Confessions of an Ornery Bookseller

No one was surprised when I became a bookseller.

It makes a whole lot of sense, being that I pretty much grew up in bookstores and would always look on with envy at the folks pushing cartfuls of books from shelf to shelf. It must be awesome, I would think, being surrounded by all these books everyday. And then it makes even more sense once you take the classic personality profile of a bookseller – an introverted, socially awkward avid reader with a mild case of perma-scowl – and compare that to the fact that bookstores have always been one of the very few places in which I – an introverted, socially awkward avid reader with a (tastefully) tenuous grip on reality (I like to think it’s part of my charm) – feel completely comfortable. Books don’t judge, ridicule, or alienate; books don’t hold you to unrealistic expectations; books always end the same way, no matter how many times you read and reread them. And booksellers are their passionate, intelligent, often blundering and bumbling counterparts, eager to match the perfect set of binded pages with the perfect set of hands. The truth is, it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.

When I got my bookselling job, it was like the Mother Ship was calling me home, saving me from a world of subliterates. I was enamored with the rows upon rows of bursting shelves, shamelessly proud of my ever-growing section of staff reviews, and completely drunk on the fulfillment of sharing with the world something that mattered to me – literature and language.

Booksellers also tend to be just the slightest bit unhinged. But only slightly.
Booksellers also tend to be just the slightest bit unhinged. But only slightly.

And then one day at the bookstore, someone asked, “Is fiction real or not real?”; and after that, someone wanted to know if Anne Frank had written any subsequent “novels;” then after that, someone asked me for a book recommendation, stating plainly, “I don’t really read.” And it was at that point – that point when I was seconds away from grabbing a copy of A Series of Unfortunate Events and committing with it my own unfortunate events – when I suddenly realized why booksellers have a long-standing reputation for being kind of stand-offish, impatient, and sometimes just downright (justifiably! Am I right?!) rude.

It’s not that we hate you. We really don’t. (Except sometimes, because let’s be honest – that Anne Frank thing? Really?) It’s just that the bookstore is a sacred space for us, a space where the vast majority of us found our only sense of belonging, and we’ve evolved into very territorial creatures. We want to help you, we really do. We just also can’t deny our basic human instinct of wanting to pummel you when you fuck with our shit.

So, on behalf of my fellow booksellers everywhere, I offer you the following peek into our inner-workings, so that hopefully – in better understanding us – you can get the most out of your future bookstore visits, and out of the collective pool of knowledge we have to offer. Trust me, we have a lot. And we’re eager to share it with you. (Provided you don’t fuck with our shit.)

Confession One: We love when you know what you want

You’re looking for a specific book and you need our help. If we seem unapproachable, it’s only because we’re trying to give you your space. If we make eye contact, we’ll say hello and ask you if we can help you find anything. But if we somehow miss you because we’re shelving or checking our stock, don’t hesitate to ask for our assistance. (Don’t do that thing where you talk loudly and pointedly to your friend about a book you’ve been meaning to find, then wait for the bookseller standing somewhere in your vicinity to take the hint. Passive-aggression is never a good look. We’ll get the hint, every time. But, out of principle and spite, we won’t do anything about it. See Confession Five.)

Now, you’re golden if you know the exact title and the author’s name. We can do without either, of course, but keep in mind that we booksellers – while smart and well-informed – are not necessarily all-knowing, and our technology is severely limited (because no one gives a fuck about bookstores! Swines, all of them!). This means that giving us such details as, “It has a red cover,” or, “It was about this big,” and then nothing else, is going to iceberg your case (that’s right, I made it a verb – what up) and our level of giving a fuck, like the motherfucking Titanic. As far as search criteria goes, titles and authors’ names are always the way to go, but if those have slipped your mind, try telling us what the book is about, if it is a recent release, if it’s a fiction or nonfiction book, if it’s recently won an award, or if it’s on a best-seller list somewhere. All these things will help us to better help you.

Confession Two: We love when you don’t know what you want

We’re confusing you now, aren’t we? But, honestly, the best part of the job is pairing the patron with the perfect book. It’s like matchmaking for bibliophiles. If you’re in the mood to read but have no idea what to shoot for, grab us. Our staff reviews, while informative, are only a condensed version of our insights, and we love having conversations about this type of shit. All we need from you is a solid enough idea of the kind of books you read and enjoy. This could mean telling us about the last book you read, giving us a genre that you typically gravitate towards (and if we’re not too well-versed in that genre, we can find one of our colleagues who is), giving the name of an author with a narrative style you find really entertaining, or simply listing your current preferences: something funny with a strong, female narrator, and no deaths, perhaps. With information like that to guide us (and the more specific you are, the better), we can take you on your very own guided tour of our beloved store, pulling books left and right from surrounding shelves. It’s fun not just for you, but for us as well, since we get to share what we’re most passionate about with another human being. That is, of course, unless you say, “I don’t really read.” In which case, we’ll simply point you to the magazines and be done with you. (See Confession Five.)

Confession Three: We love when you know your way around

We forget, sometimes, that our store is not as familiar to you as it is to us. So for all the times we’ve impatiently pointed you in the general direction of some more-than-slightly obscured shelf in some nondescript corner, I apologize. We should’ve been nicer. But please try to understand – it’s all just residual, frustrated bewilderment from dealing with the obscenely large number of times when it’s seemed like you had no idea where the fuck you were. You know the times I’m talking about, don’t lie to me: when you’ve wandered through our doors looking for food and drinks; when you’ve asked where we keep our stamps; when you’ve lost your shit about how we don’t sell socks as we blink back at you with practiced nonchalance. It’s those times when I’ve seriously wondered if the enormous sign above our doors and the walls of books have somehow gone completely invisible, or if common sense has just taken a vacation day (and if so, come the hell back!).

