olympic Games should also stage artistic, literary and musical competitions on the theme of sport."

While the 2012 London Games, for example, featured an ambitious "Cultural Olympiad," Rio's efforts have been hampered by drastic funding cuts, and "for the first time since 1992, the Olympic host city has not organized a four-year cultural program to culminate in the Games. Instead, it has focused on activities throughout its Olympic year and during Games time.... Organizers admitted there had been setbacks but said the line-up would be revealed soon and would feature flashmobs and 'surprises,' " Deutsche Welle reported.

What's an Olympic cynic to do? Maybe I'll just follow the sound advice Goldblatt offered in a recent Vice Sports interview:

A good dose of skepticism, a splendid sense of humor, and a deep sense of history, I think, are the essential equipment to take to the sofa.... I'm not asking people to take the weight of guilt upon their shoulders. And I don't think we're colluding by watching. But take a critical air, read around, and above all I encourage people to think, how could it be otherwise? It doesn't have to be as it is. There are things we like about it, but there will be a thousand things one finds irritating or irksome or unjust about it. And here's the critical moment to say: how can it be otherwise? What else would we like? It's a spring to the imagination.

So lift, shelve, reach, climb, walk and, above all, "read around." You're a future Olympic bookathlete in training. Act like one.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2811


'The Idea that Somebody Is Telling Me a Story'

I've been worried about audiobooks for many years, though I'm starting to worry less, thanks to the option of purchasing digital versions through my local independent bookstore and Libro.fm. Many booksellers nationwide are on board with the service, including Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, San Francisco's Green Apple Books, Boston's Papercuts J.P and Village Books in Bellingham, Wash. It may not be a game-changing sales tool, but it's still an opportunity to show customers you're a full-service bookshop.

And that makes me happy. At the retail level, I've observed firsthand the curious evolutionary path of audiobooks, from those bulky boxes of expensive unabridged cassettes in the mid-1990s to more affordable cassettes, then CDs and digital, followed by the inevitable gobbling up of the market by Amazon's purchase of Audible.com in 2008.

Maybe I started worrying most then, though audiobooks themselves have been doing just fine. This week's AAP February sales report showed sales of $21.5 million (a 44.4% increase over 2015) for downloaded audio, compared to 2.1 million (a 36.3% decrease) for physical audiobooks. Earlier this year, the Audio Publishers Association's annual sales survey results estimated that audiobook sales in 2015 totaled more than $1.77 billion, up 20.7% over 2014. Unit sales were also up 24.1%.

As I mentioned earlier, my worries have diminished a bit with the Libro.fm option. I've always loved the sound of books. When people read aloud, I instinctively close my eyes and listen (unless I'm driving). Close listening is akin to close reading for me. One human being shares a story with another. The allure might have something to do with childhood memories of my mother reading the Oz books to us. Perhaps it is a far more ancient rite, since we were telling each other stories thousands of years before Gutenberg.

Now I can go back to worrying about the classic dilemma all audiobook listeners face: Who is reading to me? I'm very particular about the person whispering in my ear. A brilliant reader can sometimes redeem a mediocre book, but the wrong reader always breaks the spell of a good book.

Michael Kortya, Maggie Stiefvater, Terry McMillan & John Scalzi at the APA Author Tea during BookExpo America

At Book Expo America in Chicago this year, there was a great discussion about the voices behind the books during the APA Author Tea featuring Michael Kortya, Maggie Stiefvater, Terry McMillan and John Scalzi.

"You won't have to listen to my voice very long to understand just how deep my appreciation for a good audiobook reader is," Kortya said, praising the work of Robert Petkoff. "When I go on tour for readings, I have an idea of how a book sounds in my head.... I'll listen to Robert and just steal the way he approaches it as his sense of rhythm is just spectacular, and I can say in all honesty he has propped up some really wooden sentences for me.... If there's one thing that's not talked about enough, it's the idea of voice and rhythm and pacing. We read with our eyes, yes, but it's an auditory experience. And I would venture to guess that the actual sound on the page is immensely important."

"I love listening to other people's audiobooks," said McMillan. "I have a lot of respect for audiobooks because it's a very intimate experience that you have as a listener with the characters in a book.... There's a warmth that happens. It's almost as if that person is talking to you directly. You get to see it, feel it and hear it all at the same time. When you read a book, you have to imagine it and both are powerful.... Over the years, I have really come to appreciate the beauty of sound. "

Stiefvater praised actor Will Paton, who agreed to work on her audiobook because he loved The Raven Boys. "And so I like to think that when you listen to the Raven Cycle, you hear Will Patton having a great time reading it," she said. "And that's what really makes a good audiobook is when the reader is fully engaged."

