Bookseller Burnout

Cynthia Compton - February 12, 2020

Ahh, February. The season of foil wrapped chocolates, large displays of “blind date with a book” made of brown-paper-packaged titles with teasing little labels, sidewalk salt crunching underfoot on the dusty footprint-filled tile floors of the shop and burnout. Bookseller burnout – that bone-level exhaustion, lack of motivation, tired-hamster-on-a-wheel feeling that hits so very hard in the bleak months of the 1st quarter. If we were lucky, we attended Winter Institute in Baltimore, filled our notebooks with great ideas and our pockets with business cards, flew home exhausted and then the avalanche of ennui tumbled onto our desks. If this wasn’t a year for a conference or even a midwinter gift show, we slogged through the slush of January, shoveling our sidewalks and doorsteps, putting up paper snowflakes in the windows to replace the holiday lights, and waited for customers too few and far in-between. Surely, there is no year as long as the 31 days of January in retail, except that sneaky month of February, which is an era worthy of its own class of dinosaurs.

It doesn’t really matter if you’ve been in this bookselling business for one year, or ten, or twenty – the burnout germ will find you like that cold that passes around a preschool classroom. While the bug can strike at any time, it seems that February, with its long list of new big book releases but short line of customers visiting our stores every day is just peak season for catching the “old and blue” rather than “cold and flu.” The work just seems harder this time of year. During the holiday season, we spent long busy hours on our feet, late nights at the computer, countless mittened trips carrying books and sidelines to offsite events, and wrapped thousands of presents, but the frenzied, jolly pace of it all kept us going. There was cheer in the jingle of the doorbell and the register, and our customers reflected back all the love we poured into our shops all year. Our sore feet were made bearable by our need to return the next day and repeat the effort, and the steadily rising z-tape totals at the end of each day were like a tonic, getting us all charged up for another shift.

January, by comparison, was quiet and peaceful, but as we closed for inventory (guilt free, because no one minded an early close or late opening hour) and dusted shelves, we laughed as we found items hidden behind shelving units and stray titles tucked into odd places. We were so tired and happy to restore order to our bookish havens that had survived the onslaught of all that public, and we were glad to speak less, read more, and clear the clutter. Well, we were glad to the quiet for a week or two, and then some of us had conferences and trade shows to pack for, and friends to see.

But then came February, and things got tough. Sales are up a tic or two, and there are a few more birthdays and anniversaries to shop for, and folks have made their way through the books they found under the tree, and need new things to read. Book clubs are back in session after holiday hiatus, and some stalwart authors (bless them) brave the ice and snow to tour our schools, so there’s some orders to place and fliers to make…. but it’s not all that much fun. It’s just a slog, day in and out, and all those bright and shiny ideas that we brought back from smarter, bigger booksellers and consultants just seem like so much work. There’s not enough cash to pay staff extra hours, so days off seem like too much of a luxury, even though we could all surely use them. There’s a zillion things to do, of course, and there should be enough time, but the days are short of daylight and we booksellers are short on sparkle.

I can review some of the wisdom I found online from seasoned booksellers to combat this dreaded case of the bookseller blues, but most of it you can probably guess (as booksellers, I am sure that you read the same time and career management titles that we all shelve.) Key advice seems to be this:

Focus on only one or two (or three) changes or improvements to make in your store operations or processes, and make those action items achievable and measurable. Set aside that notebook or list full of ideas, and pick just a couple of things to do this month, then celebrate their completion.

Find a way to take a day or two off, even if that means changing your store hours. Perhaps a volunteer or two (if you run a very small store) or use your precious hours off the floor to NOT do store work, but invest in yourself with an activity that feeds your soul.

Identify some tasks to delegate (there’s time to train staff when business is slower) or outsource, or simply give yourself the month off from a few non-essential tasks.

Find a way to spend time with colleagues, either at a meeting or by phone or email. Our business can be very isolating, and conversation with other booksellers is valuable and affirming.

Break something. No, not your printer (that will happen by itself) or the plumbing (ditto) but choose one thing to do differently. Perhaps you rearrange the store, or radically change the music that you play for shoppers. Look at some “standard” thing that you do, even if it works, and just change it. Don’t worry, you can change it back in March if you need to, but February calls for revolution if we are all to survive until spring.

Most of all, know this, my dear friends-of-the-midlist, we all feel it. We all know about burnout, and while we may not all suffer from it this year, we’ve all been there. This, too, shall pass. Spring will come. Customers will come. Books will call you back to loving your career, and it will love you back. Right now, though, let’s open some of those chocolates and close early, shall we? It’s been a long month.

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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.

2 thoughts on “Bookseller Burnout

  1. Diana

    Seriously, take a couple days off and spend them doing something utterly un-work-related. And eat something REALLY good, my choice is usually a loaded plate of sushi. 🙂 I always take a couple days off during the slump season and it’s the most refreshing thing you can do for yourself.
    They are words of wisdom, indeed! Thanks Cynthia. 🙂

    1. Cynthia Compton Post author

      Oh, Diana, any excuse to eat something really, really good is welcome. Actually, I will use the slow, slushy season as an excuse to eat stuff that is just okay. And I appreciate your kind response.
      Is it time for a snack?


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