Thursday, November 20, 2014

How to Shop for Books Like a Pro

A couple of months ago, a popular site in the bookish corner of the internet posted a piece about how a lifelong book lover no longer knew how to shop for books in a bookstore. On the one hand, the author of that piece used gifs and that repetitive ridiculousness makes me want to hit people. On the other, I'm willing to acknowledge that bookstores can be overwhelming, particularly during the holiday season when stores are crowded. Here are a few tips to enjoy your trip to the bookstore.

One of the most beautiful stores I visit for work,
Full Circle Bookstore in Oklahoma City.
1. Find the store that fits you/your needs. I guarantee that you will be disappointed if you walk into a mystery bookstore and can't find that new Joan of Arc biography. That's stupid and frustrating for everyone, but believe me, IT HAPPENS. I don't go to the hipster foodie place to buy Diet Coke because all they'll have is nasty foodie artisan sodas. If you liked the Longmire series by Craig Johnson and want something similar, the mystery store is a great choice. I visit a lot of bookstores and most, even the large ones, have some specialties.

2. What's your objective? Figure it out in advance. Most people don't just wander into a grocery store without a specific goal in mind. For me, it's usually "I'm out of ice cream. I must buy ice cream. Where is the damn ice cream? For the love of god, I need ice cream now. NOW." For bookstores, it could be "I want to see what's new," or "I need a gift for Gianna's birthday four months from now," or "I heard about this book on NPR and it sounds amazing." It helps to have a goal in mind.

3. Call ahead if there's something in particular you want. If you heard about a book on NPR, that means that thousands of other people also heard about it. Sure, if we're talking about the new John Grisham thriller, the store most likely will have a fat stack of books waiting for you to walk through the door. If you are in search of a book that your friend mentioned at lunch as being the best she's read this year, and the publisher is Smaller Than a Butt Crack Press, call ahead. And when you go in to pick up your book, figure in time to poke around and see what else captures your interest.
Welcome to Maria's Bookshop in Durango, Colorado.
From here: new arrivals on the table in front, staff picks on the
endcap to the left, gift items under the table, and a canoe
hanging from the ceiling. 

4. When you get to the store, stand near the front door and get your bearings. Generally you will see: new arrivals, bestsellers (either national or for the store), gift items and seasonal merchandise like calendars, and possibly books for upcoming author signings. There may be themed displays. Where is the information desk in relation to where you are? Where is the restroom? If there's a cafe, where is it? Soak it in. Now it's time to play.

5. How to Browse. I like to start with the new arrivals because these displays change most frequently and are usually also the books featured in reviews and media. Insider tip: Tuesday is the best day to discover what's new since that's the biggest industry-wide release day of the week. Also, the Tuesday closest to the beginning of a month is more popular than, say, the third Tuesday. This year September 30th was a huge release date since it was a Tuesday, the day before a new month, and in the fall. You know how movie studios release the Oscar buzz movies in the fall? The same is true for the book industry.

Great book. Has nothing
to do with dog pictures.
From new arrivals I then head to table displays and any staff recommendation sections I can see. I want to know what the booksellers are reading because they tend to find the great books before anyone else. If a bookseller is recommending Margaret Atwood and I love Margaret Atwood, I'll check to see what else that bookseller is recommending. I regularly buy books based entirely on the bookseller's word. I trust a bookseller a zillion times more than I trust online algorithms. I loved Richard Flanagan's literary novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. If I were to follow the online recommendation, then, I should also be interested in...a picture book about dogs. I loved Hampton Sides's In the Kingdom of Ice, a history of an arctic expedition in the 19th century. And thus, according to the computer, I should like We Were Liars, a young adult novel about a group of affluent teens spending the summer of the family-owned island. Sigh. Anyway, moving on.

