A few months ago I opened a new professional chapter in my life by joining the staff of Annie Blooms Bookstore. It’s a wonderful indy bookseller with a 30 year history of bringing great literature to Portland. I’m really honored to be one of them, for many reasons. But what I think I love most is their passion for freedom of speech, and their willingness to go to great lengths to help a patron find the book they want. So in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris this was my bookstore’s response. I have a lot to learn about bookselling but here are some things I’ve learned in the last few months.
1. Customers often have a specific goal in mind. And when they are looking for the book they’ve set their heart on, no other book will do. So much as I’d love to persuade them to buy a different book, I’m better served by cheerfully finding them what they want and hoping they come back hungry for another book.
2. But sometimes, and especially when the customer is shopping for a child they don’t know very well, they have no idea what they want. So then I need to have a few go-to books in nearly every sub-genre: a handful of sports books, a few animal stories, a couple of sure-fire scary books and so on. Which makes it very clear to me how authors get pigeon-holed and have a hard time selling in a new genre. When a kid comes in looking for a sports book I go straight to Lupica who has a half dozen strong titles kids always love. If he suddenly started writing dragon books, my bookseller-self would be rather cross that my reliable sports books are no longer in the Lupica section of the bookstore. (Sorry, Mike, not fair to you. I know. Just saying.) It’s not that I wouldn’t try to sell his dragon books or want them to do well. It just makes my job a little harder. I’d heard that publishers are the ones who want to pigeon-hole authors, and I can see now where that pressure comes from.
3. But maybe the most important thing I’ve learned is that coming to the bookstore is often not about the books at all. Many people stop by to visit our wonderful cat, Molly Bloom, seen above stalking the leash of a visiting dog. Lots of little patrons a just here to rock on the dragon. Some are looking for a warm dry place to sit down while they wait for the bus. People often meet friends in the bookstore and chat about the books for a bit and then go out for coffee. Some just want the peace of quietly browsing the shelves–an oasis in a busy world.
I’m sure I could have found a job that pays more but it’s hard to imagine one that would leave me feeling more satisfied at the end of the day.