Tag Archives: working in a bookstore

Remember Customer Service? We do.

Little Bookstore is one of several on a list of second-hand bookslingers who trade ideas and share knowledge–including that there’s such a thing as being TOO local. People can take the approach that you must be in this small town because you couldn’t make it in the big city; I’ve just come back from an economic summit where rural town managers discussed this problem.

Being too local is a problem anytime of year, but at Christmas, people can also eschew specialty businesses because they believe making a mad dash through the discount warehouses will be “cheaper and more convenient.”

(Yeah, and the shortcut is always faster….)

Small Business Saturday and the Christmas season tend to be a special challenge for bookstores because much of our unique charm lies in our handselling technique; a proprietor knows his or her customers, and has developed a relationship of trust, of not trying to just sell, sell, sell but to match. We take pride in matching the correct book to the right person. Trust is the foundation of customer service, trying to help the customer rather than meet an imposed quota.

Everybody sells books at Christmas, but who can greet you by name, ask how your niece liked Divergent, suggest a new detective series because they know you like mysteries themed around food? Or, who can meet you for the first time, listen to a list of the last five books your dad read and what he thought of them, and then suggest the perfect present based on that information? How much time will you save with that kind of service?

That’s what we do, and what our friends in the bookselling business do. Because we are our businesses; we don’t just work for them. We believe in selling you what you want, not what you’ve been told you need. And we believe you are your own person.

Visit your local bookseller this holiday season–be it Paperback Book Exhange in Neenah, Wisconsin; Al’s Books out in Kansas; maybe that sweet little Country Bookshop in North Carolina; or one of the other 2,500-or-so used book shops across America. The coffee will be hot, the chairs comfy, the kittens purring, and the proprietors ready to listen, serve, and smile.




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Filed under animal rescue, Big Stone Gap, book reviews, bookstore management, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, reading, shopsitting, small town USA, VA, Wendy Welch


embarrassedKaren Spears and I had a grand time reading the entries for the AUTHOR and HOST HUMILIATION contest. All we can say, dear authors and booksellers, is hang in there.

Who knew angst could be so very funny?! Many thanks to all who entered; I’ll be posting  several of the write-ups over the coming weeks.

Just so they’re not on tenterhooks, the dual winners of AUTHOR HUMILIATION are Stephen Friedman of San Raphael, CA, and Suzan Herskowitz of Winchester, VA. Each will be invited to choose a date for spending a week in Wendy’s Writing Cabin, no expenses paid, but the place is free and we comp you a couple of kittens. (Jack and I rescue cats, in case anyone’s wondering.)

We’ll be blogging Stephen and Suzan’s entries this Friday.

Congratulations, Kathy Siress, on winning the HOST HUMILIATION category. We literally spit tea across the keyboard, reading this one.

Seattle, large chain bookstore, 1997.  Celebrity chef, (now deceased) long running PBS show, recently subject of a number of sexual abuse allegations by young boys.  

He showed up to book signing with his (very young) male assistant, and they immediately demanded a bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin.  (I was dispatched to the local liquor store.)

Both filled their tall water glasses with gin (STRAIGHT!) and set themselves up at the signing table.

Turnout for this heavily promoted event was very poor – he had been in the news a lot lately. We also had a small but vocal group of protesters outside.

Bookstore manager was embarrassed,so she had all the booksellers take off their name badges, pretend to be customers, and line up for books.  He caught on pretty quickly since we all asked for generic signatures – no names, just “Best Wishes…” etc.  Weirdly, he had his assistant sign all the books too.

long uncomfortable evening for everyone.  and yes, they finished the gin bottle.



