Holiday Handselling

Josie Leavitt - November 12, 2009

It’s time to start selling books hand over fist! The holidays are descending on us far sooner than we think. Forget that it was 55 degrees in Vermont today, sooner or later there will be snow on the ground and folks will come in with lists. Lists of people who need presents. It’s our job as booksellers to make sure no one on any list goes without a great book, or two (or three) this holiday season. Just how we do that is the fun of being a bookseller. I love the challenge of the holidays. I try to open the store early, by 8:30 if I can, to get the parents after they drop the kids off, and I go all day. Holiday shoppers are like a captive audience of folks needing recommendations. It’s fun, it’s challenging and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Being a great handseller is about listening and sharing. You listen to what the customer says they want, or who they’re looking to buy a gift for (this is the harder category) and then you share with them what you think they’ll like. I find pure enthusiasm for a book does more to sell it than anything else. If you love a book and can convincingly talk about why you love the book, you’ll have a much better chance of selling that book, to anyone. My favorite part of the holidays is hearing three months later how much Aunt Betty loved the book I recommended. This is what makes me happiest as a bookseller: hitting the nail on the head and coming up with a great book for a customer.

I listen to what a customer tells me about the gift recipient. Sometimes they don’t have much information to share and that can make them feel bad. I try to allay any anxiety about that and focus instead on what they do know. Sometimes all I have to go on is "He’s nine. " Okay then, here are three books I think a nine-year-old boy might really like.

I try to limit my suggestions to three books. I find more than that can be overwhelming. I also booktalk each book, and sometimes more than three booktalks can be a lot for some folks to stand through. I try very hard not to hover, so I leave them with a comfy chair and their stack of books and I check in with them after they’ve had a chance to look at the books. Sometimes, the first group gets rejected and then you must find other books. This can be trying, especially if you’re busy and you just love the books you recommended, but I find that taking that extra time often pays off. Happy customers return, and more importantly, the books will be better suited to their intended recipients.

If the store is really busy, I’ve been known to triage customers according to the ages they’re shopping for. It’s fun and saves me having to discuss the same book three times in a row. I get all the folks buying books for middle schoolers in the middle grade section and pick four or five books (with a group, I’ll always do more than three, so folks can hold a book). The beauty of this technique is everyone starts talking and then the group is basically handselling to each other, comparing what their kids liked and didn’t like.

I have to share the best holiday handselling I’ve ever seen. Picture Elizabeth Bluemle, bookseller extraordinaire,  two years ago when The Book Thief came out in paper back. She had just been talking about with a group of customers about why she loved the book. A customer asked her if the book was really good. Elizabeth just raised one eyebrow and the woman bought two.

One of the keys to a successful holiday season is to know your stock and be able to be conversant on as much as you can. While I’m not really a huge adult non-fiction reader, I need to be able to discuss at least a few titles with anyone who walks in the door. Read outside your genre. You never know when a young reader is going to veer into the adult section and they’ll expect you to follow them, knowledgeably.

The other key to success is to have titles in your head for each age group and to make sure you have those titles in stock. Talk to your co-workers about their go-to books. Knowing what other staff loves increases what you know, and can only help you sell books.

The key to the holidays is to remember that everyone just wants to get the right book. Money is tighter now than it’s been, and if folks take longer, they’re not being difficult, they’re deciding how best to spend 15 or 20 dollars. Mostly, the holidays are when I get wear my Santa hat and remember why I love selling books.

4 thoughts on “Holiday Handselling

  1. Maggie

    Josie we are doing our part at public libraries to give parents ideas of good books to purchase for kids. Our branches will feature special Great Ideas for Gifts displays. They can look it over and perhaps borrow some titles and venture over to their local bookstore to purchase others.

  2. shelftalker elizabeth

    I need to make sure readers know that my eyebrow raise wasn’t a “you question our taste?” snooty thing; it was a “this book is so good I can’t even form words to desecribe it” eyebrow raise. The woman hadn’t actually heard the book talk, just the mention of the title. That’s what made it funny and wonderful, that she trusted an indie bookseller on the power of the eyebrow. Easiest handsell ever. 🙂


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