I started working as a bookseller at a tricky time: just as 2020 rolled in, a few months shy of the pandemic, I got a job in a small indie bookshop.
I was elated; reading has been the only consistent hobby I’ve held throughout my entire life, and as an immigrant who still struggles with the language at times, working with books in a Dutch-speaking bookshop was not something I had expected to be given a chance to do. But I was given that chance, and I got to experience it across challenging times.
I still like selling books very much. My Dutch has improved a lot because of it, my TBR is in shambles, and in almost three years on the job I’ve encountered several types of readers (observing people and learning their behaviour is part of the job, and a fun one at that).
I thought it would be fun to let you see what booksellers see, and the types of people we encounter in our daily job.
As a bookseller, one of your main jobs is recommending books. But sometimes the roles will reverse, and it’s a customer who will sweep me off my feet with an amazing book rec. The more you have never heard of their recommendations, the more enthusiastic these customers get, and I am always entertained by this.
These types of exchanges can sometimes feel like the customer is doing your job — and, I guess, in part they are — but they always end up creating a sort of trust and bond between customer and bookseller alike, especially if you let them do their thing even when you have, in fact, already heard about that book countless times before.
I have several regulars that always seem to have a good rec up their sleeve, and we have even acquired books for the bookshop because a trusted client said it is great and would fit our catalogue.
Sometimes the recommendations are so good that I think: damn, you should just take my job! But then I remember I need it, accept the rec, and carry on.
Oh, you know who you are 🙂
I love these customers. Not specifically because of sales (although, that is obviously great), but because they are always very aware of their book-buying habits.
They complain they need to stop buying so many books, but it’s a half-hearted attempt at fighting against the strong current of wanting to read everything — and I get it, because I, too, have to stop myself from leaving work with a new book every day. I have gone on several book-buying bans and failed at almost all of them. Rest assured, I don’t judge one bit.
They’re one of my favourite types of customers, because they’ll constantly complain about how they have to stop buying books since they have such a long list of unread books at home, but we both know they’ll be back in a few days. ‘Just to browse,’ of course.
Listen, I am not the one to tell people where you should or shouldn’t buy books.
I, too, used to have a very tight budget for books, and sometimes Amazon will have the best deal, or be the best option for those who don’t have access to indie bookstores or libraries.
But things get a little out of hand when people come in, often ask for recommendations, and then tell us straight to the face they’re gonna buy them from Amazon. Many booksellers have had an encounter with such customers, and it really makes you feel like an ass.
People are free to buy from Amazon, just don’t tell an indie bookseller about it.
Some clients come in quiet, and leave quiet. Others will easily spend a few hours in the bookshop, chatting away about books.
I love these customers! I got into this job to talk about books, and unfortunately, amongst the tasks we need to complete, we don’t get to do that as much as we want. When a client comes in and wants to talk about books, we are more than happy to comply.
I once had a client come in during the pandemic and ask me and my boss to recommend her two books. With no further explanations or details, we were both a bit lost in what to recommend. When we pressed further, they explained: just whatever books you like.
I chose one book, my boss another, and they paid and left with both books in hand. Came back a few weeks later and did exactly the same. I was baffled. It is not because it was the easiest sale we made; it was the trust they put in our taste in books, and this is truly the dream of any book lover.
I still remember clearly a customer asking me for recommendations and requesting an intricate book. When I presented them with it, they said: no, this is too intricate. They proceeded to make other requests, but I was always off, by default or exaggeration. Sometimes clients don’t know what they want and there is nothing you can do to help them.
It’s a bit like when you open the fridge door, and it’s full of food, but there’s nothing in there that you actually want to eat. Mostly because you have no idea what you want to eat.
We (all) do our best.
After the one who doesn’t know what they want, comes the one who wants a book made exactly for their wishes. They come in and explain they want a book about this subject, in this manner. You ask them for a title, and they have none, because they didn’t hear of a book like that, they are just looking for a book exactly with those characteristics.
In lucky instances we will find exactly what the customer wants; in others, we won’t. Because it simply hasn’t been written yet.
This is the last of the triumvirate of clients who want impossible books.
Certain clients request extremely obscure books that are either only available second-hand, are very old and with a small print run, or come from an obscure and unknown publisher.
I’m not saying these clients aren’t challenging, or fun, because they are. They always ask for things that make us booksellers go oh, wow, that exists?! and often you’ll be interested in the obscure read yourself. But, alas: you either find one edition that you need for the client, or you don’t find a copy at all, and you’re both left disappointed.
We have really cool clients that will come to the shop to pick up orders, but barely ever to browse. And you wonder, from where did they get these recommendations?
You might expect someone who loves books to also love bookshops and come by often, but that’s not necessarily the case. Some folks prefer to call, or send an email, and then pop up to pick it up and leave immediately with a smile on their face, and a kind word of thanks.
These are the most amusing, especially because, most of the time, they do not give a damn if their friends are as excited about books as them or not!
They’ll walk the shop picking one title after another and talking about how badly they want to read it — or how much they liked it — and their friends will have no choice but to listen to them until their book-lover friend has had had enough.
As they should.
If you’re a bookseller, what types of customers do you encounter the most? As a reader, which type of customer are you? Let us know on our socials!