Chapter 96 Etiquette for Booksellers, Or, Learn from My Mistake

Since I was a kid, I’ve been shy. When I was in first grade and other kids that I didn’t already know would come and talk to me on the playground, I would cry, because I didn’t know what to say. “Hey, kid. What’s your name? What are you playing?” some unsuspecting fellow student would ask, and the tears would flow. This became such a problem that my desperate parents ultimately moved me to a much smaller school that was less intimidating. To this day, nothing fills me with dread more than knowing I will have to talk to people I don’t know well.

For some inexplicable reason, I could teach a room full of 37 teenage high school students without fear. I also feel totally comfortable expressing myself in writing. I think I articulate my thoughts much better in writing than I do when speaking. I seem to do just fine being outgoing at book fairs, where there is a constant flow of new people. There is no logical nor justifiable way to explain this shy behavior. We all have our shortcomings, and shyness is one of mine. Now that I’m well beyond the first grade, I rise above my bashfulness and jump straight into whatever the social situation demands — most of the time. The only way to lose the fear is to confront it, and I find that the anxiety disappears after a few minutes of talking to someone new. It’s just the initial few moments of a conversation that terrify me.

As I said — most of the time I rise above it. Occasionally, I find myself gripped by an inexplicable fear of, of . . . of what? I don’t even know! I recently found myself gripped by shyness in a book store and feel like I made a mistake. I’m going to tell you this story so you can learn from it.

About two weeks ago, I met my friend Penny of Vandello Books, who was visiting from Seattle and staying near Santa Cruz. In an effort to meet halfway, we had lunch in San Jose, about a 45 minute drive from my house. We had a great time catching up and talking books, and then I left to drive home and pick up Tom and Huck at school. While heading toward the freeway, I passed a used book store I haven’t ever visited. Hmm. I really didn’t have time to stop without being late to pick up the boys. Well, maybe just a five minute stop. I could run through, and, if I found anything great, could plan a return trip sometime in the future. (Bibliophile that I am, it is just impossible for me to pass a bookstore without going inside, even if it means Tom and Huck are out in the rain wondering why Mom is late to pick them up. Heck, they enjoy splashing in puddles anyway.)

I may be a new bookseller, but I know enough to know that when I visit the shop of another bookseller I should introduce myself (oh, the horror!) and identify myself as a bookseller. Still, I always find this to be an awkward moment. I’ve no reason to make assumptions, but my insecurity makes me think the owner will tell me I’m not a bookseller (because I sell online) and to leave the shop. I cower in fear of being assailed with all of the ways the brilliant shop owner knows more than I do. This has never actually happened to me, and I realize there is no logical reason why I should think that it will, but I just do. When I entered this shop, the man behind the counter was busy buying books from another customer. No chance to introduce myself right now. Pressed for time, I immediately went about browsing the shelves in the Western Americana section. I worked my way through History to the Children’s section. A few minutes later, he found me in Poetry, that most intimate of all literary subjects. “Can I help you?” he asked.

I’d like to tell you that I said, “Yes. I’m a bookseller, and I only have a few minutes to shop today. You have a great shop and I’ll be back in the future to buy more. In the meantime, I’d like to buy this and this and this. And this.” But, alas, stunned at being noticed before I introduced myself, what came out of my mouth was:

“No.”

Not, “Yes, I’m a bookseller and I’m interested in . . .” Not even, “No thanks, I’m, just browsing.” Not even, “No thanks.” Just a rather curt, “No.”

Why I said this, I don’t know. The bookseller, probably used to browsers, though I hope not rude browsers, left me to the books. I stood there and pretended to be reading a book, wondering how I could now introduce myself as a bookseller at the cash register and not look like a total idiot. Not to mention, the clock was ticking and I had to get on the road to pick up the kids. After hiding behind some shelves for two minutes figuring out what I was going to say, I wandered nonchalantly (yeah, right) up to the register and plunked down a stack of seven books. “Um,” I started to speak, “I’m not trying to ask for a discount, but I just wanted to introduce myself as a bookseller. Here’s my card.”

(Um. I’m past my teenage years. What adult starts a sentence with “Um”? And, “I’m not trying to ask for a discount . . .” That was tactful. Not.)

The man behind the register barely glanced at the card. “Oh. Ok,” he said. “Um. You can have a 20% discount.” He tossed my card back at me.

“Do you want my resale number?” I continued, in an effort to establish the fact that I am a legitimate bookseller.

“Don’t worry about it. You can give it to me next time. Thanks for the purchase.”

Carrying my seven books with me, I slinked out of the store and into my car feeling like a complete idiot, despite the fact that the store’s owner was very nice to me and gave me a dealer discount even though he’s never heard of me. Why didn’t I just introduce myself like a normal professional bookseller would? If I were that bookseller, I wouldn’t have offered me a discount. Well, thankfully, that bookseller is a kind man. I resolve not to be overcome by shyness next time. I absolutely hate it when I don’t act like a grown up. There really is no good excuse.

Don’t ever do this to yourself. Spare yourself the humiliation and always introduce yourself when in another dealer’s shop, preferably before you start shopping. I knew that I should do this and I still didn’t introduce myself properly until I was ready to make my purchase, even though I was given the opportunity to introduce myself when the shopkeeper asked me if I needed any help.

There is a bookseller etiquette, and we new booksellers need to learn it and use it. It’s there so that everyone understands how to treat everyone else and so we don’t all feel like uncomfortable fools. Want to learn more about it? Brian Cassidy has already done a great post here. Read it and learn.

For what it’s worth, I know that if I want to be considered a professional I must act like one. I’ll do better next time.

5 Comments

Filed under A Bookseller's Education

5 responses to “Chapter 96 Etiquette for Booksellers, Or, Learn from My Mistake

  1. Love the post, made me giggle. I am shy too, although people find me intimidating, maybe that is because I act the way you did in your story. I notice you specialise in Dante. My wife is Italian and we get Italian T.V. here in the U.K. via satelite. Roberto Bengini is doing a tour in Italy at the moment, his version of the divine comedy. Very special. Send me your catalogue when it is done.

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