Bookselling from the Bench

Cynthia Compton -- November 4th, 2019

We were unusually well-staffed at the store this weekend, so I volunteered to take the cash-and-wrap spot behind the register for the entire open-to-close shift. I twisted a knee this week (not doing anything remotely athletic, I just tripped over a snoozing bulldog) and thought that if I could just stay put in one spot, perhaps propping my foot up behind me on a step stool in a modified flamingo pose,  I could make it through the day at work and still be helpful. My ever-energetic 4 Kids crew could cover the floor and more active duties, and I would just  scan items at the register, swipe credit cards and answer questions. It sounds easy, right?

It seemed to be the perfect division of labor, except that I have never, ever before worked a whole shift in one spot. I don’t like to sit or stand still for very long, and typically if we’re having a slow day at the shop, I take apart a display or carry a list of book returns to the floor to pull titles, and invariably discover a section or two that needs to be reset. Something about being in the aisles just makes the day go faster, and I can dip in and out of conversations with customers and kids, offering book recommendations and gift suggestions on the move between sections, with some occasional breaks to sit on the floor and play.

The freedom to move around your own store simply cannot be overstated.

Standing still has never been easy.

Being rooted to one spot near the entrance, however, meant that I was the primary store greeter for the day. I hadn’t really noticed before, but I have only three greetings for customers. “Hi, friends! Good to see you!” is my go-to for anyone that looks vaguely familiar. (I am terrible at remembering the names of actual people. I can name authors and titles with ease, and even tell you what a character in a book was wearing in a particular scene if it was described, but putting names to regular customers is just not one of my skills.) “Welcome — come in out of the cold/heat/wind/rain/hail/locust swarm” is another standard salutation, and in Indiana, where the weather is mercurial, I can use several of these in a single afternoon. My third greeting is the shortest — just a quieter “hey, there!” reserved for parents and families with toddlers (no eye contact made with those under three feet, for a child starting a visit to the children’s store hiding behind their dad’s leg is not our goal). After hearing those three phrases repeated over and over in the first two hours, I realized that I need to work on some more opening lines, or risk sounding like Chatty Cathy with her neck string pulled too often.

Do not make direct eye contact with toddlers until they approach you first, and even then, use your quiet voice.

I also began to take note of how many really silly questions customers ask when they first come in to shop. Typically, we let a customer browse uninterrupted for a few minutes before we walk over to see if we can direct them to a specific section. Standing at the front, however, I was the “help desk lady” answering any and all first questions from visitors, which gave me a newfound respect for those poor Barnes and Noble employees who sit trapped behind the Information Desk. Here’s a few of the more predictably popular queries from this afternoon, and my practiced first response to each:

Eight Year Old Boys, aisle 2

“Where’s your eight year old boy section?”

Actually, we have several of those. What is your eight year old interested in?

“So…. are you like a store?”

We are. Are you like a customer, or would you like to just hang out a while? Either one is fine.

“Oh, I could never bring my kids here! They’d go nuts.”

I’m sure they’d be perfect. What kinds of things are they interested in right now?

“Do you have a bathroom?”

We do. It’s right back there, with the big sign.

Applying for the job where we just “read all day.”

“Oh, look at all these books. I bet you just read all day.”

Pretty much. What would you like to read today?

“What’s the best new book for boys?”

Oh, there’s actually a couple right now. What’s the last thing he read that he liked?” (yes, I realize that I could have a conversation about the myth of boy books and girl books, but this person doesn’t have a clue what they want, so we’ll just educate through good handselling, and they will end up getting a great book.)

“Are you that store my sister/neighbor/friend told me about?”

Probably, and please thank her for me. What can we help you find today?

“Are you just a kids’ store?”

Nope. But we’re not terribly good at adulting, either. How can we help today?

“Do you have any sales or specials today?

Indeed. Just for today, we’re only charging the price on the sticker, and the gift wrapping is free.

What kids think adults mean when they say “educational.”

Where’s your educational section? 

Between the entrance and the back door — we have quite a few. Who are we shopping for today?

Do you have that one book that all the kids are asking for? That one that’s not available at the library because it’s always checked out?

Probably. Which volume in the series is your kid reading right now?

Ten year old girls?

….are incredibly cool. Are you looking for a gift?

Can you look up a book to see if you have it?

Sure. Do you know the title? Or maybe the color of the cover?

Oh, the joy of the season, when customers remember we are here.

Are you the store that we shopped at last Christmas?

I’m sure we are, and we’ve missed you! How are you, and how is your family?

So… are you still in business? I thought bookstores were gone.

We’re doing our best, and I’m so glad you’re here.


By the end of my shift, my knee was stiff and sore, my foot was asleep,  and I had eaten most of the leftover Halloween chocolate behind the register. I had responded to all the questions, answered all the phone calls, and stayed within my self-imposed two-foot-square without once venturing into the stock room to “look for that one thing,” our store code for needing a break. I have never had a more exhausting bookselling afternoon, and I didn’t lift a single box or move a fixture. I now have profound respect for colleagues who work in one place all day, and realize that I will never, ever apply to be a greeter at Walmart.

I chose the cartoons of Charles Schulz to illustrate my blog post today, because I often picture the Peanuts gang when I tell stories about working in a children’s bookstore. Someday, I’d like to be as cool as Peppermint Patty, as kind as Linus, as confident as Lucy, and as sincere as Charlie Brown. Until then, I just want to dance like the gang to Vince Guaraldi’s perfect theme:









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About Cynthia Compton

Cynthia is the owner of 4 Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, Indiana, a 2600 sq. ft. childrens store founded in 2003. She serves on the board of the American Booksellers Association, is a past president of the Great Lakes Bookseller Association, and is a former member of the American Specialty Toy Retail Association board of directors. 4 Kids was honored with the Pannell Award in 2013 and has received numerous "best of" awards in the Indianapolis area. The opinions expressed in her posts are her own, and sometimes those of her english bulldogs.

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