Bookseller I’d Like to F***

Lacey N. Dunham chronicles her experiences in the land of frontlist and author readings.


10 Myths About Bookselling


MYTH 1: Booksellers Spend All Day Reading

The quiet bookshop nestled on a tree-lined side street. Inside, the bookseller is perched at the register, an open book propped on her knee. Ah, wouldn’t it be wonderful to spend all day reading and discussing books? You spend your workday surrounded by books; ergo, you spend your workday reading them.

I’m not sure about the origin of the luxurious, all-day reading marathon bookselling myth, but it’s an utter fallacy. While booksellers sometimes read the dust jackets or (in the case of Russell Brand memoirs) hold impromptu giggle sessions that are an introvert’s idea of performance art, bookselling is a job.

Books don’t appear on the shelf in such a tidy order instantaneously. Someone has to unpack the FedEx boxes, add the books to the store inventory database, and place each one in the correct section (no Tolstoy in psychology, please!). Think of doing that for 200-300 books each day (double that on a new release day) all while answering phones, fielding customer questions, processing and sending out books ordered online, explaining e-books, setting up chairs for an author reading, hosting the author reading, updating the store’s social media, checking for shelving errors and re-alphabetizing as necessary, researching a rare title for a customer, collecting books for return to the publisher and selling books at the cash register — you understand why booksellers hate when people tell them, “Oh, I would love to sit and just read all day like you do.” Reading is the last thing booksellers have time to do.

MYTH 2: Booksellers Make Lots of Money, Otherwise Books Wouldn’t Cost So Much

Here’s an industry joke about bookstore proprietors that I think applies equally to booksellers:

Q: How do you make a small fortune in bookselling?
A: Start out with a large fortune.

Yes, books aren’t getting any cheaper, but neither is milk, bread, or a new car. At the bookstore where I work, customers often haggle over the jacket price under the assumption that we control all aspects of the publishing industry. The assumption is ridiculous, of course; books arrive at independent bookstores long after the author’s advance, the marketing budget, the printing costs, and the publisher’s staff (all except the interns) is paid. A bookstore typically makes only 35% of the price set by the publisher. If a bookstore discounts that cover price by 15% or 20%, that’s halving our revenue. And because independent bookstores aren’t in a position to price gouge the way Amazon or non-book retailers like Wal-Mart and Target can, we can’t give you a 50% discount because the cover has a teeny, tiny dent. Booksellers aren’t rolling in the scrilla. For many of us, bookselling is a career we do as a labor of love. None of us are getting rich from it—but if you are topping off your bank account with this gig, I’d like to know if your store is hiring.

MYTH 3: Bookselling Isn’t a Career (i.e. so when are you getting a real job?)

A colleague of mine describes herself as a “professional bookseller” and she’s experienced several eye rolls and questions such as “so what does that mean?” or “why?” Many of my colleagues have worked in bookselling for a decade or more.

We receive dozens applications each week (since the recession that number has tripled). When applicants are asked why they want to work for us and the response is, “I’m looking for a fun job,” their application goes to the bottom of the pile. Ditto for anyone whose favorite books are all staples of high school English classes. If you haven’t read a book since high school and you’re thirty-three, how are you going to keep up with the hundreds of books published weekly?

Although bookselling isn’t as lucrative as a law or business career, it’s still a career choice for literarily minded individuals who love working with the public by day and devouring books by night. Besides, if the legitimacy of a career is based on that career’s annual salary, than booksellers shouldn’t be the only ones asked by well-meaning family and friends when we’re finally going to get a “real” job: teachers, social workers, electricians, and pastors should have to field this question, too.

MYTH 4: Bookselling Is a Low-Stress Job

People who think bookselling is low-stress have obviously never worked retail on Black Friday. Any job is going to have high points and low moments; however, when you’re working with the public, it’s impossible to know if the next person who walks up to you is having the best day of his life and will shower you with rainbows and smiles or if he just lost the all-important Schnizicki account at work and is stomping into the bookstore like Godzilla.

Maybe I’m someone who inspires intense rage in others, but in my almost four years as a bookseller, here’s a partial list of things people have said to me (all one-hundred percent true):

  • You’re an idiot
  • You’re stupid
  • You’re an unhelpful little girl
  • Thanks for ruining Christmas
  • You’re so hateful
  • This is why my kids are getting a college education
  • Where are all the nice, happy booksellers today?
  • Bitch
  • Stupid bitch
  • You’re everything but a whore

Add to this a customer who — furious that his gift-wrapping was not “perfect,” —tore the wrapping paper from his book, crumpled it into a ball, and threw it at my colleague who had wrapped the present.

