Right Book for the Right Person

Gimme a clue... by malik ml williams
photo credit to malik ml williams

This post appeared earlier this week as a guest post on the blog Books on the Nightstand.

Michael Kindness recently reflected on the joys (and occasional frustrations) of working in a bookstore.  Happily, I currently fill my days behind the counter and among the stacks of an independent bookseller.  Michael’s description of the job being pretty close to perfect isn’t a case of rose-colored glasses – it truly is a joy to work in the world of books every day.  Among all the many perks (such as meeting publishing folks like Ann and Michael, getting my hands on almost every book that comes through our doors, free coffee from the place downstairs…), one of the best parts of the job is getting feedback on books from customers, and giving recommendations to the folks that come in the store.

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all in the world of books.

As a bookseller, one of the daily challenges of the job is getting the right book into the hands of the customer. While a bookstore is a business, I don’t mean this in a cynical sense; bookstores aren’t in the habit of pushing expensive, unwanted books in the hands of customers to make a sale. Instead, I have the fun job of determining, in moments, the next book that will blow your socks off. Do I go for a current best seller, or something from deep in our backlist that never got the recognition it deserved? Something close to what they’ve recently liked, or a complete 180 from it? A critical favorite, or a favorite of mine? Fiction or nonfiction, poetry or pictures? The options are dizzying, and the rush I (still) get when someone asks “what should I read next?” is one of my favorite parts of any day in the store.

Of course, sometimes the fun is dampened when I know that a book I adored, a book I’d give to my friends and glowingly review on Goodreads, simply isn’t “the book” for some people. For example, two my favorite works of fiction in years are Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole and Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (maybe I just have a thing for authors with names ending in ‘z’). However, the subject matter in these books can be a bit … challenging, to say the least. Language and topics of discussion that had me howling in laughter are just as likely to make some readers drop a book in disgust. Likewise, as much as I adore graphic novels and will try and convince people to read them, some customers simply don’t want pictures and words in the same book. So back we go, digging into our collective memories for something to screams “me, me, read me!”

As much as these moments can be occasionally trying, they offer two enjoyable challenges – finding something else someone will enjoy, or convincing them to try something new I’m sure they’ll love. When you shop in a bookstore, what do you look for in bookseller recommendations? Are you willing to take a chance and try something recommended by someone you’ve just met, or tread closer to the tried-and-true bestsellers (although these do often overlap)? Do you take personal recommendations, or do you go to a shop with something already in mind? If you are looking for some new books ideas, I’ve got a few you might like…

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2 responses to “Right Book for the Right Person

  1. What are those tabs called? Talking cards? Call-outs? The little pieces of construction paper with handwritten recommendations that sit under a stack of a new book. I always read those. But generally I browse the displays and let the right book find me. I don’t think I’ve ever asked a bookstore clerk to help me find a book, although, inspired to pick up a novel, I did read one store owner’s holiday gift suggestions which led me to Beat the Reaper before it started greeting me at the front of every single indie bookseller.

    What I love about indie stores is that instead of having NYT Best Sellers on display (with their rank that week), they get creative. The last one that caught me interest contained books that loosely were about each of the 7 deadly sins.

    Of course, some times I don’t need to browse. Cannot wait for Tom Robbins’s B Is for Beer in 2 weeks.

  2. Unofficially, I think the term is “shelf-talkers.”

    Thanks for the kind words about indie stores! One of the most enjoyable parts of the job is definitely creating displays, so it’s nice to hear they usually capture your attention while browsing.

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