Scalzi noted that "as the writer, you have to get used to the idea that your baby, the book that you created, that you hear inside your head--you hear the rhythms, you hear where you put the stops, and where you put the emphasis, and where you put the meaning--is read by somebody else.... When they read your book, it becomes a singular experience inside their own head, so with the narrator, particularly a good narrator, they take a book that you thought you knew better than anyone else because you wrote it and then they find things in it that you didn't know were there."

But Terri McMillan said it best: "I love the idea that somebody is telling me a story."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2806


You're Hired! Prospective Bookseller Quiz

Earlier this week we highlighted a New York Times piece on hiring practices at the Strand in Manhattan that focused particularly on "a final hurdle to enter its ranks: the literary matching quiz." While I don't recall whether I took a book quiz as part of my application process to become a bookseller long ago, there were certainly general questions that probed my relative bookishness. A quick scan of online indie bookstore applications yields examples that probably are close to the ones I faced:

  • Who is your favorite author? Why?
  • Can you name an author from each of these genres: Scifi, Mystery, Western, Romance, Classic Literature?
  • What is your definition of customer service?
  • In the past year, what two books have you read that you didn't like or that disappointed you? Why?
  • What do you know about us?

I was impressed by the questions Left Bank Books, St. Louis, Mo., asks its applicants:

  • It's the weekend and you want to make plans. How do you get the information you need to plan your weekend?
  • I just read Cutting for Stone, an epic novel that spans three generations of an Indian expatriate family in Ethiopia. I really loved the sweeping family saga and the political intrigue. What should I read next?
  • What do you look for in a good bookseller?
  • What are three things a retail sales associate should be able to do?
  • Please tell us about your last customer service experience with Left Bank Books. Do you have any ideas about how to make it better?

We live in an age of online quizzes. Readers are used to being grilled daily about their book knowledge: The page 69 quiz--Can you identify the classic book from a single paragraph?; Name the book titles without vowels or spaces; Do you actually have good taste in books? Even booksellers aren't immune to the siren call of the quiz: Which independent Brooklyn bookstore are you?; Which independent Berkeley bookstore are you?

The Strand article prompted my interest in the prospective bookseller q&a, and then I stumbled across a Financial Review piece that featured a selection of "banned Google interview questions: can you answer them?" Well, no I couldn't. Google's interview brain teasers are the stuff of Silicon Valley legend, but they prompted me to consider some indie bookseller job interview alternatives. With apologies to Google, here's what I've got thus far:

  • If all of the books you own were placed end to end, in what country would the last one be put down?
  • What super power would you like to have? How would you apply it to bookselling?
  • Where do you see yourself in a century? (specifically for writers applying to be booksellers)
  • If you could choose different songs to play every time you walk into various sections of the bookshop, what would your songlist be? Give reasons for your picks.
  • How much would you charge for all the books in the store?
  • If you were to get a book-inspired tattoo (assuming you don't already have one), what and where would it be?
  • What is your least favorite section of the bookstore, and how would you improve it?
  • If unsold hardbacks are returned to the publisher after six months and paperbacks after a year, then why are there so many old books on the shelves?
  • Assume you were hired, but as a bookstore cat. Which book section would be ideal for undisturbed sleeping?
  • If you didn't have to work at all, what would you do instead besides read?
  • Explain why you love reading to someone who hates reading in a way that doesn't make them feel bad.
  • If the inventory system showed a book in stock, but it isn't on the shelf, what is your next step? Assume the customer is waiting impatiently.
  • What do you think your reason would be if you left this job after three years.
  • What is the sound of an author event when no one shows up?
  • Where is the nonfiction section in this store?
  • What scares you about bookselling?
  • How would you answer this question: "Do you have that book with the red cover and there's a woman's leg on it and it's by the same author who wrote that dog mystery whose name is Smith or Crowley or something with a D in it?"
  • Have you ever been in this bookstore before in your life?

Or... maybe the most basic question is still the most challenging. From the online application of Oblong Books & Music in Millerton and Rhinebeck, N/Y.: "Why do you want to work in a bookstore?"

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2801

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