Thursday, November 24, 2011

The story of the bookseller who knew nothing

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.


  1. That is sad. I went to an event yesterday with lots of people from Waterstones and all were enthusiastic, knowledgeable and able to recommend lots of books to me, despite the fact I have read a lot. I hope your next experience is better.

  2. This would have frustrated me to no end. Often I don't even ask for help in the bookstore because I fear this type of response, but the one time that I did ask for help, I was pleasantly surprised and walked out with a whole stack of books that were new to me. It's a gamble every time you ask though.

    If you are still looking for something different, and slightly weird, I would recommend: Q: A Novel, and The Third Policeman. Both wonderful pieces of absurdist literature that rocked my socks off.

  3. I used to work in a bookstore and helping people find good books was my favorite part of the job! Even if you don't read everything (I mainly knew lit and children's lit) a good bookseller gets a sense of what is read the most and can use that to make recommendations. I worked in a used bookstore, which was even better, because you saw which books came back and could actually ask the seller how they liked it.

  4. I am lucky enough to number among my friends a book dealer who runs a second hand bookshop. Maybe not so much help with new releases, but he really knows his stock and has read much of it. There is always bookish conversation to be had and, as you say, it is fun.


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