The Secret Temptations of Booksellers

Elizabeth Bluemle - May 20, 2015

Counterintuitive as it may seem, most people don’t go into bookselling for the “selling” piece of it. As a whole, we are avid readers, librarians at heart who love to be around books and recommend them to people, and would rather just give them away if we could. The “selling” part is a necessary, but not beloved, aspect of the job, involving enough craziness (plus frustration, plus absurdity) in the details of ordering, receiving, selling, and returning books to drive us to the outermost edges of our patience. And occasionally, I’m sorry to report, we will get a real pip of a customer—someone who forgets that the person on the other side of the counter is a human being. That’s when our brains get busy and we start wondering how close we are to saying or doing something completely outrageous at the store.
Some of our temptations are of the amused, mischievous variety. I am often tempted to pretend I’ve never heard of a very famous series that a customer is asking for. “The Magic Tree House?” I want to say with a look of thoughtful puzzlement. “Not ringing a bell.” Or, “Percy Jackson series?” Shaking my head, blank expression. “Who’s the author?” I actually have done this now and again—usually only with Harry Potter, because I know the customer will get the joke right away.
Sometimes my temptations are creative. I have to wrestle myself to the ground not to do things like rearrange all of adult fiction by color. Or size. Or to group books by theme instead of alpha by author, so the shelves would be divided into sections like: Books That Make Your Heart Happy. Books That Make You Cry, But in a Good Way. Books with Worlds You Don’t Ever Want to Leave. Books That Teach You Fascinating Things. Books That Make You Laugh on Every Page. Fabulous Books with Terrible Covers. Brilliant Gems You’ve Never Heard Of. And so on. I remind myself that this is what displays are for; I don’t need to revamp the entire store.
We did create a Mystery Mystery section on April Fool’s Day:


The worst temptation is the one when we’ve just had it with retail for the moment. Maybe we’ve dealt with people using the store as a showroom to make online purchases. Plus some kids are using picture books as skateboards while their oblivious parent reads a book in a section nearby. And an entitled customer is snapping his fingers at us for his change while another blames us for the gift card she lost. At those times, I can feel myself nearing the danger zone, which means that the very next person who is intolerably rude or treats the books, store, or my staff with disrespect is in danger of hearing out loud what I am chanting in my head. “Get. Out. Get out get out get out!” Happily, it’s never gotten to that point. Yet.
Josie and I used to have a smiley-face-on-a-stick that came with some book back when we first opened the store. We kept it for years, and whenever something drove us absolutely bonkers at the store, one of us would go behind the counter and—unseen by anyone else—raise it up to our face. It made whoever was on the front lines of the bad moment laugh and remember that, as ridiculous as retail can be, it’s still a pretty great job to be a bookseller.
Fellow booksellers, teachers, and librarians—what are your secret temptations?

11 thoughts on “The Secret Temptations of Booksellers

  1. Ellen

    I gave my favorite snarky comeback to a customer once when I was high up on a ladder, getting some books down from an overstock shelf. Someone looked up and asked that age-old question, “Do you work here?”, to which I replied, “No, I’m just stealing.” I loved working in a bookstore but honestly, sometimes you need to let off a little steam!!

    1. Maureen

      I loved this post! Our store’s secret-smiley-face -on-the-stick is a big E.G.R. printed above our cash register but only seen by our staff. When someone like Elizabeth and Josie’s customer has migrated to the West Coast and our store, we point to EGR and remember the mantra: Extra Grace Required.
      It works, in part, because everyone in retail has these kinds of frustrations and blessedly, they are few, but acknowledging the challenge is often enough just to take an extra, deep breath and soldier on.

  2. Stephanie Kilgore

    My temptation (that I have given in to…nicely) is when I am working at an event outside of the store. I am wearing a store staff shirt, have tablecloths with our store name on it and event calenders out that advertise what we are doing and someone will inevitably come up and ask “Can I get this on Amazon?” My response lately has been to look them in the eye and explain “I work for a local independent bookstore that has nothing to do with Amazon so I am not sure what their inventory looks like.” I leave it at that and DO resist the temptation to say “However, as they are trying to drive my store out of business soon we will all have no choice to be aware of their inventory.” So far, I have avoided that….so far!

  3. Kathy

    I’m always tempted, when I’ve just answered the phone for nameyourfavorite bookstore and am asked, “Yes, do you have books?” to say no.

  4. Emily

    Back when I used to work at Borders (RIP) we kept a notebook of “Dumb Things Customers Say” as sort of a cathartic exercise. It kept most of us from saying mean things back to certain customers, but also provided entertainment when we were slow. Eventually a manager found it (after years of writing) and threw it away. He was no fun.
    One time though, I was at the registers with this insanely long line (we were in Downtown Boston and it was lunch time). We were going as quickly as we can and I was on a roll! I called out “NEXT!” and no one moved up. I called it out again, and again, nothing. I peak down the line and the man at the front of the line is too busy on his cell phone to realize that I’m calling him. So I shout, as loud as I can, “NEXT PERSON IN LINE OR I”M SKIPPING YOU!” That caught his attention. He barrels down to my register and shouts in my face, “That was f***ing rude!” I dropped his book right there, turned on my heel and walked away. My coworker stepped in, said, “What did you just say?” gave him the stinkiest eye I have ever seen and the man slinked off without his purchase.

    1. Ellen

      Emily, you just reminded me! We had a clipboard hanging in our back room for the very same purpose – to write down funny mangled title requests and dumb questions from customers. We also gave secret nicknames to a few of our store’s most annoying customers.

  5. Craig Roberts

    Recently I was asked “Do we sell Gift Vouchers?” promptly answered “Yes we do how much would you like?” slow reply… ” how much are books?” Now I’m starting to get worried, I reply “depends if it new or kids’ or something else!”baffled customer “how would I know what they are going to buy! that’s why I want to give a voucher” … I really had nothing.
    Then the next question killed me “Your voucher can be used on Amazon right?” … … … yes it was a long pause. “No but they can be used in any book shop in Australia” an immediate response “well that’s no good.” Then “You really should sell Amazon Gift Vouchers!” again I have nothing and apparently never will for that question.
    She did go on to buy a Gift Voucher from us. A small evil part of me hopes it’s still trying to be entered in the Amazon shopping cart 😀

  6. Donna Gephart

    Loved, loved, LOVED this post. And your mystery display was hilarious. Think you should re-arrange the books with your suggested categories. Brilliant post. Thank you!

  7. Karin

    I have been in bookselling for almost ( gasp! ) 25 years! My secret temptation for a difficult customer is to hand them a book from the self-help section. Something like, The Narcissist Next Door or 14,000, Things to Be Happy About but my own spiritual development prevents me from getting too snarky.

  8. Nick Bruel

    Once had a customer snap my suspenders in order to get my attention.
    Once had a customer hold up a paperback book and ask me “Do you have this in paperback?”
    Once had a customer collapse a third of the Travel section by climbing up the shelves.
    Once had a (drunk) customer change his pants next to the front registers.
    I’ve been insulted by customers, screamed at by customers, and, near the end of my 15 year tenure in bookselling, even punched by a customer.
    My secret temptation can be seen in any given scene of any given 3 Stooges film.

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle

      All of the comments to this thread have been great, funny, and awful. Nick, I will be laughing about your contributions for as long as I’m in bookselling. I’m starting to see where Bad Kitty came from….


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