Rudimentary name-calling and wrapping paper assault aside, bookselling is the most enjoyable of the stressful jobs I’ve had, although the horrors of the holiday shopping season still tremor through my body in nightmares.

MYTH 5: Booksellers Know Everything About Every Book Ever Published Since Gutenberg Invented the Printing Press

Booksellers possess pride in knowing the ins and outs of recently published books. However, if you’re looking for a book and you can’t recall the author, the title, what the book is about, where you heard about the book, or whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, we’re not going to be much help beyond recommending other books you might enjoy.

If a customer tells me she’s looking for a book by a man and there’s a girl in it but she can’t remember the author or the title, I give her Lolita. If she’s looking for “that popular book about the animals”: Animal Farm. “That controversial book my book club is reading”: The Autobiography of Malcolm X. “The book with a red cover and the word ‘the’ in the title”: The Joy of Sex. I’m a bookseller, not a magician. My dark-framed glasses and skinny jeans possess only so much magic.

MYTH 6: Booksellers Are Literature Snobs

Okay, okay: perhaps a tiny nugget of truth glimmers in this myth. After all, plenty of booksellers are armed with bachelor and master’s degrees in English literature and creative writing, so a certain disdain bred of wild jealousy at someone else’s manic success (usually of the John Grisham variety) is to be expected. And while you’re likely to find that one bookseller at every store who claims they only enjoy seventeenth-century Restoration era literature of the French persuasion, you’ll also find booksellers wild about J.K. Rowling, Stephen King and other “commercial” writers. We booksellers see ourselves as gatekeepers of literature for consumption so we’re often shy (or downright snooty) about sharing our guilty pleasures, but don’t let us fool you with our disparaging comments about the masses: our bedside reading table includes Game of Thrones and Infinite Jest.

MYTH 7: Booksellers Have No Other Interests and Only Talk About Books All Day

The most satisfying and intellectually stimulating conversation I’ve ever had on the topics of our “post-race” culture and the deconstruction of meaning behind Orko’s curious garb both occurred while bookselling. 

MYTH 8: Booksellers Just Want to Sell You Something

Ninety-nine percent of booksellers aren’t used car salesmen. We want you to find a book you’ll love because reading should be a passionate endeavor driven by your lust for another page. Whether you pine for the writing of Suzanne Collins, Charlene Harris, or Roberto Bolaño, booksellers are enablers and we want you to go home satisfied. It’s our little trick to keep you coming back for your fix.

MYTH 9: Bookselling is Dead (or Dying)

“The book is dead!”

With all the articles, essays and blog posts on the book’s malignant Kindle tumor—and now, the Amazon Encore cancer—the death knell of the book and subsequent eulogies for bookstores and bookselling are appearing everywhere.

But haven’t we managed in the centuries since Gutenberg? Bookselling is changing but it’s not dead. The entire publishing and retail book industry is experiencing a titanic shift and while this will result in a few casualties, one or two missing limbs (or the entire collapse of Borders) it isn’t the same as flat lining. Publishers are worried. Writers are worried. Bookstore owners are worried. The next few years will be rocky but I firmly believe—and the news of bookstores thriving in the face of Borders decline and Amazon’s giant paws dirtying everything should be proof—that bookselling and books are going to survive. 

MYTH 10: That Cute Bookseller You’ve Been Flirting With Won’t Date You

One of my bosses averaged one phone number a week from male and female customers. Even though he worked in a personal factory, he was hesitant to pursue even the best looking offers. He explained that he didn’t want to cross the customer-bookseller line. I think he simply didn’t have room in his basement apartment for himself, his thousands of books, and a love interest.
I, too, received occasions of courting; in one memorable instance, the customer and I talked at length about our mutual love for the poet Eavan Boland. He ordered a book of hers we didn’t carry and when he returned to pick it up a week later, I happened to be at the cash register. He paid for the book, tucked an enveloped letter inside, and handed it to me. The letter was a passionate, typewritten (yes, on an actual typewriter) entreaty for “a walk in Dupont Circle sometime” and more book discussions like the one we’d shared. Unfortunately, the title of the book was Domestic Violence, not exactly the type of wooing Jane Austen would approve. Doubly unfortunate is that I carried a deep secret with me to work — I was six months into a relationship with my now partner. Where did I meet her? At my bookstore, selling her a book.

More of Lacey N. Dunham’s Bookseller I’d Like to F*** at Used Furniture.


  1. Standing ovation. Having spent many years toiling in indie bookstores (including my first job after law school, by choice), I can say that you certainly hit the nail on the head. I always used to enjoy the variation on #5, when people would come in and ask for “that book that was on TV the other day.”

