By Vanessa Blakeslee
My only misgiving about working as a bookseller was that I didn’t seek out the job sooner. For most of my youth I’d paid the bills waiting tables, which was certainly lucrative, but scraping dirty plates doesn’t feed the soul. I’ve worked for Bookmark It, Inc., in Orlando, Florida, for the past several years, a part-time stint which began by helping out my friend, owner Kim Britt, during her Locally Grown Words fair. Quickly, I realized bookselling made a natural fit. Ask customers about what they like to read? Easy—as an author and teacher of creative writing, I talk books all day long anyway. Shelve new titles and decide which ones to display? That’s a pure aesthetic pleasure, one that I don’t get to indulge in at home with my crowded, disorganized shelves. And of course, there’s the obvious perk of the employee discount and ARC giveaways on titles that I was forever eager to obtain.
But working in book sales doesn’t come without its surprises—about the readers who visit one’s store as well as myself, how my own tastes have come to be formed and are continually shaped. What prompts book browsers to buy? Here’s what surprised me the most.
Working for a bookstore expanded the scope of my reading in ways I wouldn’t have guessed. Growing up, whenever I had a fleeting thought of working behind a bookstore register, I fantasized about all the literature I would stock up on with my employee discount (oh, how would I ever restrict myself and still bring home a paycheck?). What I couldn’t have foretold was how being exposed to books that wouldn’t usually catch my interest—cookbooks, general nonfiction, and lifestyle titles, such as Downsizing the Family Home—would enrich my reading life. But in bookselling, a greater variety of titles cross one’s path; titles you might never otherwise pick up. During my time as a bookseller, I adopted a paleo and no-sugar diet, brushed up on state history while listening to the Finding Florida audio book, and grew captivated by the letters of Charles Bukowski, all as a result of my hours immersed in inventory, selecting titles for staff picks.
Holding back from spending an entire paycheck on books wasn’t so difficult. I kept a wish list, but surprisingly, having such ready access to enriching titles on an ongoing basis can often restrict an otherwise voracious appetite for acquiring more books than one can read. As a bookseller, I set a boundary, one book purchase a month, which allowed for time to decide if I really needed to own that title. Sometimes, quiet shifts turned into reading time and I’d get to dive into that alluring new release sooner.
When I read a book behind the desk during slow times, I was highly likely to sell that book. As staff members, we aimed to familiarize ourselves as much as possible with our regular stock, as well as much-buzzed-about new releases. Inevitably, when I found myself reading behind the desk and a customer eventually strolled in, he or she often asked if I was “enjoying my book.” As long as I’d read enough to speak earnestly about my impression, the customer more often than not would remark, “I’d like to buy that from you, if you don’t mind.” Mind? Of course not! I’d reply and smile. Station Eleven, The Heart Goes Last, and Big Magic all ended up in customers’ hands that way, and those are just the titles I remember.
Devoted readers love to buy books at events. As much as I loved to work events such as Functionally Literate, the quarterly reading series in Orlando sponsored by Burrow Press, lit-enthused attendees equally love to purchase books there. A good rule of thumb seems to be that the bigger a crowd, the greater the enthusiasm for the authors presenting, and many attendees will make at least one purchase. Free events are a plus since attendees have more spending money to buy the featured titles and get them signed afterward.
Fluff is okay: In fact, selling lighter, more mainstream books allows independent stores to stock literary titles. Once we held an event for a book “written” by a dog who is famous on Instagram that tells of his adventures. The line for the signing stretched around the block, and we sold well over a hundred copies. One fan rushed to join the line out-of-breath, exclaiming she’d driven two-and-a-half hours to meet the canine author and get his paw imprinted inside her copy’s cover. When once I would have rolled my eyes, my tenure as book clerk by then had given me a less snobby, more pragmatic view of the book-buying public. Book- and dog-lovers alike milled around with smiles on their faces, and more than a few attendees ventured into the store and picked up other titles. The success of a single event such as the “dog signing” enabled our store to host literary launches and “Wine & Signs” remainder of the season even though they didn’t boast such a robust turnout. And really, why be such a snob?
My insider’s take-away: Book-selling is a constant guessing-game, but the surprises never ceased to shatter my expectations, expand my views, and challenge me as a reader, thinker, and creative writer. What new title or category would I broach next that I would otherwise have skipped in my typical browsing as a customer? That I would in turn introduce to someone else? The greatest surprise may be how the feeling of matching a title with a reader never gets old—whether selling my own books or someone else’s—but lifts my heart every time.
Vanessa Blakeslee is the author of the novel Juventud (Curbside Splendor, 2015), hailed by Publisher’s Weekly as a “tale of self-discovery and intense first love.” Her story collection, Train Shots (Burrow Press), won the 2014 IPPY Gold Medal in Short Fiction. The book was also long-listed for the 2014 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and has been optioned for a feature film by writer/director Hannah Beth King. Vanessa’s writing has appeared in The Southern Review, Green Mountains Review, The Paris Review Daily,The Globe and Mail, and Kenyon Review Online, among many others. A finalist for the 2014 Sherwood Anderson Foundation Fiction Award, she has also been awarded grants and residencies from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Banff Centre, Ledig House, and the Ragdale Foundation, and in 2013 received the Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs.
Vanessa’s latest book, Perfect Conditions: stories (Curbside Splendor, July 2018), is a Chicago Tribune “Summer Reads” Pick.