Sunday, January 8, 2012

Doing What You Love: A Guest Post from Randy Ham

We asked one of our favorite people to be a guest blogger for the day. Randy Ham was a buyer with Hastings Entertainment for a spell (and was one of the best buyers we ever had the pleasure of working with), and is now a librarian in Odessa, Texas, where was integral in starting the hugely successful One Book Odessa campaign. Randy is also the biggest Stevie Nicks fan we've ever known...but that is another blog for another time.

Randy Ham
It’s soooo cliché, but the phrase “Do what you love” always comes to mind when I think about how lucky I am to be doing what I am doing. Like most people in this profession, I grew up with a deep, abiding love for books. Many of my fondest childhood memories are of getting books from my parents, family, and friends (some of them I still have to this day). I read like a fiend, often devouring three or four books in a week.

Soon after high school, I was strolling through the mall, and noticed the B. Dalton’s was looking for help. Wait a minute! I can work in a place surrounded by books? They would PAY ME to be around books???? I couldn’t believe my luck. B. Dalton is where I cut my bookselling teeth. I can still remember the parquet floors and the shelves, always coated with a layer of West Texas dust no matter how many times we dusted. The children’s section was just outside the office door, and I would walk by a faceout [faceouts are bookstore lingo for books shelved with the covers facing the customer, as opposed to spineout] of some book called Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone everyday, thinking, “I should read that.” I was able to work my way up to Store Manager just in time for parent company Barnes and Noble to start phasing out the B. Dalton stores. By then, I knew there was nothing else I wanted to do. I had the skill set to sell books. I enjoyed waiting on customers, showing them the books that I loved, and discovering new authors to read. Even selling that damned loyalty card was a small price to pay for the little slice of Nirvana in Odessa.

Luckily, on the other side of the mall was a Waldenbooks, and they took me in. The Walden/Borders experience was very different from the B. Dalton/B&N one. At B. Dalton we were always aware that we were selling Books. At Walden, it felt more like Product (from a company standpoint). Luckily, our store was staffed with well-qualified Book Lovers. We became a very tight knit family, sharing our passion for books not only with the customers, but also with each other. It was not unusual for the staff to take in a Sunday night film adaptation of one of our favorite books after closing. It was at Walden that I became aware of ARCs [advance reading copies]. (Excuse me? The publishers will send you books, BEFORE THEY ARE RELEASED? FOR FREE???!!!) One such book that made it into my hands was a finished, first edition of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. I did finally get into Harry Potter. Book Three was being released, and this was the first time there were release parties being scheduled throughout the country. Ours was not a Midnight Release, but an After School Party. I read the first two books in preparation, and became hooked. We transformed our children’s section into our own little Diagon Alley (and I finally got to wear a cape to work)!
Time went on, and I was able to make a move to Barnes and Noble in Midland. I thought I had made it! This was playing with the big boys. B&N taught me a lot, too. I learned the value of merchandising well, and keeping a large store like that neat and alphabetized. It was rigorous work, and it was my first introduction to task work overtaking customer service. Our store manager was from Office Depot and didn’t like to read. Never a good sign. Nonetheless, the rest of the management staff rallied around the booksellers and passed along important new release information and backlist promotions. [Backlist: book industry term for books that aren't new releases.]  You can’t really teach Book Passion to anyone, but what you can do is teach Book Knowledge. Give booksellers the tools to be able to help the customers find the right book for them.

By this time, Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire was being released, and we did our very first midnight release. I was given free rein to plan the event, and it was a huge success. Two seeds were planted that night that would serve me well: (1) I can plan and execute events successfully and (2) I can entertain and educate children with ease. And, I liked doing both.

That’s when I was approached to become the Book Manager at my local Hastings. It was really the best of both worlds: I would be responsible for everything that went on in the book department without the burden of being store manager and worrying about things like labor, inventory costs, etc. This is where I really began to work at full throttle. At this point, Hastings was the only bookstore in town, but sales were less than stellar. Most people would rather drive to Midland and go to B&N (a real bookstore). It was an uphill battle, but after 3 years in the position, our sales became something of note, as did our events. We really became a community center, especially for children. I learned about things like Read Across America, and Drop Everything and Read. We began to celebrate these days with big events, drawing customers in, selling books, and most importantly, getting children excited to be in a bookstore. I couldn’t be more proud of my staff and the work we accomplished.

How many of you have heard of Friday Night Lights? When this book was published, Buzz Bissinger became persona non grata in Odessa. The citizens of this town felt betrayed by their portrayal in his book. Ultimately, he had to cancel his book signing in 1990 out of safety concerns. Years later, the film was being produced and much of it was filmed here in Odessa. The boost to the economy and the prospect of being up on the big screen seemed to wash away every hurt feeling. Bissinger was in town for the filming and graciously offered to do a signing in my store. No security was needed, as over 800 people filed in to get their book signed. I thought I couldn’t do any better than that. I was wrong.

