The customer experience of shopping at a bookstore is pretty much like shopping at any other store. You walk in and see merchandise on display. Someone who works there may greet you and ask if they can help you find anything. You either find something you want to buy or you don’t. But for numerous reasons (I’ve boiled it down to ten), bookselling is substantially different from most retail operations.
I compiled this list after speaking with a number of booksellers and publishing folk who know the bookselling world well. Read on for elaborations on the pointes summarized above.
1. Books are not traditional products. As Casey O’Neil, a former bookseller at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle Washington and currently director of sales at Graywolf Press, points out, “the book industry is defined on all sides by a deep engagement with the work.” This sentiment is a symptom of the nature of books themselves: they are not products to be used or utilized and then discarded. They are not products that serve a specific purpose and then lose their relevance. They are instead the result of a massive amount of work. They are expressions of a unique perspective. Books are a rare form of product because they can elucidate the way our world works; they can bring people together; they can change the course of history. And while the larger retail world allows them to function as traditional products, the book industry holds the content of the books it produces as something separate from a “product” altogether. This separation permeates the experience of working in a bookstore. Rebecca George, co-owner of Volumes BookCafe in Chicago, says, “In most corporate retail, the buying, marketing, and merchandising decisions are all made by a bunch of corporate bigwigs outside of the store. There is little feeling of investing yourself in the products that come and go because you have very little engagement with those products.” In bookselling, by contrast, everyone involved in the store can feel invested in the success of the business because they relate strongly to the products they’re selling. Before Emily Hall purchased Main Street Books in St. Charles, MO, she “worked as a concessionist at a movie theater for two summers in high school and college. It wasn’t particularly challenging (although I did smell aggressively like popcorn at the end of every shift), but I have never felt more like a cog in a machine. The work was repetitive and unrewarding.” The ability for booksellers to engage on a personal level with the products they sell allows them to feel invested in their stores and the success of their industry.
2. Booksellers are highly valued within the industry. In most retail, the salespeople are the schleps who perform the “repetitive and unrewarding” job of selling the products to the customers. In bookselling, as established above, booksellers are deeply invested in both their products and their companies. As such, they can have a significant impact on the successes of other aspects of the industry. All across the book industry, bookseller enthusiasm is widely recognized as an important factor in whether sales take off. David Enyeart, manager of St. Paul’s Common Good Books, explains, “Human marketing is incredibly effective — somebody saying ‘I really like this book.’ That’s why Amazon does consumer reviews, because seeing a comment from a person moves books.” In order to generate and benefit from this bookseller enthusiasm, publishers often invite booksellers out to dinner at national and regional conferences. They often create special opportunities for booksellers to meet authors, give booksellers advance signed copies of books, and way more (see #8 below), all in the hopes of getting them to read and connect with the book on a real level.
3. Bookstores reflect the character of their staff. From “Staff Picks” sections to handwritten shelf-talkers lining the stacks, or even just the presence of staff who freely express their personalities, bookstores are a bastion of individuality. Due to their independent nature and the general principle of celebrating new ideas, bookstores rarely impose top-down branding on their employees. The difference between most retailers and independent bookstores is evident to Matt Keliher, manager of Subtext Booksin St. Paul. Keliher says, “I’ve worked in independent bookstores for four years, and prior to that I spent a year at a major outdoor wear retailer, and the differences between the two couldn’t be wider. At the major outerwear retailer, you felt as though it was your job to assume the identity of the massive corporation, that you had a responsibility to act according to the larger brand. At an independent bookstore, or any independent retailer, your responsibility is to act only as yourself; to present your tastes as an authentic representation of yourself. And it is my view that the ability to be your authentic self is an invaluable characteristic of any potential career.”
4. Bookstores reflect the character of their community. Go into one Gap and you’re likely to see the exact same clothes in the exact same variations as you will see in any other Gap. Go into one bookstore, and there’s no guarantee that you will see any of the same books that you will see in another. Chances are you will, but you’re also likely to see something different in each bookstore you visit. As Rebecca George says, “A bookstore provides a wholly unique sort of selling job. Not only do the booksellers take time from their off time to read books, experiment with new and up and coming authors. We also research — refine our lists based on what the customer wants for our unique store. A bookstore just a few miles from us might stock a very different selection because of the customers. And not on a macro level — like a grocery store might only sell okra in a few grocery stores but not all — but a micro level — we literally buy books for specific humans that we engage in conversation with.”
5. Bookstores impact their community. Emily Hall has owned her bookstore in St. Charles, Missouri for four years. In that time, she has learned that her impact goes far beyond putting books into people’s hands. Hall explains, “As a bookseller, I get to have a measurable positive impact on the lives of my customers. They come to my bookstore seeking knowledg or adventure or escape, and are able to achieve those things with my help. There are repeat customers who come in asking for my help time and again, because they know I can recommend a novel they’ll get lost in. It’s incredibly fulfilling for me to see that positive effect.” Anne Mery, owner of the West Grove Collective bookstore in San Diego, recently told the Union-Tribune, “Bookstores have never been just a store. They are, like their cousin the cafe, a place of ideas. You go to a cafe to share ideas with a friend. The bookstore experience is more solitary. It is the place of communion of one’s own.” Ryan Rafaelli, a professor of ecomonics at Harvard, attributes the recent resurgence of independent bookstores to the “three C’s: Community, Curation, and Convening,” all of which directly impact their communities. Bookstores aren’t novel in the retail world because they happen to interact with the people around them; they are novel in the retail world because interacting with their communities is a calculated component of their business model.
