Fireside Chats With a Bookseller, III

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“So, have you read all of these books?”

To begin with, a brief primer on humour: even the wittiest of witticisms (of which this comment is not one) wears thin after repetition. This is the sort of fact of which I had hoped most canny adults were aware, but, like so much about adulthood, the reality thus far proves disappointing.

Secondly: of course I have not read all of these books. You know that anyway; you are not asking because you actually care or think I might have, but either because you are uncomfortable with silence, or because you are doing that thing some customers do, where they know you cannot be rude to them up to a certain point of unacceptable behaviour on their part, so they torment you with banalities on purpose. More on this in an episode to come.

The interesting thing about working in a bookshop is that you do not get time to read books during the day. The corollary to the above remark (and perhaps the more annoying one) is “Oh, I wish I worked here! You must just read all day!” No, actually. It’s where I work. Bookselling is a job, therefore a bookshop is also an office. Waitresses don’t eat all day; bartenders don’t drink all night (well…); doctors don’t spend their surgery hours writing themselves prescriptions, and lawyers don’t sue their own ex-spouses. Booksellers don’t read at work. We’re busy doing other things, including but not limited to: unpacking daily boxes of deliveries from wholesale distributors and publishers; having meetings with sales reps; invoicing account customers; shelving stock; processing web orders; fixing our own mistakes; ordering special titles or reordering regularly needed titles; recommending titles to customers; processing sales through the till; and, of course, answering emails, seventy-five percent of which consist of queries the answer to which is easily found by spending two minutes on our website.

When a job description says of the ideal candidate for the role that they “will have passion and enthusiasm”, it is generally utter guff. You don’t need passion or enthusiasm to do most jobs, no matter what recruitment specialists say; the most that ought to be required of you in the majority of industries is competence and being alive. In bookselling, though, those qualities are essential. What other industry relies on you being able to speak knowledgeably on a range of subjects whilst denying you the ability to do your research during work hours? If you aren’t passionate about reading—really passionate, rabidly; if you don’t like it enough to read at lunch, before bed, and/or during your commute—you won’t have enough time to do it at work, during the day. And you’ll be demonstrably less good at your job, much of which (at least in the small indie where I work) involves giving personal recommendations to walk-in customers you’ve never met before. If you haven’t got an arsenal of recent reading to choose from, you’re lost, and if you’re relying on your work hours to give you the time to “just read all day”…forget it.

Fireside Chats With a Bookseller, II

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image credit: Heywood Hill

“Can you get it today?”

There are a lot of reasons to find Amazon unappealing. I know that they have done some valuable work in the sense that they provide a much bigger platform for self-published authors, and even through a veil of retained snobbery, I can recognise that that’s a good thing for a lot of people. It’s pretty clear, though, that they also engage in deeply unsavoury business practices (the Hachette price wars); depressing – though evidently unsuccessful – attempts to break into bricks-and-mortar bookselling; and services like Mechanical Turk, which lets you hire humans to do jobs that computers can’t do, which sounds great until you actually try to sign up for it as a worker, at which point you realise that the tasks are generally painfully menial, you have no way to negotiate with prospective employers, and you’d have to do six hundred of these tasks per day in order to make anything like a decent wage.

They contribute, in other words, to the service economy that we now have, which convinces consumers that anything, any commodity that you can possibly imagine, should be available to you within two hours. Services like Quiqup, Deliveroo and Uber are entirely reliant on this. Amazon drone delivery is a service designed with this in mind. It fosters the idea that you should never have to wait for anything, ever, if you can afford not to.

These are companies that are built on hundreds of thousands of backs, mostly belonging to people who provide unskilled and low-paid labour. It is the only way this particular business model works; the only way that you can get a pizza, or a pair of shoes, physically delivered to you in under an hour is to have an army of people standing by, just waiting for you to order it.

Small, independent businesses do not work like that, and so it always baffles me when a customer – piqued that we cannot, in fact, special-order something for delivery in under an hour – chooses to vent their distress by informing us that they “only shop here to support small businesses and fight Amazon.” You cannot support a small business if you expect it to be doing what Amazon does. If you support a small business, you have to understand what you are sacrificing, and what you will receive in return. As a consumer, you sacrifice a lot of your power: you can only walk out of a small business with whatever is on the shelf at the time; if you order something, you will need to wait – probably no more than 24 hours, because deliveries happen once a day, but waiting is an anomaly for consumers now.

But what you get in return is something magical: people who love what they’re doing. People who will spend half an hour with you, if you are friendly and interested, picking out books that they think you would like. People who will talk to a regular customer about her dog, her kids, her holidays, what she’d like to read next. (Although this deserves a caveat: we’re at work, and just like you in your office, we don’t always have all the time in the world for a catch-up, particularly if you’re regular, but not always a regular customer, if you see what I mean. More on this in another post.) People who know what’s over-hyped and what’s underrated; people who can size you up the second you walk in the door; people who, on their best days, can pluck exactly what you need from a shelf you didn’t even notice. If you have a good independent bookshop nearby, that’s what you’ve got: a building full of witches, of knowledge and instinct and experience. That’s the edge we have over Amazon: you should buy books here not because it’ll make you feel better about your lifestyle, like a smug purchaser of farmer’s market aubergines, but because the results in the long-term are generally better. We can introduce you to authors and books that an algorithm might never have shown you; that sort of thing can change a person’s life.

If you’re not willing to give up immediacy, that’s okay! Some people don’t need or want a high level of personal attention; they want what they know they like, right away, and there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s exactly what Amazon is good for. But if you do earnestly want to support local independent businesses, understand what that means.

(Endnote: I should tell you that there has been one occasion, as far as I know, in the history of the shop, where we exerted ourselves on someone’s behalf to get them a surprising quantity of the same title in the same day. The only way it was possible to do this was to literally walk to Waterstone’s and buy twelve of their copies, walk them back to our shop, and charge the customer. The customer was entirely content with this arrangement. As you’ll have gathered, this was a pretty unusual interaction.)