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Bookseller Secrets and Stories: Matchmaking and Other Things

This is a belated follow-up to Michelle’s wonderful post on selling books at Barnes and Noble in Texas. I work at an independent, the Dorothy Butler Children’s Bookshop, and we specialise in books for babies, children and teenagers.

We’re based in Ponsonby, Auckland. If you don’t know Auckland, Ponsonby is known for being a wealthy, liberal part of town. Children come in wearing clothes made from hand-stitched organic cotton, people have beautiful designer dogs who wait patiently in the courtyard while they shop, gay couples wander into the store sometimes and no one bats an eyelid. Ponsonby is full of cafes, fashion boutiques, small art galleries and mothers with enormous prams. How things go in Ponsonby often depends on how beautiful your store is, so we keep things as pretty as possible.

Here are some of my secrets.

Not all picture books are just for kids. Check out Sabuda and Reinhart’s intricate pop-up books, and Shaun Tan’s beautiful, emotive illustrations, and seriously, check out anything that involves Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean.

Categories don’t always matter as much as you think they do. For a start, some books defy genre. NZ hit The 10pm Question, which is a novel about an endlessly anxious thirteen year old boy, sits on the edge between three categories: middle grade, YA and adult. And it sells well in all three. And you’d be surprised who buys things sometimes. I have well dressed businesswomen who come in for a good YA vampire story – not for their kids, but for themselves. This always makes me want to jump up and down with happiness.

Some books never die. I’m looking at you, Where the Wild Things Are, The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Pippi Longstocking, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Outsiders, The Catcher in the Rye. I’m looking forward to seeing which books released in 2010 will last the distance.

And while we’re talking about lasting the distance, there’s nothing better than reuniting people with old friends. It’s always worth seeing whether that book you loved from aaaages ago is still in print.

I don’t get as many YA boy requests as I’d like to, even though there is some stunning stuff out there, such as Big Brother and Looking for Alaska, and also the Tomorrow series by John Marsden, one of the best ways I know to get boys reading books with a female narrator. But generally, girls are well catered for, boys slightly less so. I would seriously love more boy friendly books to entice more boys into the YA section.

The most common YA request I get isn’t for the Twilight series. It’s for something to follow it up with. Books I have been hyping recently for the Twilight crowd include Shiver and My Love Lies Bleeding (which gets kudos from me for having a human heroine who is full of personality and spark) and the Mortal Instruments series, and also Melissa Marr’s books.

Most of our YA isn’t sold straight to kids. It’s often parents and relatives who do the buying. In our case, wealthy educated folks who have shining, well-stocked credit cards, and maybe a few opinions of their own on what children and young adults should read. They don't just want any book. They want exactly the right book, and sometimes it makes them a little bit panicky. And it’s my job to find a way through all that and give them the books that glow, the books that their children and grandchildren and nieces and nephews are going to enjoy the most. Because in the end, it’s about joy.

Bookselling is actually damn hard work. A lot of people wander up to the counter with their stack of books for me to ring up and go, “Oh, what a lovely job! You must just sit around reading all day!” Um, no. Not really. Shelving and arranging stock (which can be incredibly challenging in a store where space is limited), helping with promotions, tidying up, hunting for things, the horrible soul destroyingness that is processing returns, and also there's keeping up with new releases, and what's been reviewed where. And most importantly, giving people advice. There’s always something to do. People often comment on how nice our store is to be in, but what they don’t realise is how much work it takes to make it that way. A good indie is a warm, welcoming place, where a great deal of thought goes into the selection, where staff not only find you the thing you want but also the thing you didn’t know you wanted. By the end of each day, my feat ache and my smile is tired, but it’s worth it.

This is the coal face of publishing! Which gives me images of booksellers covered in soot. Anyway. I usually hate this kind of analogy, but if the publishers are like war generals sitting in their tents planning a line of attack, booksellers are the ones at the front line charging into battle. The shops are where things fly or fall, where successes are truly made. It always helps if your book is high concept and easy to talk about, because even if I’ve only had a chance to flick through it, I can still sum it up easily for my customers. But it helps even more if your book is easy to love. Books I am in love with are a breeze to sell, as long as I can find the right person.

Which brings me to the fact that I do more matchmaking than a Jane Austen character. For every book there is a customer somewhere waiting to be matched with it. And if you get the matchmaking right, people will come back over and over and you’ll keep an eye out for things they’re likely to love. Bookselling is social. It’s about connecting with people and the kids they’re buying for, about getting to know them and their taste, about chatting and small talk and sharing enthusiasm. And no Walmart, no K-mart (the NZ equivalent of Walmart), no online store, can really do that in quite the same way. Buying a book shouldn’t just be a purchase. It should be an experience. And providing that experience is what we’re here for.
Leila Austin

Leila lives in Middle Earth, also known as New Zealand, and writes YA fantasy.

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  1. The bookshelves look so pretty and organized! Thanks for sharing with us about your job. I'm just the tiniest bit jealous now.
    Or maybe more than the tiniest bit.

  2. I love this!!!

    Rich customers is about the only thing our stores have in common, LOL. Yours sounds so sweet and personal and lovely.

    You're so right about "charging into battle." I'm happy to have this bookseller experience, and being a writer made me more sensitive to some things. I hunt for misplaced books and put them in their proper place, on the chance that an interested customer wouldn't be able to find it where it was supposed to be. (And gawd, people just leave books lying everywhere!)

    Love the matchmaking! Most of my customers come in looking for a specific title, but I love it when they just have an idea, and I get to help them hunt it down. I sold a copy of The Shifter by Janice Hardy that way - the woman looked pretty excited about it. :D

    One day, Leila, ONE DAY, I will visit your store. In New Zealand. *sighs dreamily*

  3. Yes, the matchmaking! I sold more books based off what a customer had read in their past, than ones to people who came in knowing what they were looking for.

    That's a lovely store!

  4. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful post. Thank you!

  5. I actually took the photos after a very busy day. Luckily YA was one of the sections that didn't have books lying all over the place.

    Seriously, I spend so much of my life dealing with books lying all over the place. To be fair, a lot of my customers bring in their toddlers, and it's hard to stop toddlers from making a mess. They're curious about everything and they move scarily fast.

    And yes! Hunting stuff down and making recommendations is fun!

    Looking forward to you guys visiting some day :-)

  6. Such a neat look into your bookstore/bookselling! I felt so inspired after reading it to go to a bookstore and start recommending books to random people. :D

  7. That city sounds so pretty! The perfect place for writers. I'll be sure to add that to my list of Places to Visit

  8. What's really weird for me is when I'm in another bookshop and I see some confused customer lingering in the children's section. My instinct is always to go help them. Even if I have no idea where anything is.

    Ponsonby is one of Auckland's prettiest suburbs. Definitely worth a visit! :-)


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Item Reviewed: Bookseller Secrets and Stories: Matchmaking and Other Things Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Leila Austin