But beyond just knowing that you’re inside a bookstore, “knowing your way around” also means that you’ve noticed the large, declarative signs announcing each section of our store (contrary to popular belief, they’re not just there as decoration), that you know these sections are organized by the author’s last name (a question that’s been posed to me far too many times than I think acceptable for the world’s smartest beings), and that you know Crime and Punishment wasn’t written by “Theodore Something.” We love seeing this shit from you, not because it means we don’t have to step in and save you from your own ineptitude, but because we love books and reading – and these things show that you do, too.

Confession Four: We love good manners

I can’t say it enough: for us, a bookstore is a sacred place. Rock of Gibraltar sacred; Kurt Cobain’s grave sacred. It’s a place where knowledge, intelligence, curiosity, imagination, and yes, nerds are celebrated; it’s a place where the weird kids you went to high school with who quoted from The Lord of the Rings in everyday life (and maybe sometimes shouted, “ROHIRRIM!” in a moment of unguarded ecstasy when fleeing out of the school doors for off-campus lunch) found peace, quiet, and sanctuary from their tumultuous coming-of-age, so much so that those same kids ended up becoming booksellers (what, I’m not talking about myself…). We open the space up, and welcome you inside, arms wide – so we ask that you show the space the respect its due.

This doesn’t mean having to put everything back exactly where you found it – that’s our job, and we don’t expect our guests to have to worry about that while they peruse and enjoy our selection. But it does mean remembering one very important thing: you are a guest. So behave like you would as a guest in a home. Because, really, it is someone’s home.

You wouldn’t toss your coat at the host the second you walked through their front door; so don’t toss your intended purchases across the counter to your bookseller (she might just pick that shit up and toss them back at you [see Confession Five]). You wouldn’t let your children barrel throughout the host’s house unchecked, screaming and wailing and banging all kinds of shit and generally making you look bad; so don’t allow your children to treat the bookstore like its a playground. You wouldn’t patronize, condescend, demean, or interrupt the host; so don’t assume your bookseller doesn’t know how to spell, and don’t just walk away when you’ve gotten what you’ve needed. You wouldn’t have a blaring conversation on your cell phone during dinner, unwittingly revealing some very unpleasant and very unwanted details of your personal life for all the other guests to hear; so when at a bookstore, keep your voice down to a tolerable level and then end the conversation altogether once you approach the register to pay. Yes, this space is also yours; yes, we’re here to help you as best we can. But this space belongs to other people as well; and your booksellers are people, too. Please, thank you, and a smile go a long way.

If it helps, pretend your mother’s there, giving you one of her meaningful head shakes and disapproving stares. (And then remember that you already rebelled against such ideals for good manners while you were in college, and very soon realized that Momma was right all along.)

Confession Five: We love to screw with you (if you cross us)

Those in the food service industry are notorious for being champions in “customer payback” and are widely feared because of it. What most people don’t know, is that booksellers can fuck with you, too. I won’t reveal exactly how (I’ve gotta keep my secret weapons a secret, after all), but I will say this: we get you every time.

Insider Secrets:

We get the same questions all day, everyday. Here’s hoping the following list will clear it all up.

1. Best-sellers lists are lies

The New York Times best-sellers list and others like it do not actually represent the sales figures of a certain book. Instead, they represent the projected sales figures for books, by way of how many copies of those books were purchased by bookstores across the country. This is why a title can end up on the best-sellers list before it is even released. Independent bookstores usually have their own store best-sellers list, which are measured from actual sales. Find an indie bookstore near you.

2. Prices

The prices for hardcover books can typically be found at top right- or left-hand corner on the inside flap of the book jacket. Otherwise, they are located on the back cover, above the bar code.

3. Hardcovers vs. Paperbacks vs. Mass markets

Books in hardcover are new releases. Publishers will keep a book in its hardcover edition for about nine to twelve months before releasing it in paperback. Generally, the paperback release will be about half the cost of its previous hardcover edition. (There are, however, new releases that are only released in paperback. This decision is up to the author and publisher.) The mass market edition of a book is the small, compact, “pocket book” size that you typically see with Stephen King, James Patterson, and Michael Connelly novels. This format is most popular within genre fiction (mystery, science fiction, romance, etc.). A book released in a regular-sized paperback edition (called “trade paperback”) may also be released in a mass market edition simultaneously, the cost of the latter being about half of the former. The actual text, however, is exactly the same.

4. ISBN

The International Standard Book Number (or ISBN) is a 13-digit numerical sequence typically beginning in “978.” Every book has an ISBN, and every edition of that book (hardcover, paperback, mass market, re-released anniversary edition, etc.) has a different ISBN. This usually is of no consequence to the consumer whatsoever, but in the case of school texts, or in books like Frankenstein and in books that are constantly being translated, a specific edition could prove important and having the correct ISBN will help you.

The ISBN for a hardcover first edition of Aimee Bender's novel, "The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake"
The ISBN for a hardcover first edition of Aimee Bender’s novel, “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake”

To the right of the ISBN is another set of numbers, the last four digits of which will give you a price. In the example below, the price is $25.95.

2d7762b3-e8f7-4721-9a3f-c25141df88bb

Above all things, please remember to be patient and kind. Not just in bookstores, but everywhere you go. We’re all stuck together in this strange, beautiful, completely nonsensical world. Let’s try to get the hell along.

Happy book shopping!

– Jayne

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