    • At which point you respond “that must have been ‘The Pillars of the Earth,’ and they get frustrated…also, we miss you, there aren’t enough Canadians in our stacks these days :)

  2. As someone who was a bookseller for six years before moving to the library for the past ten years, may I say ditto for librarians!

  3. “You’re everything but a whore”

    What a considerate insult!

  4. Wow, almost every single one of these (almost) could be a Myth for Librarians as well. The ‘read all day’ comment always gets me.

  5. I’m a bookseller at an independent bookstore in St. Paul, MN. These are so true! Except the name calling. That’s some hostile customers! I’ve had nasty looks and “huffs” but never any direct attacks. Maybe it’s Minnesota – you know, the land of “nice.” People don’t always say what they’re thinking.

    • @Dara: I live in Minneapolis (recently transplanted)! Yes, the Minnesota Nice might prevent overt comments, but imagine what they say in their cars when headed home on I-35!

    • I actually had a customer throw his books at me and then sweep everything off the POS. Then he started going at the end caps, so I tackled and restrained him while another customer called 911. My offense asking him to bring the books to me to re-shelve if he couldn’t remember where they went…

  6. Yes, yes, and yes. Although I’ll say that working out of a small location for several years has found me guilty of perpetuating Myth 5. Having had customers ask for books by color, the number of times I’ve been able to turn up their reading, I’ve felt a little like a wizard. The expectation that I can perform like that all the time, though? That’s a little different.

  7. Your post is interesting and edifying. I had no idea selling books was so complex. Surely the love of books and people far out weigh all the draw backs.

  8. Thanks! Great fun!

  9. William Brock says:

    My favorite is the customer who has to have this particular book right now, but can’t remember the title, author, what it is about, or anything else about it. (However– it did have a blue cover. Or maybe green.)

  10. We got a really good chuckle out of this today! Thanks for being smart and funny. And a bookseller.
    I once had a customer spell out “Monet” for me, unsolicited of course. And though I didn’t met my husband in my store, he was a long-time customer!

  11. I own a children’s bookstore, and am proud to say that I can sometimes figure out the name of a book from the colour of the cover and the fact that the authors name begins with N, or maybe M. In one case the customer said “It’s about a rabbit that poops in the house” and I GOT IT first try!.

  12. Love the article, I have been a bookseller for 7 years at a indie bookstore in Westfield, New Jersey and love your insight. My favorite question is, ” Do you have any good books?”
    By the way I can pretty much tell you what color the cover of about 75% of the books we have in our store.

    • Celeste Lueck says:

      I’ve never had name calling directly, but my first Christmas season, I was at the cash register; I’m assuming I wasn’t checking him out fast enough. I asked him a question about gift wrapping and he told me to “just give me my F……..g books so I can get out of here. Nice way to start as a bookseller. I told him to have a nice Christmas, too.

  13. Haha! Spot on. I met my husband at a bookstore, too. I was a bookseller; he, a barista. But don’t tell him I called him that. :D

  14. I like Myth 10. I married a bookseller :). To be fair, I worked with her, too.

  15. fishgirl182 says:

    I used to work retail and a lot of these apply as well. My favorite was when I worked at a video store and people would come in looking for a movie but not know anything about it. “it’s that movie with that guy and a girl. You know.” Uh no, I don’t. Anyway i enjoyed reading this. Thanks for working hard. I love booksellers.

  16. Global truth: Cape Town, South Africa. The absolute pits is when a customer enters the store, appraises the shelves upon shelves of books and asks: “Do you sell books?” “No honey, we sell carpets; the books are merely decoration.”

    • We used to get that a lot at author readings. Folks would buy the book on Amazon, bring it to our indie bookstore for the author to sign after the reading and, when asked about it, would say, “Well, I wasn’t sure you would sell books.” Really?

  17. As a fellow bookseller, I have had the rudest customers this past summer, and I’ve worked in this type of job for over 10 years! So many of them feel the way to get back at us or be mean is to say, “Well, that’s why all the bookstores are going out of business!” I just want to say back, no, they’re going out of business because you’re not buying those really remote titles that you ask us to order in, then decide not to buy. But I don’t. I smile, and say, I’m really sorry, or else I just tell them that since I’m obviously not going to be able to help them, I’ll let them speak to a manager, and pass it on. But I do love my job. Even if I didn’t need to work a part time job along with being a teacher, I don’t know that it would be easy to quit, I just can’t imagine not being among the books, and talking to the other great people who work at my bookstore. I must admit that I wish some of the cute guys that come through my store would ask me out though. I’ve had some great conversations, but nothing else. Oh well. Again, great blog!

