Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Zen of Bookselling

When I began as a bookseller ten years ago this April it never occurred to me that bookselling was a free lunch. Go to a library sale, load up, and – presto! chango! – money cascading into your account. The crazy part is that the money did sort of cascade in those early halcyon days of internet selling. But even so, I knew that if I wanted to turn my lifelong love affair with books into a successful, dignified, and meaningful business I needed to knuckle down and learn a few things. So, autodidact that I am, I opted for baptism by total immersion. I read countless books about books, experimented with packaging materials, learned how to keep careful records, transferred the customer service skills I had attained in my former job as PR director for a nursing home complex into my new endeavor, and polished my writing skills to offer detailed descriptions of my wares. To do any less seemed to me to trivialize a time honored profession -- witht he operative word being profession.

All that was great and has served me well, but there was a missing component which, strangely enough, I just “got” very recently. The cosmic joke is that it was taught to me by the very people to whom I had developed a natural antipathy – the new breed of booksellers who, along with their corporate counterparts, have discovered that used, out-of-print, and rare books are Big Business. For years now I have ranted over their rudeness at sales as they shoved past me -- and into me -- to grab as many fetching little moneymakers as they could, rolled my eyes when they made such inane statements as, “You don’t gotta know nothin’ to sell books,” and seethed at the eternal beeping of the scanning devices which allow them to check the going rate for books on the Big River (a.ka. via ISBN number.

“There sure was a lot of communing with the great god amazon today,” I’d tell my husband after a sale. We’d laugh, but inside I was becoming less and less amused.

Meanwhile as the hobby sellers reproduced like one-celled microorganisms the corporate entities became greedier and ever more paternalistic in their dealings with sellers. Little by little the original joy I had found in bookselling began slipping away. It’s not that I didn’t love my work. Nothing could take away the deep satisfaction of the books themselves, the exhilarating interaction with the customers, even the pleasure of such mundane tasks as cleaning and wrapping. But my attitude was nonetheless becoming as sour as an old pickle.
So how did I finally “get it”? And what is it that I finally got? The answer to the first question is I don’t know. There were no thunderbolts, no one big defining moment. It just happened and as quietly as if on Carl Sandburg’s “little cat feet.” I may not know the how, but I sure know the what and that is simply this – my anger at the sellers and the corporations stemmed from a primal fear that they would snatch away this thing that meant so much to me. The truth is, of course, that you can’t run a business, or a life, based on fear. I’m not big on religion, but I’m all over faith -- faith in a limitless Universe and a benign Creator with a sense of humor and a heart the size of Her creation. I had just failed to understand that faith and intention are as much a part of bookselling as knowledge. What the penny sellers and the scanners do has nothing to do with me. My intention is what it always has been -- to run a dignified, meaningful business, to serve my customers well and to enjoy doing it. And it's working! Watching other sellers scurrying around like ants tossing books helter-skelter into boxes has made me realize exactly what I DON'T want and, most importantly, exactly what I do.

So then. Railing at external forces is a monumental waste of energy, not to mention damaging to the soul. Far better to simply live in the Light, walk my own path, and follow the river -- just not the one with the dot com extension.

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