Filed under book reviews, bookstore management, humor, publishing, reading, shopsitting, small town USA, writing

What if Editors SOLD Books (in Big Stone Gap)?

nicholeRegular readers will know that I spent a week in NYC last month, doing a couple of events and goofing off visiting my editor Nichole (in the photo) and agent Pamela. During the course of the week, Jack and I were delighted to have a conversation with Ken, head of independent bookstore sales for Macmillan, and his assistant Matt; we talked about coping mechanisms for small guys, marketing strategies for big guys, and the very hopeful demographics showing rises from 2011-2013 not only in sales of books at indie bookstores, but in the number of indie bookstores that are out there.
After the conversation, Nichole made the casual comment that she wished she knew more about how indie bookstores sold books. “It’s like the Gold Standard of bookselling, the handsell. And I’ve certainly recommended lots of books to lots of people, but I’ve never stood in a shop and sold one.”
Thus an idea was born. Nichole and her trusty assistant Laura have been saying repeatedly they’d love to visit Big Stone Gap. In addition, my publicist Jessica is from Richmond, VA, and she’s never been to the more rural climes. So here’s my cunning plan: we need people to explain to Nichole’s editor-in-chief why Nichole and Laura and Jess could really use a week of handselling experience in a small town.laura chasen
Wouldn’t it be great to have Nichole and Laura (in the photo) and Jess spend a few days RUNNING The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap?  Pamela, my agent, has often said that if prospective authors who send pitches to agents had to sell the books they were pitching, they’d change their pitch—and tune. You have to know what will and won’t sell—and how to sell it—to write a good query letter.
Nichole and I have often talked about the failed algorithms of A**zon, how people who want to read books that don’t quite fit a specific category can’t find them, don’t know they’re out there, and how sales reps (that is, those who sell books in bulk to bookstores from publishers) have to make things easy for the stores and build their own relationships of trust in order to do their jobs well. And that there’s a disconnect between the writers, the editorial shapers, and the sellers. Think of it: Manhattan’s finest editors bridging those gaps (in The Gap!).
jessicaSo here’s what we need: leave a comment on this blog saying why Nichole and Laura and Jess (in the photo of her birthday dinner with us in NYC) should get to spend a week (okay, three days) running our shop. (Don’t worry about Pamela and her assistant Michelle; we have a completely different plan for them.) And while the trio are down here we can show them a good time. Please, in your comments, explain why this is a good idea to Nichole’s boss (who will be interested).
And if Nichole and Laura and Jess get to visit, we’ll throw a party, and y’all can come say hi!


Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, bookstore management, folklore and ethnography, humor, publishing, shopsitting, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, writing

On-The-Job Training

Today, Jack and Wendy gallivanted off to sign books, visit bookstores, and see old friends in Philly, NYC, and Charlotte, leaving Shopsitter Andrew Whalen to sort it all out and bravely captain the ship o’ books and its furry, mew-tinous crew.

During my first week in Big Stone Gap I was taught a great deal about operating a small business. There’s accounting, stocking, inventory management, and that cornerstone of every great business: bribing animals with treats so they don’t bark at customers or claw your eyeballs.

But some policies at Tales of the Lonesome Pine are different from your standard multinational mega-conglomerate next door. For one, the training videos are better. The dress code is more lax too, unless slippers are company issue and I didn’t get the memo. (C’mon Wendy! All pajama-related memos are supposed to be delivered in triplicate!)

Perhaps most bewildering for me is the total lack of a customer script. At first I copied some of Jack’s mannerisms. The first time he heard me say, “Hi! Looking for anything special, or just in for a browse?” he gave me a look that would frost every field in Scotland. “That’s my line!” he said, covering his murderous intent in completely convincing joviality. I’ve since learned, through empirical research, that people will listen to a man with a Scottish accent more than a person with a vague Midwestern accent who mispronounces pillow as pellow and milk as melk. Not sure why — further research is required — but initial results lead me to believe it has something to do with a Scottish brogue being (and this is a scientific term here) ADORABLE. With this knowledge in hand, I now know I can’t just copy Jack’s patter, unless eyes glazing over as I ramble somehow contributes to customer satisfaction.