  18. I just finished my 8th season as a seasonal bookseller in northern Wisconsin – love all the comments, have heard some of them myself :). This year was more interesting because some customers mentioned their e-books/almost apologizing for them – “but still like real books” – and would buy one or two at my store! More amazing were those customers who used their “smart” phones to take pix of some of my titles – especially my favorites/newest fiction and non-fiction and my Scandinavian Noir section – then mention they would go home and order them online!

    • I love the customers who ask for a piece of paper to write down the titles I recommend so they can “come back another time to purchase them”. Of course we never seen them again,

    • Hi Kathleen! I’d love to hear more about your bookstore, and hopefully visit some day. Northern Wisconsin is so beautiful. Would you be interested in celebrating Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day on December 3rd? I’d love to send you some bookmarks :)

      Here’s a website if anyone else would like to take a peek

  19. Hear, hear!! And–here, here! As in bookstores are thriving here, there, and everywhere. In honor of the upcoming second annual Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, we drove cross country this summer, visiting nearly 60 bookstores. We found them almost to a one filled with customers. We found flagship stores opening second branches. New stores just starting out. Once the chains were going to be the ruination of bookstores, now it’s Amazon. But the human need for books and bookstores is great, and I believe that will preserve these precious places. Thanks for all you do, and thanks for this post.

    As they said of the king–The book is dead? Long live the book.

  20. I used to work at an indie in a Northern Michigan resort town. At the end of my final season (right before I packed up to move to Denver), a customer asked, “Where do all the poor people live? Y’know… Like the ones that have your job? No offense.”
    I’ve been selling books for over 10 years and though I want to throw things some days or thank every customer who says “I’ll get it on Amazon” for the job security, I love coming to work every day.

    • That’s hilarious! I worked a summer in Charlevoix, MI back in 2000. Being British though I have a feeling that none of the yacht-owning brigade would dare have asked me the same! One of my colleagues merrily called them ‘fudge-munching-cone-sucking-trunk-slammers’.

  21. lesliej queen of my world says:

    Great list … yep, sounds like many a reference question. One of my favs … while working at an academic library a young women asked for help to find “a thing, about a thing, about a dude”. What she wanted (after much negotiating) was a biography … one too many “things”!!

  22. Brilliant! Clever and funny: a fascinating insight into the bookseller’s universe. Gratitude and appreciation from a writer who would have no career without booksellers like you.

  23. Great article. Try everything I can to help my local independent bookshops in the UK and this helps demystify the process for those people who think it is a stroll in the park. Bravo.

  24. Kathy Franklin says:

    When I worked in Daycare, I always heard: “It must be fun to just play with the children all day.” Because, of course, they changed their own diapers, washed the toys, swept and vacuumed and wrote out their own lesson plans.

  25. same goes for dvd rental shops. apparently i have the best job cos i get to watch movies all day. um, no, i get to clean and reshelve the movies YOU got to watch all day…

  26. Brilliant! and an universal truth also, believe me. I’m from Brasil, have been working for 5 years now in this business and have the exact same thoughts and feelings about every single line you’ve wrote… beautifully written, by the way. congrats!

  27. Excellent column! Genuine and heartfelt with just he right amount of snark. Makes me want to go spend a paycheck at the local indie store :)

  28. I’ve owned an independent bookshop for 15 years now and many of the ‘issues’ with customers are similar throughout retail. Lately, though, there have been a raft of bookstore closures here (in Australia) and now the most common question is: “You probably don’t have it … but.” To which I reply “Probably not” then hand it to them.

  29. My favorite is when, after spending 15 minutes telling a customer all about a favorite book, they say, ‘Oh great! I’ll be sure to get it on my Kindle right away!’ As if getting them to buy the book elsewhere was really what I was going for.

  30. Myth 10: I met my wife at a second hand bookshop. After visiting several times and buying everything from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to a Shakespeare’s Sister cd single to try and impress her I finally got the guts up to ask her out and it’s been smooth sailing ever since!

    Yay to second hand bookshops I say…


  1. […] updated in real-time. But when it comes to content, we have a columnist who talks about working in bookstores, another who “makes an annotated mix tape of his life in stories and cover songs.” We have […]

  2. […] “If a customer tells me she’s looking for a book by a man and there’s a girl in it but she can’t remember the author or the title, I give her Lolita. If she’s looking for “that popular book about the animals”: Animal Farm. “That controversial book my book club is reading”: The Autobiography of Malcolm X. “The book with a red cover and the word ‘the’ in the title”: The Joy of Sex. I’m a bookseller, not a magician. My dark-framed glasses and skinny jeans possess only so much magic.” If you read nothing else today, read Bookseller I Would Like To F***. […]

  3. […] ♥ Super awesome article about bookselling myths. […]

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