What are you in the mood to read? There's no reason you have to spend time in every section of a bookstore. I almost never visit the religion section (fear of smiting). I don't like fantasy books, so I gloss over those. I do love fiction, but that's a broad category and typically the biggest section in most bookstores. So let's say that you want a novel. How do you find what you're looking for among thousands of books? Here's how I do it.
  • Check favorite authors. What haven't I read? What's new? 
  • Absolutely judge books by covers. If a cover jumps out at me, I'll at least read the summary even if I've never heard of the book or author or publisher. (That said, try not to rule out a book entirely based on the fugly cover.)
  • Totally lost? Play bookstore bingo. Pick a shelf, pick the fourth book over, or the blue book, or the first book you find with a certain word in the title. You're exploring. 
  • Visit a section that's off your radar. I've already said that I don't shop in the religion section, but the flip side is that I'm fascinated by religions from a cultural studies angle. I won't be interested in Joel Osteen's latest book, but I would be interested in a new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. 
  • Ask a bookseller. 
This is Consuelo at BookPeople in Austin.
She's a great reader. Don't be afraid to ask
 her for book recommendations.
She's there to help.
6. Seriously, ASK A BOOKSELLER. They know what's popular, they know some hidden gems, they know what's over-hyped. They most likely can remember the title of that book you heard about on NPR. They have ideas for your next book group pick. If you want to read something in the vein of, say, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, they will know where to start. Booksellers are your guides. They read all the time. They are members of reading groups. They have great suggestions for what to give to your uncle you only see every other Christmas. You are not disturbing them by asking questions. Booksellers are there to help you find the perfect book. Would you hesitate to ask a waiter for a beverage refill? Don't be shy.

7. Don't be a book snob, and don't tolerate it either. I think that people are afraid of booksellers (and others) judging their reading tastes. It happens...but it shouldn't. There are books that I think are awful, but at the same time when I'm working in a store, my goal is to help the customers find their perfect books. I was in a bookstore selling to a buyer when a customer came in and wanted recommendations. This customer, a woman in tennis attire, asked for "books that typically have pink covers." I admit it. I may have vomited in my mouth a little. The buyer stopped what we were doing, stood up, and assisted the woman in finding something she'd love. The customer left happy and the buyer made a sale. Do you think that the hardware store employee judges you for buying a certain shade of paint? When I bought my house, one of the rooms was painting a chartreuse color that made my head hurt. Someone sold that hideous paint color, but I doubt anyone thought twice about the transaction.

Let's say that the bookseller looks nothing like you. Maybe she's a goth girl with a bunch of piercings. Maybe he's the stereotypical preppy gay guy. Maybe she's a middle aged PTA mom type. So what? Here's what you have in common: you both like books. Keep in mind that many booksellers are a bit introverted. They are bookish people. Chances are that the bookseller is willing to set aside her social
From Beauty and the Beast, Disney
discomfort every day in order to be surrounded by the books she loves. The icebreaker you need to crack the introvert bubble is "What are you reading?"

8. Have an idea. It's easier for a bookseller to recommend a book if you say "I'm looking for a gift for my uncle. He's really outdoorsy and likes to birdwatch," or "I need a book for my friend's seven year-old daughter. She's not into the whole princess thing. Help?" If I were looking for a gift for Gianna, I might say "I need a present for my pal who loves literary fiction but also as a twisted sense of humor. She loves women comics like Kathy Griffin and Gilda Radner. One of her favorite books is Dan Chaon's Await Your Reply. I know she's already read Gone Girl." That's a lot for the bookseller to use in helping me find a book.

This fall, Penguin Random House, working with Save the Children,
 is donating a book to a US child in need for every #GiveaBook
hashtag on Twitter and Facebook.
Let's change the world one book at a time. 
9. Don't piss off the bookseller with your smartphone. Booksellers aren't paid a lot. Also, they aren't the ones setting the prices on books. It is an insult to whip out your phone and price shop online for the book they just spent time finding for you. You would never bring your food truck-purchased sandwich to eat at the table in the upscale restaurant because you like the ambiance but can't afford a souffle. If you are taking advantage of the availability, recommendations, and atmosphere of a bookstore, you should buy the book there. If I'm in Mississippi and one of the booksellers is raving about a novel, I buy it from that store instead of giving that sale to another retailer. Reward the store that did the work.

10. Have fun. I really don't like shopping for anything...except for books. Books are commodities, but they are also sources of inspiration, creativity, challenging ideas, great stories, fascinating histories. I think it's high time we celebrate bookie culture the way that the foodies have elevated the concept of destination restaurants and grocery stores.


  1. Love your post! I've been a bookseller for 16 years, and everything you say resonates. Yes, some of us ARE shy, but we love our jobs -- we love talking about books with our customers AND with our sales reps. We appreciate everything you do for us! (Especially keeping us supplied with ARCs.)

  2. Let me guess who sold the book with the pink cover.