Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Sometimes I wake up at night, thinking of the myriad of books that I, as a bookseller, have placed in the hands of strangers, with the the assurance that 'you will enjoy this.'
One of bookselling's main skills is recommending books to people who aren't sure what they want. But reading is an intimate recreation, and to suggest a book to a person you don't know from Adam, you need to be part psychologist, part seer, and a bloody good guesser.
The natural starting place is right in front of you - the customer. I do a quick physical scan: a frail, elderly woman likely won't want a lot of sex or violence (but be prepared to gracefully amend that opinion in a flash), and a big, bluff man probably prefers a plot-driven novel without too much description. But assumptions can be deadly, and possibly embarrassing.
Your first question: whom do you like? Their answer will jump-start your mind with its files of potential authors. You know violence is acceptable-after all, a corpse or two will have to appear-but what level is suitable? A tidy Agatha Christie murder? Or are we topping the scale with someone like James Lee Burke. Does your customer require plenty of fast-paced action? Do they love in-depth characters, such as Elizabeth George provides? Or just the facts, ma'am. Would some lightness be relished, or should we keep humour at bay?
You mine everything they say for clues, while scanning the shelves for inspiration. Size them up a bit before raving over that new book you loved - would it appeal to this customer? I'm wary of promoting too heartily - we've all plugged a book to a friend, only to have them turn away and mumble something about how it wasn't quite their cup of tea when asked how they enjoyed it (and you thought you knew them). Yes, bookselling is a subtle art, like alchemy, but the point is, to sell a book!
Then there is the customer who is buying a book as a gift, adding a further obstacle; now you're the third party in the preference assessment - a stranger is asking you to suggest a book for a mother, spouse, or sick friend. You ask questions, and hope for a moment of genius.
Equally tough is recommending within a genre you're not as keen on; you're less familiar with the books. Strict objectivity is necessary here; you want to put the right book in your customer's hands. People are counting on your expertise, and you don't want to let them down.
When I worked at Prime Crime, I kept extensive lists: historical mysteries, hard-boiled detective stories, murder-by-country (all of Scandinavia was hot!), even by state and province, for those moments when an unexpected question muddies your brain: I'm going on holiday, do you have something set in Spain? (or Hawaii, or Timbuktu). Or the customer who loves knitting, and wants a craftsperson as a detective. My lists were invaluable, and I was rarely stumped.
Of course, you have the 'regulars' with whom you have a running dialogue: "I liked this, but I wasn't really taken with that." You build a relationship, and recommending gets easier. Or the lovely person who comes in and says, "I was in months ago, and you gave me the best book - what else can you suggest?" But for the most part, we never know. Did that businessman go on to read everything by Giles Blunt? Did someone's ailing auntie like the Susan Hill? How about the fourteen year-old - is he now deeply into Sherlockania?
It's a real pleasure to see the answering flash of recognition when you mention a favourite author - ah, a kindred spirit. And you have to bite back indignation when you mention a cherished writer only to meet scorn: oh, I hate his books. Fair enough. Stuff the wounded feelings back inside, and see if this one suits. But you feel for the dismissed author: it's not toasters we're selling here.
I picture all those bedside tables with 'my books' on them, either waiting for the eager reader to return, or pushed aside in disappointment. It would be interesting to know your on-base percentage - booksellers rarely get to know how it all turns out. All in a day's work for the true sleuth of the book world - the bookseller.
Sylvia Braithwaite has been in the book world in one way or the other, her entire life: fanatical reader, bookseller, publicist – and occasional writer. This summer, she is spending a lot of time in her garden, which also involves plenty of reading in the shade, and dreaming up plots as well as tending them.