6. The book industry IS a community. For a bunch of introverts, book people sure love getting together. Several times every year, publishers, sales reps, distributors, and authors convene with booksellers to talk about forthcoming titles, new developments in the industry, and best practices. These gatherings freqnetly feel like semi-annual reunions, and “professional networking” often takes the form of a group vacation. Amelia Foster, a former publicist for Coffee House Press and currently a bookseller at Moon Palace Books, attributes her job switch in part to the community-building nature of these events. “I learned a ton from working with booksellers around the country on author tours as well as attending regional and national conferences while working for Coffee House. I was inspired by independent bookstores around the country who are pillars in their communities,” says Foster. Emily Johnson, a sales rep at Abraham & Associates, considers the book industry’s strong community as its primary allure. Johnson says, “The beauty of this job is that it has more than quadrupled the amount of wonderful book people I’ve gotten to meet and get to work with on a continuing basis. This means even more people to share ideas with and use as inspiration.”
7. Bookselling is more service-driven than traditional retail. Retail jobs generally consist of guiding customers to items they’re looking for and completing a transaction. But as we’ve seen from many of the comments from booksellers so far, there is a much deeper relationship in bookselling to both the products and the community. Hans Weyandt, a veteran of the Twin Cities bookselling community and the editor of of Read This (a book of bookseller recommendations), feels that bookselling is “squarely in the center of the service industry, retail, and customer service.” Weyandt says, “Handselling books, which is obviously only one small part of our job, is a chance to find out what books customers have recently loved, or equally important, disliked. To gauge what they are feeling like on a given day — in that way we are much like a waiter or bartender. Getting to be involved in how people decide to spend their free time and where they choose to spend their dollars is an ongoing education and gift.”
8. Galleys and swag Kerri Jerema nicely summarizes the perks of bookselling swag in a Bustle article last year: “As a bookseller, you’re going to have access to a lot of literary perks, and it’s going to forever change your reading life. From being privy to secret author stock signings where you can get your series signed and personalized while having one-on-one chit chat time with your favorite writers, to having access to covetable ARCs (after you fight your co-workers for them, of course) you’ll feel like you have a backstage pass for all things bookish.”
9. BINC The Book Industry Charitable Foundation is a nonprofit that “provides emergency financial assistance to booksellers in times of natural disaster, as in the cases of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and the 2013 flooding in Colorado. The majority of assistance requests, however, are of a much more individual nature. Whether the need arises from a serious medical expense, domestic violence incident, threat of eviction, essential utility shut-off, or the unexpected loss of household income; Binc works with each bookseller to help get them through the current emergency and return their household to a state of financial equilibrium” (from their website). They also provide scholarships so booksellers can attend the superfun trade conferences mentioned in #6. I’m just saying, if you break your foot, nobody’s going to help you pay your medical bills just because you sell socks.
10. Crossover with other segments of the industry. This is one of the most unique aspects of the book industry. The skillset one gains in a bookstore translates remarkably well to the skillset required in a publishing house. It is far from uncommon to meet a publicist who spent years selling books, or vice-versa. Stefan Moorhead, who went from bookseller to publisher, comments, “We all love reading and books and we all get to communicate that love of reading and books to people that are receptive to that. That’s where I think a lot of the inter-job swapping comes from.” Amelia Foster went the other direction, from publisher to bookseller. She says, “The symbiotic and mutually supportive relationship between independent publishers and indie bookstores made the transition to bookselling a simple decision. As much as I enjoyed working with authors while I was at Coffee House, I was excited to have the chance to be ‘on the ground’ in my neighborhood, programming literary events and handselling the books I love.” David Enyeart, manager of Common Good Books, also began his career in publishing. Enyeart says, “Coming from the publishing world, it’s really helpful to understand the lenghty process a book takes before it even arrives in the store. It seems simple from the outside: Author writes a book, publisher publishes it, and booksellers sell it. Having worked on that side of the equation, I’m very sympathetic to the fact that while booksellers are the end of a process, it’s a very long process, with many processes in motion between the author and the reader.” Similarly, a number of authors have recently opened their own bookstores: Emma Straub founded Books Are Magic in Brooklyn; Ann Patchett owns Parnassus Books in Nashville; Louise Erdrich owns Birchbark Books in Minneapolis; and there are many more examples of this increasing trend. In a parallel development, publishers are also delving into the bookselling world directly as well: Deep Vellum Books, Milkweed Books, and Two Dollar Radio Headquarters each operate independent bookstores in which they sell a wide range of titles, not just their own. It doesn’t matter on which side of the industry you begin—you’ll soon be connected to every other aspect of the industry, each of which has its own appeal and perspective, and each of which is rooted in the unerring devotion to the value of books.
Granted, there are lots of independent businesses that operate in unique ways, and there are other industries that function without top-down corporate homogeneity. But independent bookstores function incredibly differently from the way most retail functions. These ten differences don’t really even scratch the surface of what a unique environment it is. If you have any thoughts on other ways that bookselling differs from traditional retail, please weigh in below.
Special thanks to David Enyeart, Amelia Foster, Rebecca George, Emily Hall, Emily Johnson, Matt Keliher, Stefan Moorehead, Casey O’Neil, and Hans Weyandt for taking the time to chat about their experiences.