Billy Bob Thornton was in the store shopping one night, right before Read Across America. Our celebrations usually entailed local celebrities reading from their favorite Seuss books. Why not get a national celebrity? I asked, and he graciously read to the kids three days later.

Someone in our home office must have taken notice, because I was asked to interview for a buyer position in Amarillo. I packed my bags, and away I went.

Book Passion can only take you so far, and I have to say, as a buyer and national event coordinator, I got an amazing education into the business side of bookselling. It was a rough first year, but the sales reps and the other buyers were incredibly helpful. I took what I knew about handselling and used it to approach buying on a national scale, learning about print runs, publicity, cover art, author tours, you name it. As I was fed all this info, I thought about how lucky indie bookshops are in this regard. They get the reps visiting the store itself, and more often than not, the buyer for an indie also knows (or is) the manager or senior bookseller. It helps facilitate the flow of info from the publisher to the customer. With larger chains, the info tends to stop at the buyer level, and not really get to the bookseller who is talking to the customer. I don’t think it’s really the fault of the buyers, just the nature of the beast. There’s only so much info you can filter down to 145 stores, especially stores in which employees regularly have to juggle books, music and video duties. I spent three years at that post, and I learned a lot. Let me tell you, sales reps know their stuff (especially Liz and Gianna...but mostly Liz)! [Damn straight.] What would always impress me was when some rep would say, “Here, I know you’re gonna love this, but it’s not for your market.” Most of the time, they were right. What I really enjoyed was seeing a book I believed we could sell on a national level. It was like handselling on steroids. What I missed was the personal connection to the customers. It was one thing to see numbers climbing on a spreadsheet, it’s quite another to hear a customer say “Thank You, that is an excellent book! What else do you have for me?” It was time for me to get back into the trenches.

I came back to Odessa and took up my old position as book manager. I was very fortunate in that I was able to use my new skills and knowledge to improve my bookselling abilities and those of my staff. It didn’t hurt that many of my rep friends would still send me ARCs and catalogs, so I would know what the next big thing was. Unlike working from an office, trying to figure out what “my market” was, I was free to be able to push whatever book I thought my customers would enjoy. More often than not, the enthusiasm my staff and I would show for a book hooked the customer, no matter the genre. I know many people, who would never read horror, picked up The Passage by Justin Cronin just because we loved it so much. Many of them came back for more. We sold the crap out of that book based solely on our excitement. This is what bookselling is all about for me. It never feels like work because all I’m doing is telling people that I love this book, and I think they will too! 

Randy talking about
One Book Odessa
I was very excited to partner with my local library on our first every city-wide read: One Book Odessa. Nine months of me running all over town, telling people that should be reading The Book of Lies by Brad Meltzer. As we were wrapping up the program and Brad was signing books, a young lady in line looked at me and asked if I had worked at Waldenbooks. I replied in the affirmative. Looking right into my eyes, she said, “You recommended Memoirs of a Geisha to me years ago and it rekindled my love of reading. Thank you so much.” Brad Meltzer punched me in the arm, and said, “See? Look at what your legacy is!” Brad Meltzer.

One of the best things to come out of One Book Odessa was my working relationship with our school district. It went beyond Institutional Orders and morphed into sponsoring an essay contest for One Book, and me volunteering at the high school library twice a month. As One Book wound down, I got a call asking if I would like to interview for a librarian position at one of the elementary schools.
Let me see: work with books? check. Work with children? check. Weekends and nights off? Check. Black Friday off? Check. Good pay? Well, who really works in books and expects to get paid well? We’re not in it for the money.

I’ve been in my library for a whole semester now, and it has been amazing. Children LOVE to read, and they get excited over the same things that excite me. I got to host a Diary of a Wimpy Kid Party for the upper grades. And for my little ones, we wrote fan letters to Michael Chabon because they loved The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man so much. Mr. Chabon wrote the students back, and they went crazy over a piece of paper from a guy they don’t even know. I get to foster this love of books every day. It’s not a job; it’s a privilege. I am so lucky to be doing what I am doing. I read all about the turmoil publishing is having, and the digital revolution, but what I don’t read about is how there are still book sellers and librarians out there, nurturing the love of the written word, no matter what platform. I am proud and lucky to be a part of this industry, and so happy to know so many other great people who are a part of it as well. We fight the good fight, and no matter what anyone says, we’re winning!

1 comment:

  1. I bet there are only a handful of people who are able to do something that they love and get paid for it. Your amazing love for books is inspiring, and I know that the people who have read your blog feel that way too! Great work!