With the publishing industry threatened by proposed changes to parallel importation restrictions, it has never been more necessary to reflect on the joys of visiting bookstores.
‘Smell that. Just smell it.’
The speaker pushes a large pair of sunglasses up into her hair as she enters the shop. She is squat and wearing the bejewelled and brightly coloured kaftan that I have come to associate with a certain type of person who shops in Sandringham Village – the enthusiastic, high-volume book buyer. This, I guess as I appraise her, is a stop-in on the way to a brisk powerwalk along Beach Road.
Trailing the woman is a taciturn teenager, head bent to read on her phone. I suspect that she resents being asked by her mother to smell a bookshop. After a moment or two of furious tapping, however, her eyes flick up and around the shop. She takes a hearty sniff.
‘Isn’t it?’ Her mother sniffs also. They both stand in the doorway, taking in the scent. The girl catches my eye and flashes a goofy grin.
‘C’mon.’ She ushers her mother across the threshold. ‘We’re in the way.’
As a bookseller, it’s quite common during social gatherings and chatty cocktail parties to be told that your job is obsolete. Being a bookseller and a freelance editor, the double whammy, means that virtual strangers will actually despair at the thought of my dwindling job prospects. (I won’t lie and say that I haven’t done some despairing myself, on occasion, while obsessing over my slender bank balance.) This is because, apparently, the book is dead – and so is the bookshop.
Working in a bookstore often means you become a conduit for the secrets and stories of the local patrons.
Every day I scan piles of books for regular customers that I can address by name, and as I do I engage in some variation of the ‘bookshops are dead’ conversation. Ebooks are too convenient; bookshops are too expensive; Amazon is all encompassing. And yet a mother and daughter, decades apart, will both walk into the shop and appreciate the stacks of books on our well-stocked shelves. They’ll marvel at the smell of the shop.
That woman and her daughter were some of the first customers I served in the store without my manager observing me. Later I learned that it’s not uncommon for punters to comment on the smell of the shop – particularly older couples, who dress like university professors and approach the store with the reverential respect generally reserved for ancient houses of worship. No matter how many boxes of books I unpack, I still can’t smell anything unusual.
Working in a bookstore often means you become a conduit for the secrets and stories of the local patrons. I know what those kids chose for their fathers’ birthday present. I know that this woman loathed a book her best friend had loved and forced her to read. I know that, as a boy, a local pharmacist wrapped books at Christmas for a scandalously low wage. I have a list of the last five books a grandmother bought for each of her grandchildren.
Primary-school-aged children love to tell you what they’re reading. Their eyes light up (especially if the topic of conversation is Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton’s juggernaut Treehouse series, now five books long and with a fictional treehouse that’s risen from 13 to 65 storeys) as they relay to you, in painstaking detail, the plots of their favourite books, the most quotable lines from their favourite characters, and where they were when they finished reading the latest instalment of their favourite series.
Like the time two brothers, aged seven and nine, sprawled over my counter for nearly 45 minutes explaining the subtle joke in Anh Do’s WeirDo series – that the titular character is both named Weir Do and also a ‘weirdo’. And woe betide any bookseller who hasn’t read the most recent Dork Diaries and therefore can’t appreciate the deep complexity of Nikki’s ongoing battle with the dastardly Mackenzie Hollister.
Teenagers tend to closet their reading like it’s a terrible secret. Perhaps they are embarrassed – maybe reading is now desperately unpopular among teenagers – but I suspect they view it instead as a somewhat private enterprise.
I once tried to sell Amie Kaufman and Megan Spooner’s Starbound trilogy to a fifteen-year-old girl, who responded only with grunts and slight turns of her head as I shook the star-spangled covers under her nose. Perturbed, I saw her out of the shop and went back to my shelving. Her mother arrived several minutes later to tell me that her daughter had actually read every Starbound book and adored them – she just didn’t want to admit to the overenthusiastic book lady that they shared an interest.
Adults are trickier because they generally expect booksellers to have read everything. Booksellers are erudite, and many read at an extraordinarily prolific rate, but no one has read everything. An adult customer might pick up a book from the shelf and brandish it, weapon-like, at you. ‘Have you read this?’
