It’s summer and that means time for vacation. Even though we have a permanent staff schedule, each week the schedule feels like a bowl of spaghetti with shift swaps happening left and right.

With our bookstore bistro we have further complexities … some booksellers also can work the cafe, but not all cafe staff can work the retail floor.

The aprons go on when we enter the store and we’re always ready to help out on the sales floor when necessary.

It would be lovely if coverage for all vacations, illnesses and surgeries, family visits, and special occasions could all magically work out. Unlike the 9-to-5 world, part-time staff will love working in the bookstore yet will always have something else as their number one priority. Opportunities for trips surface. Retirees can require a lot of time off to visit (or host) family and friends. College students sometimes can’t get the schedule they want at school and aren’t available when you need them most. Parents with children can have a slew of events they cannot miss. Then, cold and flu season hits.

The reality of owning a business is that in the end, it’s up to you to make sure all hours and tasks are covered. And some days, that’s easier said than done.

As we often work later than intended, cover shifts when we’d rather get back to business development, and spend more time arranging schedules, simply covering all of the open hours can be a challenge. And this can be a major factor for some who are thinking about the possibilities of owning a bookstore. If dropping everything for the business isn’t something you can do often, something will suffer as a result. In the end, we can understand why it’s so challenging to get to everything on our “To Do” list.

Ramping up a business to reach a level of revenue and net profit that allows you to build a core staff and even add some management-level positions. What a worthy goal that allows you to reclaim some of your time and be able to focus on the things that matter most to the sustainability of your business while the daily tasks get done.

Until then, long days where you are pulled in a variety of directions will be the norm. It’s exhausting. Yet unless you have unlimited funds to subsidize your start-up until you reach sustainability, most booksellers are moving fast and furiously, on their feet, constantly learning and juggling.

The glorious benchmark is to have even a handful of staff members who can take on important tasks so when it’s your time to take vacation, they’ll be the one filling in for you.

I hate it when I leave things in hotel rooms. On this last trip, I left my phone charger in the room. So I headed to the office supply store, grabbed an inexpensive replacement and went to the check-out counter.

A lovely young lady smiled, took my item, and then said, “Ah, the old fashioned kind. I haven’t seen one of these in a while.”

I’m not sensitive about my age, but this comment stung. But why? She wasn’t rude in her tone of voice and her comment was honest … the plug was not the duo USB/electrical plug, it was a simple electrical plug. The “old” kind. The young woman was simply unaware that her comments could be received as, “You must be totally unaware that nobody uses these anymore. Are you clueless? Why are you wasting your money on this thing?”

Customer service training is ongoing. We all can benefit from reminders to avoid words that judge and use words that help.

Customer service training is ongoing. We all can benefit from reminders to avoid words that judge and use words that help.

Communication is complex and it may not take much for a customer to take things in a way that was unintended. That’s why I immediately thought why many bookstores train their staff not to comment on customer purchases. Instead, they’re trained to talk about other things, like asking if any of the items are gifts and need gift wrapping, asking if the customer found what they needed, sharing information about the store’s newsletter list or inviting the customer to the next event.

Now that we’re in the heat of the presidential campaigns in the U.S., this serves as advice to reinforce with all staff. It’s easy to avoid language that can appear judgmental by focusing on simply being friendly and helpful.

The dream of owning a bookstore can be so strong and most people we encounter have spent years following different career paths and one day acknowledge that the bookstore dream just won’t go away.

In our years of working with people in career transitions into bookselling, we see a variety of wonderful skills and talents people have acquired. Stephanie was an attorney. Jeff was a journalist. Melissa was a CFO. James taught college literature. Rachel was a library director. Susan was an oncology nurse.

So how do you decide to make the career leap of your dreams?

Nina George's lovable main character, the owner of a book barge, refers to his bookshop as a "literary apothecary."

Nina George’s lovable main character, the owner of a book barge, refers to his bookshop as a “literary apothecary.”

I read from #Nina George’s new book, #The Little Paris Bookshop, during our most recent workshop because the gist of what makes a successful bookstore was perfectly articulated.

Jean Perdu owns a floating bookstore, a barge that travels the waterways of France. We travel along with him, encountering the various customers and learn their stories, needs, dreams, and woes. After a grandmother, mother, and girl leave the barge with their purchase and went on their way, “Perdu reflected that it was a common misconception that booksellers looked after books. They look after people.”

Smart people can learn retail management. You can’t really learn to be kind and generous.

Take inventory of your skills and look inward to identify the telling aspects of your character. If you love multi-tasking and enjoy a varied day with a mixture of conversations with people and completion of tasks, bookselling can be the right career move for you.

Bring your love for people and your interest in matching their needs and wants. But don’t minimize the importance of learning the business skills. Both are necessary.

Most of us in the world of book selling don’t think of us as salespeople and that’s a good thing. While owners and managers are clear that the store doesn’t stay in business unless there are sales, inspiring a purchase (and making the numbers) happens in the most subtle ways in the bookstore. And the best booksellers don’t have the kinds of personalities we typically think of for people in sales.

A display of Ann Patchett's personal recommendations at Parnassus Books in Nashville, TN.

A display of Ann Patchett’s personal recommendations at Parnassus Books in Nashville, TN.

Last week while we were visiting Nashville, where in the late 1980s and early 1990s I managed the beloved Davis-Kidd Booksellers, we stopped into Parnassus to say “hello”, get some new photos, and shop. A conversation with Nathan, one of the Parnassus booksellers who previously worked for Joseph-Beth (the indie chain that purchased Davis-Kidd), led to my purchase of one more book … and was a reminder of what qualities make for a really great bookseller.

The conversation began when I picked up a copy of Marilynne Robinson’s newest novel Lila and commented to Nathan about how much my book group enjoyed Gilead. Nathan said he loved Robinson’s new book and then asked what other kinds of books I loved to read. When I explained that I absolutely adore reading “novels in letters” and thought Carlene Bauer’s Frances and Bernard did not get the notice it deserved, the heart of book selling magic began.

Nathan introduced me to the novel The Light and The Dark by a Russian author Mikhail Shishkin, a novel in letters! I’d never heard of this novelist and would not likely have discovered it on my own. Nathan went to get a copy of the book and placed it in my hands. And then he told me about the letters between the two characters, the historical background, and what makes the book memorable.

I added the book to my pile.

This is book selling at its greatest. One reader connects with another by asking questions, listening, sharing what they’ve read or know about that may be of interest.

Is it selling? Sure. But it’s mostly about caring about others and wanting to share the remarkable experience of reading a really great book.

Bravo, Parnassus! And thank you, Nathan.