books

Standards for Staffing a Bookstore

the-strand-bookstore

Who should work in bookstores? Are the jobs intended for college kids, book lovers, or anyone who has the time and desire to have them? Our discussion yesterday about the future of different types of bookstores reminded me that some booksellers have very stringent standards regarding who can staff their shop. The Strand Bookstore in New York is one such place.

The Strand was established back in 1927 when a section of Fourth Avenue was called “Book Row”. At that time, Book Row consisted of 48 different bookstores that nearly filled 6 city blocks. The Strand quickly became a well loved institution in the area, and today it houses over 2.5 million new, used, and rare books for sale that cover 18 miles of shelf space. Unlike many bookstores, The Strand is committed to having employees who “are not only knowledgeable about books but…[are] also passionate about them.”

Part of ensuring that staff know and love books involves them passing a quiz. The New York Times recently tracked down one of The Strand’s old literary matching quizzes from 1970’s job applications. I have no doubt that the quiz looks a bit different these days, but I still encourage you to test your mettle at The Strand Application Quiz. Do you know who wrote The Golden Notebook or the author of The Wings of a Dove? Now you can find out for certain.

In some ways, The Strand’s method for choosing its staff is a lot simpler than the way other bookstores go about hiring employees. When a friend of mine finished her MFA in creative writing, she tried desperately to get a job at a bookstore – one of her dreams was to open a bookshop of her own one day – but none of the shops wanted to hire her. They couldn’t conceive of the fact that someone with her degree might want to work at a bookstore for the long term, which is a pity; she would have loved to help people find the perfect book.

Still, I suspect that it is easier (and cheaper) to hire people who aren’t necessarily passionate about books to staff bookstores. Even though it isn’t feasible for every store to act like The Strand, I appreciate The Strand’s commitment to hiring excellent folks. (Even if I’m not sure that I would earn 100% on its quiz.) If any of you have worked at bookstores or met exemplary bookstore staff, I’d love to hear about it! (E. Michael Helms , Ree Kimberley, and others shared some great comments on this subject, and I suspect others have some wonderful insight as well.)

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20 thoughts on “Standards for Staffing a Bookstore

  1. Interesting read!
    I have both worked in bookstores as well as assisted with managing and hiring staff for one (my favourite job thus far!). A passion for books was most definitely one of the top requirements on my list, but also a passion for working in a bookstore – it’s retail still and retail is tough! It holds true for any business, but specially with something as specialized as a bookstore, I think hiring the right people makes all the difference.

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  2. Oh man. I remember trying to apply for a job at my local bookstore when I was 15 or 16 and they handed me this 10+ page document as an application. I had to know where to find hundreds of books throughout the store and what the authors were and etc etc. It was so intense. I took one look at the application and walked out because it would’ve taken me FOREVER to answer it and I’m not sure I would’ve been good for the bookstore anyway. Just insane.

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  3. I owned an independent bookstore for about 11 years and hiring is a mixed bag, let me tell you. My first requirement was that they had to like and read at least one or two of our four target genres—mystery, science fiction, fantasy and horror—and the second was that they had to be passionate about sharing their knowledge and love of books with our customers. No tests and no age requirements but I did check references (which did not have to include bookstores). I hired 6 people over the years plus had a school-related intern two different years and only 1 was a real mistake, with another flaking out after a couple of years. Most were exactly what we needed and I loved watching them in action—nothing excites me more than connecting the right book with the right reader 😉

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    1. It sounds like you had a wonderful way of looking at applicants! Hiring can be so tricky, but if you get the balance of passion and skill right, then it’s like magic. (Now excuse me while I run off and read more about your former bookstore. ‘Creatures ‘n Crooks Bookshoppe’ is a great name by the way.)

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  4. My dream like your friend 😉 I would like to launch my own bookstore, but it’s quite difficult 🙂 I love a quite staff on bookstore, normally I like to discover their store by myself without any support. There are lot of books, but you always find what you are looking for.

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