‘Not that one,’ you’ll respond, always with a great twang of guilt, as though you’ve done something dreadful. The resulting sneer will haunt your dreams forever.
Customers frequently come searching for a book they don’t know the name of, although they may remember that the cover has a face on it, or that the author’s initials are JL. A bookseller often becomes a kind of literary Indiana Jones, digging around for the right title and then working out how to put it in the customer’s hands. Sometimes I know the answer, but more often I thank the gods that Google exists.
A bookseller often becomes a kind of literary Indiana Jones.
If I’m able to find the longed-for book, the resultant ecstasy from the inquiring customer can be epic. A woman who was searching for a book for her elderly father – a grave-faced man who leaned against his walker in the corner, wheezing gently throughout the transaction – teared up when I worked out that the book she was looking for was David Suzuki’s Letters to My Grandchildren, and that I could put aside a copy for them when our order arrived.
‘He just really wanted it,’ she told me.
I nodded, and her father added creakily, ‘Now maybe my grandchildren will want to listen to me.’
The bookselling industry can take itself very seriously. Often the hiring process is rather like applying for entry into a PhD in literature. Can’t name ten great picture books that will become Australian classics? Sorry, try again next time. Don’t know what to recommend to a reluctant 11-year-old who will only read Diary of a Wimpy Kid? Well, you’re shit out of luck.
The best booksellers can make connections not just between broad genres and styles of writing but also between smaller and often more vital elements of reading. Once I overheard a colleague connect an avid David Malouf reader to the non-fiction sensation The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying because Malouf’s spare writing style might resonate with the minimalist practice of the book. (Sure enough, the customer returned about a month later to praise the suggestion.)
When I began applying for bookshop jobs, I was lacking experience, but I did read, and I knew books, to a certain extent. Turns out that no amount of reading can prepare you for a customer who will arrive in the bookshop in a flurry of neuroses, announcing, ‘I need a book for my father’s golfing partner, who doesn’t like books and especially hates books on golf!’
What do you suggest for this person? You have to dig a little deeper: What is appealing about golf? The natural setting? The meditative isolation of a solo sport? Then perhaps that reader might enjoy Don Watson’s well-awarded tome The Bush. (In fact, they did.)
If ebooks and Amazon are dirty words in a bookshop, customers are like naughty teenagers: they love to slip them into a conversation and watch a bookseller squirm. Except ebook sales have plateaued, holding the market at around 20 per cent. Ebook sales even dropped in 2015, by 1.6 per cent in the United Kingdom and a whopping five per cent in the United States. The uptake has happened, and the book isn’t dead after all; in fact, Nielsen has reported a rise of 2.2 per cent in Australian print-book sales.
I’m not concerned when a customer confesses that they own an e-reader. You can’t have an e-coffee table book. And an ebook is not, apparently, an appropriate gift. (It was once suggested to a customer by her friend that she give an ebook voucher as a gift to her difficult niece, to which the customer replied, salty with disdain, ‘God, no, that’s worse than a gift card.’)
There’s something intimate about the gift of a book. It’s still my favourite gift to give and why I always write a note to the recipient in the front cover. Books are personal and bookshops are as well. Buying books for children can become an almost spiritual experience: laced with nostalgia regarding our own childhood reading habits, and inflamed by the hope that the child receiving the gift will grow to love reading as much as we do.
Grandparents, bless them, see all their grandchildren as particularly special and clever, more so than any other child in existence. You’d be surprised by the number of prodigies running around the bayside area – at least, according to their proud grandparents, which makes selling a book to them a dexterous management of expectations: ‘Yes, this book looks thin, but it’s written by an English teacher so the vocabulary is very advanced,’ or, ‘That book does have silly words on the cover but the protagonist is also a six-year-old boy, and so your six-year-old boy might like meeting him.’
Children’s bookselling is a minefield, and it’s alternately helped and hindered by gendered marketing. Books for girls are often pink and sparkly and are mostly about princesses, ballet dancers or fairies; books for boys are bold in primary colours and are mostly about dinosaurs, robots and farts.