Also, I never saw the Org Chart that lays out the official job titles for the menagerie. Is Bert Head of Security, or Public Relations? Mix those two up and you have a serious problem on your hands. (I’ve since looked this up and found on the blog that Bert is security. I probably shouldn’t have let him write all those press releases.) Owen has been a constant companion, but we’ve had some tussles over chain of command. I’ve since been testing him out in different capacities. Assigning him accounting was probably my biggest mistake.

I’ve now come to think of him as an intern and he’s come to think of me as a clawing post. Progress.

So, while there’s been some hiccups along the way, my on-the-job training is progressing. But I won’t know for sure how I’m doing until CEO Val-Kyttie’s performance review.


Filed under Big Stone Gap, folklore and ethnography, humor, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA

Playing Solitaire with Books

There’s something very satisfying about shelving books in a bookstore. It generates calming enzymes, creates its own zen. I come home from a day job fraught with trying to make people see things they don’t want to see, and tackle a stack of books to let people see what they want to see, find what they want to find.

Organizing a bookstore’s shelves is no easy matter; T.S. Eliot wouldn’t have called it one of your holiday games. But it is fun. Take a stack of disorderly novels strewn about the front room table, sort them into genres, then heave a stack into your arms and march them to their proper places. O before R, Ch before Cl; like solitaire, shelving books requires just enough brain power to keep your mind occupied, yet not so much that you feel drained by it. It is the perfect restoration of harmonious balance to tired, misfiring neurons.

You can’t stay mad while shelving books. The Inuit say it’s bad to eat food cooked by an angry person, because the food absorbs the anger and people will choke; books also absorb your thoughts and feelings, but in a different way. As you’re handling titles, perhaps you come across one you read as a young’un: Winnie-the-Pooh, Paddington Bear, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. You might even open it to a random page, and smile a wistful, childhood smile. Thus the day’s chaos sifts away, book by book, smile by smile, as you remember where you were the last time you read the tome in your hands, be it mystery, a classic, even horror. Hey, at least Robert McCammon’s people have it worse than you; they’re getting devoured by werewolves….

And you discover things, mostly on the shelves, but sometimes in your own head. While you’re finding gems you remember reading, or books for your to-read list, your brain is thrown into concentrating on something else. Before you know it, little thoughts you didn’t know were sprouting, back there in the hidden recesses, begin to bud and blossom. You get ideas. You get restoration of time.

You get calm.

Once, in a town an hour away from my bookstore, I met a business associate for coffee. It was going to be a fairly difficult meeting, since (in a nutshell) I needed to convince her to do something my boss wanted, that really wasn’t in her best interests. Being early, I browsed the second-hand books the shop had for sale, running my fingers along paperback spines–until the cashier’s voice broke in.

“Ma’am, I said, can I help you?”

I glanced over at the college student staffing the register; she looked perturbed. I followed her gaze–to my chest, against which I held a small stack of Mary Balogh romances, which I had been busily sorting into families and reshelving.

Once a bookseller, always a bookseller. The trilogies were separated, after all; likely the poor little books were frightened and confused, alone in that big wooden world… I gave the cashier a friendly nod. “No worries! I’ll soon have this set to rights!”

So I don’t meet colleagues in that coffee shop any more, but the point is, it makes us happy to be the masters of our own domains, and a bookshelf is a particularly satisfying wee fiefdom. Jack and I cater to customers with our shop’s layout, but I have friends who shelve by author; by title; by categories of their unique making like “mysteries that have dogs in them,” “novels featuring knitters or book clubs or other gatherings” or even “books I liked enough never to loan out.”  My friend John has a set of shelves on one side of the room for books he’s finished, another on the opposite wall for books he’s going to read.

It makes us happy to create order from chaos, even if our organization looks chaotic to others. So if you’ve never tried it before, treat yourself and give bookshelf sorting therapy a whirl. You might be amazed at what you discover on your shelves–and in your own mind.


Filed under Big Stone Gap, book repair, folklore and ethnography, humor, small town USA, Uncategorized