I spent the other evening browsing for books at the bookstore. This being a standard chain bookstore, the selection was limited (to say the least). I browsed through the books on sale, looking for one or two that seemed slightly more interesting than the standard. After about half an hour of indecisiveness, I decided to ask a bookseller for help. The young woman who came to my assistance seemed like she sincerely wanted to help the various customers in need, myself included.
I posed her a tough question: in a stack of predictable, popular choices, I asked for something a bit different. Something original. And I guess she tried. I mean, she spent some time trying to figure it out. The only problem was... she had no idea what she was doing.
Book after book was offered while she hurriedly glanced at the back, getting an impression of the subject matter before handing it off to me. When I asked her if she'd read the offered book, the answer was consistently, "No, not yet..." She had no idea if books were translated (and even less what language they were translated from...) and wasn't really clear on anything beyond the general, "Well, this one's a bestseller..."
Which got me thinking. How much should we expect our booksellers to know what they're selling us? Books aren't like TVs - you can't memorize a bunch of statistics and product details to spout off in front of a potential customer. To understand a book, you have to read it. You have to experience it. And this bookseller... she had no understanding of what she was selling, nor of what kind of reader she was selling to. In the end, I left the store without a single book, only deciding later (at home, with the aid of the internet and some reviews) which books I would get.
It's pretty disappointing, actually. I'm not saying I didn't stump her a bit (which is typically what happens when I ask for a bookseller's assistance...), but a passionate reader will know how to help. A passionate reader will understand and appreciate a specific customer's desire for something a little original, a little different and will do everything possible to find the right match. It won't always be easy, and it might even be impossible, but at least they'll try. They won't just rely on publisher blurbs and apparent popularity.
No, I don't expect every bookseller to have read every book in the store. It's impossible, I know. But I guess I'd like my booksellers to have a little more of an understanding of what books they're trying to push, and also of their customers. I'd like my booksellers to at least know as much about the newly published books as I do, and certainly not to simply recommend them to me based on the back-cover blurb. But sadly, it seems like more and more booksellers these days don't actually read the books and recommend only based on general information. A shame, really. Conversations with booksellers who know what they're talking about can be so much fun.