There are always exceptions. Take Griffiths and Denton’s Treehouse books, which are focused on the treehouse-building efforts of young Andy and Terry: boys and girls of various ages devour them (which is why they dominate the bookselling charts in Australia); same goes for the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, or the boy protagonist-dominated David Walliams series.
Unfortunately there are few equivalent books with girl protagonists that you can recommend to any child with such unreserved confidence.
When selling to teenage boys, it’s sometimes best to avoid any mention of girls whatsoever. It’s useful to have tricksy action-heavy descriptions of teenage books helmed by a girl, like Suzanne Collins’ enduringly popular The Hunger Games series, which is read widely by girls and boys, and will get the boys interested without bothering too much about who is doing the punching. Still, the reluctance is there, built in from the time of foundation readers split into ‘girl books’ like Billie B. Brown and ‘boy books’ like Zac Power.
Of course there can be the little boy who adores any ballet book he can get his hands on and can name each one of the Ella Bella ballets by heart. And the girl who will not read a pink book, hates fairies and prefers anything with the word ‘bum’ in the title.
We all know a story is a story, and little boys who only read books about little boys can grow into men who complain about Charlize Theron’s role in Mad Max: Fury Road and claim that feminism is reverse-sexism. Still, we do very well with the uber-girly Ever After High, or with Boy vs Beast and other miniature models for machismo. You can’t win.
When I’m not selling at work, I’m lending at home. The stacked shelves and piles of books scattered throughout our house like some teetering metropolis have become the library service for our friends and colleagues. I keep a record, privately, of who has what, for how long they borrowed it and whether or not they enjoyed it. This helps when I’m recommending their next book.
I can tell, for example, that my investment banker/music producer housemate will enjoy the Reagan-era economics and cultural pretension of American Psycho. And it’s a fair bet that my romance and TV-obsessed friend will love Someday, Someday, Maybe, a rom-com written by Gilmore Girls star Lauren Graham.
There’s always a pang when someone you love doesn’t love a book you cherish – that horrendous moment when someone doesn’t agree with you that Persuasion is certainly the best Austen book, and potentially the best of any book, ever. But the joy of finding the book that matches the borrower is as exquisite as selling a perfect book to a pleased patron in the shop.
There’s always a pang when someone you love doesn’t love a book you cherish.
I felt that joy when I served the kaftan-swathed woman and her daughter, the pair who commented on the amazing smell of our bookshop. I helped the daughter pick out some good stories with tough, interesting heroines (a predilection I intuited from her general distaste as she passed the large display for a frivolous, but fun, book written by a YouTube star). Among them was my favourite teen book of 2015, Cloudwish, by Fiona Wood. Discovering this girl had yet to read any of Wood’s books, and knowing the pleasure she had in store, was a delicious moment.
At the register, the mother speculated about the impending village Christmas decorations while her daughter loitered by the adult colouring book display – this heaving hydra, which, whenever we returned a slow-moving stack to the publishers, would spawn thrice as many seemingly identical books to replace them.
Adult colouring books, the definitive fad of 2015, cleaned up around Christmas as cheapish Kris Kringle presents perfect for the recipient you barely know and care little for. Customers are fond of appraising the ever-growing selection and commenting, dryly, ‘That colouring book thing has really taken off, hasn’t it?’ (These customers would, of course, never buy one, and they view the whole enterprise as somewhat pedestrian.)
‘Mindfulness colouring?’ the mother remarked delicately, phrased as a question, like: Does this thing actually exist?
‘Yup,’ the daughter replied. She picked up a Millie Marotta, casually flicked through it, then replaced it on the shelf.
‘They can be good for helping VCE students relax,’ I said, by way of encouragement. We had so many colouring books by this stage, and most of them, except the standouts, moved at a glacial pace, so I was well trained to jump on any opportunity to sell one.
‘You’re a VCE student!’ the mother exclaimed.
The girl nodded, running her eyes over the books once again.
‘The Millie Marottas are lovely,’ I offered. The girl smiled coolly at me, then returned to her mother’s side.
‘So you don’t want one?’ the mother asked.
Her mother grinned shrewdly at me, rolled her eyes, then handed over her credit card. The girl watched her mother, and bristled.
‘Mum, if I wanted to relax, I’d read a fucking book.’