What is the work of a professional bookseller?

Host: Clancey D’Isa


Clancey D’Isa: What is the work of a professional bookseller? How might we narrate this work both inside and outside of our industry? If the future of bookselling might include a consideration of the cultural and community oriented aspect of bookselling, how might we name that work? How too might we make that work visible to myriad audiences (burgeoning booksellers, funding bodies, community partners, etc.)?

Josh Cook: Thinking about this a lot, in terms of retention. How to get someone to make this a career. There aren’t ways to move up in organizations without pay, power without moving them off of the floor. In order to move up, you have to get away from what you love to do, which is to sell books. In order to keep them, give them additional responsibilities to justify the increase in income. Are there different models?

Clare Doornbos, Bookseller: Quite a luxury to be moved off the floor.🙂 I think that there are plenty of people who work in bookstores who do it for fun, who don’t need the money, and are good at sales. There is a trade level of bookseller, someone who is willing to engage in all parts of the business. Who wants to learn more and be a part of running the store in whatever way that manifests itself. 

Clancey: What is a professional bookseller? Longevity in the career. What is the professional tract for a bookseller? 

Clare: there was an effort by the ABA create an educational tract for professional bookseller? I don’t know…

Daniel O’Brien: NAIBA is doing it

Rebecca Fitting: NAIBA has a certification. Available for anyone. People are doing it for their own education. 

Nicole Brinkley, Oblong: Vertical vs. Horizontal job growth. If we focus on those who do it for fun, we make it more difficult for those who want to do this as a career. How do we make that happen. Making education more accessible. Outside of trade organizations, there is no way to get accessible information on bookselling. 

Jeff Deutsch | Chicago | Seminary Co-op Bookstores | Bookseller to Everyone (3:43 PM): The booksellers who are doing it for “fun” and who don’t need the money, as in publishing, might very well mask just how unsustainable our careers are for those who are seeking a professional wage.

Rebecca Fitting – Brooklyn/NY – Greenlight Bookstore (she/her) to Everyone (3:45 PM): @clare – more info on the bookseller cert program is here (someday soonish it’ll have its own dedicated website) – https://www.naiba.com/page/PBCintro

Josh Cook (Porter Sq Book, Cambridge, MA) (he/him) to Everyone (3:45 PM): Horizontal growth and vertical growth is a great way to articulate what I was trying to say.

Me to Everyone (3:48 PM): Bookselling has always been a skilled job at an unskilled wage. How can we make bookselling be viewed as skilled work, like we do for someone who is , say, an electrician?

Clancey D’Isa | Seminary Co-op Bookstores to Me (Direct Message) (3:48 PM): Thank you!

Nicole Brinkley | Oblong Books (she / her + manager) to Everyone (3:49 PM): Lanora – I talk all the time about how bookselling requires both retail skills AND a specific educational set that you won’t find in any other industry. A grocery store worker isn’t expected to have opinions on cereal and know their nutritional content, y’know?

Me to Everyone (3:49 PM): @Nicole exactly

Rebecca Fitting – Brooklyn/NY – Greenlight Bookstore (she/her) to Everyone (3:49 PM): It doesn’t pay like a profession though😞

Clare: A lot is expected of booksellers beyond selling books. We are treated as an extension as the marketing arm of large publishers but we are not paid for that work. 

Clancy: How do we name that work and how to we put a value on it? 

Kathleen Faber, HarperCollins: You are right. We are working in partnership. Having access to education, gathering resources…making it easy to share them. In publishing too, we suffer from the same things. Time isn’t made for training and sharing resources. Where we fall down. Expectation to figure it out on your own, or depend on community to guide and mentor. 

Nicole Brinkley, Oblong: In librarianship: vocational awe. describes a set of ideas Libraries as institutions are good sacred notions. (look this up). 

Here’s where I talk about vocational awe and how bookselling exploits new booksellers with it, in case anybody is interested: https://tinyletter.com/misshelved/letters/does-bookselling-exploit-young-booksellers-misshelved-3

Nicole Brinkley | Oblong Books (she / her + manager) to Everyone (3:57 PM): Here’s where I talk about vocational awe and how bookselling exploits new booksellers with it, in case anybody is interested: https://tinyletter.com/misshelved/letters/does-bookselling-exploit-young-booksellers-misshelved-3

camden avery / Booksmith / san francisco to Everyone (3:59 PM): Statewide programs might provide a start … California’s rolling out CalSavers for small employers. It’s an opt-out basis state administered Roth IRA … so it’s funded from wages, but it does provide some kind of safety net

Bruce DeLaney, Rediscovered Books. How do we rethink this to find an extra 1 or 2% to give to empoyees.

Rebeca Fitting: re look at what is an acceptable ratio of payroll to sales. 

Bruce DeLaney: Big companies have buying power. Is there a way via ABA is there some way we can use that to buy it together? We need our trade organization.

Jamie: there were legal roadblocks to that idea

Jamie Fiocco_Flyleaf Books_NC to Everyone (4:01 PM): re: negotiating. it’s been a legal issue

Jeff Deutsch | Chicago | Seminary Co-op Bookstores | Bookseller to Everyone (4:02 PM): I admire this conversation and wonder how that 1% or 2% will look in 10 years. How will we have a sustainable model then?

William Ames: Where does this money come from? How do we get that extra %. If bookstores pivoting for philanthropy, is there more competition for those philanthropy dollars? Is that really a sustainable model? In Europe, comes from government. If booksellers were making this pivot, if more of that was going to booksellers. How to get an extra funnel of money coming into your space.

