The Adventures of an International Bookseller

Alison Morris - October 8, 2008

My friend and colleague Janet Potter is easily one of the most talented and entertaining booksellers I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the years. She’s sharp as a tack, exceedingly well-read, highly observant, and wonderfully witty. She’s also sorely missed!

After several years of devoted service to both Wellesley Booksmith and Brookline Booksmith, Janet headed off to Dublin, Ireland where she recently completed a master’s degree in journalism AND a lengthy stint as an Irish bookseller. (She’s also been doing lots of traveling, as evidenced by the photo above, taken in front of Rome’s Colosseum.)

What’s next on Janet’s list of adventures? A bookselling gig in GREECE! (Be still my bookseller heart!) Before Janet left Dublin for sunnier shores I asked her to write about her experiences as an Irish bookseller, and here, my friends, is her typically "Janet" (read: witty and wonderful) response.

Have Experience, Will Travel
The Adventures of an International Bookseller

by Janet Potter

The fall of my freshman year of college I got a part-time job at Wellesley Booksmith, and I have almost consistently been working in bookstores for the 7 years since. To date, I’ve worked in 5 bookstores, for 10 managers and 14 assistant managers. No doubt like many of you – reading, shelving, restocking, recommending, and writing about books has become second nature to me. I sometimes answer my phone by saying, “Would you like a bag?”, and I can finally summarize the plot of The History of Love faster than Michael Phelps swims 100m.

After 6 years of bookselling in Boston, I moved to Dublin last August, where I’ve worked at two different bookstores while I finished a master’s degree. Bookselling in a different country, I’ve simultaneously experienced a world-is-flat sensation and culture shock. In some respects, all bookstores are the same, which in a way reassures me that if I ever hike to the remotest jungles of the world, I will find the local bookseller there and we will complain about customers who take too long counting change and can’t remember the titles of Mark Haddon’s books.

In other ways, working at bookstores in Dublin was like starting all over again. During my first week of work I spent about 10 minutes with a very patient customer who was looking for a book by Ross O’Carroll-Kelly. Still getting used to a new inventory system and unfamiliar with the author, I tried looking under O, under C, under K. Was it a novel? Was it a memoir? When I eventually gave up and asked a co-worker, they very smugly directed me to the bestseller shelf, where 50 copies of the book in question sat at the #1 spot. Ross O’Carroll-Kelly is maybe the most popular author in Ireland, and owns a timeshare on the bestseller list. I was mystified. It had been years since I’d had to look up a frontlist title, let alone not find it. You know that new part-timer who just started at your bookstore? The one who doesn’t know who wrote The Kite Runner? I was THAT girl.

I learned quickly that one country’s frontlist is another country’s remainder table. Luckily, I used this to my advantage, and I hope to the advantage of the Irish reading public. These people have never read Sarah Vowell! George Saunders! Richard Yates! They’re published here, but they languish on the shelf much like anything by Colm Toibin that isn’t The Master does in the U.S. The store I work in now has Gilead on clearance for 1.99, and we can’t give it away. If I ever see anybody browsing anywhere near it, I always say, “If you’re looking for a good read, this is one of the best books I’ve ever read. If you can’t take my word for it, ask the Pulitzer Prize committee.” And yet it never moves. I think the word “Iowa” on the back cover conjures up some BBC World News interview they once saw with a farmer who said he’d elect George Bush for 8 more terms, and they put it down. These poor people don’t know what they’re missing.

But with other books I’m more successful. I once encountered a very anxious woman whose teenage daughter needed some vacation books, and was tired of being given Marian Keyes every time she walked into a bookstore (Marian Keyes is like a religion here). I set her up with a combination of some of my favorite spunky female authors – one part Marisha Pessl, one part Melissa Bank, and two parts Curtis Sittenfeld – and three weeks later she was back asking me where I got my magic powers. As I politely refused her gifts and adulation, I insisted that these were merely the go-to books any American bookseller would know.

Obviously I enjoy my niche as the keeper of America’s publishing treasures – I feel a little like a benevolent deity when I stand beside a parent who’s flipping through Knuffle Bunny for the first time and saying, “ I can’t believe I’ve never heard of Mo Willems before, why isn’t he popular here?” And I can only say, “I don’t know, but we can change that, you and I.”

And I’m getting better at the Irish side of the things. The other day a guy came up to me and said, “What’s like deportees, chicken?” A few months ago I would have thought this was the setup to some awful play on words, but I now know that it’s Irish for: “I recently read The Deportees by Roddy Doyle (Roddy Doyle – also a religion) and would like something similar.” I recommended Ross O’Carroll Kelly.

7 thoughts on “The Adventures of an International Bookseller

  1. Susan

    Oh, ouch… she’s pegged the Irish bookshop embarassingly (delightfully!) well. I hope she keeps in touch from Greece, so we can send her the latest Marian Keyes and Roddy Doyles! Can’t be without them!! 😉

  2. T

    A religious reader of the Brookline Booksmith E-Newsletter, I was thrilled to see the fabulous Janet pop up here. Keep writing, girl!


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