Good bookselling has a lot of psychology in it. It can be a very interesting way to spend the day. Everyone in retail has this dynamic with customers, but I feel in bookstores customers are much more likely to have more personal relationships because the nature of bookselling is more personal than other kinds of retail.
The man at the wine store might know his customers really well, but I doubt he gets the level of personal detail that booksellers do. There is something confessional about bookstores that has always fascinated me. People feel comfortable sharing their lives with us and we in turn, hold these stories privately and with respect. Sometimes all it takes is asking, “How are you?” and before you know it someone has shared that they’re considering divorce, or they’ve gotten a cancer diagnosis. or their child is being bullied at school.
Of course bookstores are full of knowledge, so folks come in seeking answers to questions that are plaguing them. In small towns when someone buys a copy of At Mom’s House, At Dad’s House it’s clear there’s a looming divorce. Often customers will share their need for a book, and occasionally the bookstore is the first stop on a bumpy journey. Our job as booksellers is to make that purchase as stress-free as possible.
When my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer seven years, I ordered every book about cancer I found in the Ingram warehouse. My co-workers knew something was going on before I told them, but none said a word until I brought it up. (Happily, my mom is doing just great, and made it to the five-year mark cancer-free.) There is a politeness to bookselling that dictates no purchase gets commented on. There are a myriad of reasons why someone would buy books on breast cancer, and honestly, it’s none of our business. However, in a store like ours, with customers we know well, the reasons for book purchases are shared almost immediately.
Often, the bookstore is the first stop when things happen. Good news, like a pregnancy, can bring folks in to buy books about birth and child rearing. Bad news, such as illness or divorce, brings folks in for help navigating what is about to come. In all these instances, the bookstore is the place where people come for information and comfort. Our job as booksellers is not to comment, but to be supportive and listen when folks want to share and not to pry even when we’re worried.
To me the bookstore is like its own village and there’s a real honor in being part of that. Every day people come in seeking something to change their world. Sometimes it’s as simple as an escape read for a busy parent, but often the books folks buy mean much more. To be able to provide the book that can bring solace or laughter is a heady experience and is a wonderful way to spend the day.