Anne Dimock, author, professional fundraiser: Helped Kepler’s begin fundraising for their 501c3. It makes a compelling argument. There is a share of the philanthropic dollar for you, BUT the landscape is so competitive, Unless you as a bookstore can muster up the staff time and the computer technology you need to do a good job of this, I don’t recommend it. It helps to be in a community that has deep pockets that want to support you. This is about community building, but you have to compete with all the social service, performing arts, etc. And they all have a head start on you. I want to affirm that I think there is some money out there, but the difficulty getting it is considerable. Two things you need to do: does your community have the deep pockets and do you have the wherewithal to start this new job. You will have to put forth a big effort to be competitive. 

Jeff Deutsch: Is there any wisdom to a consortium that is trying to fundraise on behalf of bookstores? It could be a publisher consortium, then not a competition that is raising money for a singular cause. Is this unrealistic. 

Anne: I don’ think it’s unrealistic. You might organize aroudn literacy. That is part of Kepler’s model. This will be important for large national foundations. If you pursue fundraising you have to look close to home first. This is about knowing your community. Do you have a family foundation. Start there. As far as putting together a consortium to go after a literacy grant, probably worth a try, You still need someone to shepherd this. It’s a process and takes a long time, with no guarantee. The possibility is there. I suggest caution before proceeding.

Jeff Deutsch | Chicago | Seminary Co-op Bookstores | Bookseller to Everyone (4:02 PM): I admire this conversation and wonder how that 1% or 2% will look in 10 years. How will we have a sustainable model then? Praise you, William!

Sarah Bagby to Everyone (4:10 PM): I would welcome some more of the “pie.” We work with our local Community Foundation and present projects that benefit children. They pitch for us. Is there a way for a national philanthropic organization to contribute to local communities?

camden avery / Booksmith / san francisco to Everyone (4:11 PM): Like a superfund model, a centralized revolving fund?

Sarah Bagby to Everyone (4:12 PM): We have a “fund” within the foundation.

Jamie Fiocco_Flyleaf Books_NC to Everyone (4:12 PM): I know this is not a new HR concept, but I’ve started presenting staff with their total compensation (per hour pay, vacation days, health reimbursement account, store discount, free meals, free PPE, free ARCs, travel, education, professional development opportunities at institutes and author dinners, etc. May sound tacky but it does change the focus from what you’re paid an hour to what the company invests in you each year. It’s a good conversation starter (or ender). 

Nicole Brinkley | Oblong Books (she / her + manager) to Everyone (4:14 PM): Making mental health a priority at our store and making small things accessible (talking to people about how they best work, if they need a different break structure, how can we help) can make a HUGE difference in-store, and it can happen in individual bookstores in a way that it can’t elsewhere.

Clancy: I feel like there is something interesting in the conversation, there is this question. Where does our energy go? They ways in which we put our attention and what is the pay off? 

William Ames: For where we are in 2021, is there a way in which bookstores are uniquely placed to aderess the problems we have in society right now. In the last 5 years, there has been an incredible amount of wealth generated at the very top, and it continues to be generated. As an industry, we are capable of driving the conversation. Is there a conversation to be driving around the power of bookstores around the equity problems, civic problems. I wonder if bookstore can be a more top in mind in the conversation. If we were driving this conversation, there might be some ways that big philanthropy can turn some gears in our direction.

Anne: I think that is already happening. I think bookstores can begin to make the case for themselves that libraries have. Many have a friends organization attached, and they have a government stream attached to them. In a way, you are a public utility like they are. Foundations are chartered to fund 501c3 and no one else. you have to make yourself part of that structure to get into that ecosphere. Can bookstores own this space, grow into this posture. Yes, there isn’t an easy fix there with philanthropy becoming part of your revenue stream. It takes a big push to get going and compete with all your communities needs. Looking fora a very tightly leveraged opportunity. Maybe Emmerson Collecive can spearhead this.

Josh Cook: These two sessions are similar. Talking through an intractable problem. There are great things we can do within the scope, but all the money is in the hands of very few people. Many would not agree with our value pitch on what bookstores bring to their communities. Publisher that spends millions on another publisher thinks of our value? Resist the idea of non-profit style philanthropy for bookstores. It’s a great individual solution for certain stores. No way to bring retail bookstore and government funded library. Where do we make the change happen? Glad we are talking about it in these terms. Our society structured in a way that makes this nearly impossible and it requires much bigger changes to make this more possible.

Jeff: One of the questions we’ve been asking ourselves, If we were starting from scratch today and building a model in the 21st century, what model would we create knowing books are not sustainable. The answer to that question can be deliberate. I don’t think its pie in the sky to think we can come up with a solution. What model can we build so that we continue to exist. None of this is new. How do we forge a new path forward?

Megan, Chatham Ontario, Turns & Tales, Manager (She/Her) to Everyone (4:25 PM): Should we consider booksellers as a proper ‘trade’ rather than a simplified retail gig?

Nicole Brinkley | Oblong Books (she / her + manager) to Everyone (4:26 PM): Yes and no.

Elaine Katzenberger, City Lights. Add to what Jeff said. We are an older organization. There are clear mission based principles that have guided City Lights. To Jeff’s point, the role the bookstore plays today in modern society is not the need City LIghts was fulfilling in 1953. On the other hand the need to gatehr in a physical place iwth books is still there, it’s still real. We live in an economy, political sphere, so many cards of capitalism stacked against this kind of business. But going back to basics to decide what are we providing, what are we doing here. Not all bookstores are the same. There are a lot of bookstores not talking about this. Not thinking of themselves as serving the same goal.

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