Inside the Mind of a Bookseller

Customers that walk into a bookstore may think one of two things when they see someone working there. The first is that the bookseller knows everything. They’ll be able to recommend books to you, figure out the name of the book of which you can only remember part of the title and cover color, and more. The second is that the bookseller is just some part-time schmuck who doesn’t know anything. While both assumptions are incorrect (and we’re flattered by the first), there are actually a great number of things that are on our minds. Things that we know that you don’t — and that you may never even consider to be a part of the bookselling culture (I don’t know if that’s actually a thing, but I’m rolling with it).

“I’m a regular!” proclaims the customer loudly at the service desk. I have news for you: No, you’re not. I’d venture to say 95% of people who have to announce that they spend a lot of money in the store or that they’re in the store all the time are, in fact, not. Not by a long shot. Those types of people typically just want to get something, whether it’s to return a book, force us to accept an outdated coupon, or any other the-customer-is-always-right nonsense. We booksellers know who the regulars are. We’re at that very store for 40 hours a week. The part-timers are there for at least 20 hours a week. So we’re already there way more than any single customer — regulars included. And I’ll let you in on a little secret: Most of the regulars are lovely people. I still have fond memories of a gentleman at a former store I worked at who was an absolute delight. Regulars know the booksellers by name. They chitchat with us. They ask us what we’re reading and vice versa. If a bookstore sells coffee or food, bartistas or servers will start a regular’s favorite drink/food before money even hits the counter. So when someone has to yell about how they’re a regular customer? You’re not. You’re just an awful customer.

Oh, and if you’re a repeat reader — someone who comes in only to read books but never buy them because you either don’t understand or care that we’re a place of business and not a library — we know who you are, too. And no, we’re not fans of you. (Why should we be when you don’t support our business or the authors in any way?)

Irritating people aside, delivering books to customers is always fun. Many thank you. Some thank you more than once. Others get excited to see it coming. But the absolute best are kids that are over the moon when they see you coming toward them with the book they asked for. Kids aren’t afraid to let loose their unbridled joy at books, from jumping up and down to clapping their hands (sometimes both) to simply staring at the book, grinning ear to ear. Kids who love to read are great, and when they’re not afraid to show it, it’s even better. Although sometimes it’s not always kids. Teenagers can also get really starry-eyed about their books. I once carried out an entire stack of a single title and passed by a girl who stared at it as though I brought out a 5-course meal of the most decadent food ever invented.

When we’re not working with customers, we’re tidying up the store. We know immediately when a book is out of place. A book that might be set faced out (that is, the cover is front-facing) in front of several spined books is in the wrong spot. A mystery author in the fiction/literature section. A romance in the science fiction/fantasy section. A single title lying on an entire table full of books. Because we’re in the store all the time, we’re the ones who consistently keep the books organized, set all the displays, and deliver them from the back room to the floor. And you don’t have to work there long before you build a mental card catalog of titles, authors, subjects, displays, covers, stock numbers, and so forth. In fact, there are times when we tell the buyers they’re wrong — that a particular book should not go in the teen section, but in the young reader’s section instead (although they don’t always listen, which is sometimes due to publisher demands).

There is something very specific that customers can have with them at any given moment that tends to terrify us booksellers. Most people never consider it as something worrisome, but when you’re in this business long enough, you regard them with a kind of wary paranoia.


Hot drinks aren’t so much of a worry, though people will spill them on the floor, which is really frustrating if the store has carpet. Most of the time people don’t even tell you they’ve spilled their drink. They just scurry away and when a bookseller stumbles upon it they just hope it is, in fact, a drink and not something more…questionable. But it’s the cold drinks that really terrify us. Why? One word: Condensation. Cold drinks will drip water down the outside of the container, something people pay zero attention to — including when they decide to set their drink down on a bookshelf. Water drips down, forms a ring around the cup, and can then make its way to the books. Water and books don’t mix. Ever. And when the books get wet, they have to be damaged out and returned or destroyed depending upon the publisher’s guidelines. Sometimes it’s safe, and we stumble upon a cup ring and can wipe it up before anything bad happens. But some people are so oblivious they set their wet drink down on top of a pile of books, and then there’s just no saving it. So consider the following when it comes to drinks:

  • If you have a drink from somewhere else, ask if it’s acceptable to bring yours into the store.
  • If the store doesn’t sell drinks, see if there is an empty table where you can set yours down while you peruse a book. Ask a bookseller if necessary.
  • If the store does sell drinks, there’s a much higher probability of there being a place for you to sit and enjoy it — which is where you should take both your drink and book when looking through a title.
  • In a nutshell; never set your drink on books (I don’t care if it’s hot or cold), and do your best not to set the drink on the bookshelf.

Booksellers know a great deal of things, and these are just a few of them. Things you would never consider. Things you don’t expect. So before you make any snap judgments about the people you see working in a bookstore, just remember that unless you’ve been in their shoes, you’re Jon Snow in this scenario.

You know nothing.




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