Never Can Say Goodbye

Anyone who has ever been to my home, or for that matter anyone who has ever gone through the back room of the bookstore to get to the restroom or who has peeked behind the sales counter knows that I have a problem with accumulating piles of stuff. Especially book-shaped stuff.

It’s important when running a bookstore to be very disciplined about cutting out the deadwood. In a word: returns. If a title has been on the shelf for several months and not one copy has sold, then no matter how great a book it is, no matter if it won every major award, and no matter how much I personally think every kid in town ought to read it, it needs to go back.

One of the advantages in selling books, as opposed to many items, is that most of the time we can return books to the publisher and get credit that we can use toward stocking something else that hopefully will sell better. Otherwise, we don’t recoup the money we spent on it and, once that happens repeatedly, which it will, we have sunk a lot of money into what amounts to shelf decoration and have less money to spend on expenses. Returns free up resources for investing in more (or at least different) inventory.

So keeping a close eye on what actually sells and letting go of what doesn’t is of paramount importance when you’re trying to make it through lean times in a bookstore. I have known this, intellectually at least, since the beginning, but it’s been a hard-learned lesson in terms of actually putting it into practice. I would agonize over the prospect of returning books that, in my opinion, needed to be here… just in case. Just in case that kid that it would be perfect for walked through the door. I couldn’t stand to let go of a book that I had read and loved, even if it had an unfortunate cover that screamed “boring” or had some other tragic flaw that made it impossible to sell. I would go through the shelves, trying to find what to let go of, and say “Oh, but not that one… not that one… surely not that one….” As a friend of mine (with much more experience in book selling) told me a few years ago,”You’re not running an orphanage for unwanted books. If it doesn’t sell, you need to get rid of it.”

How right he was. I am proud to say that I have come a long way since then. I cull the inventory for potential returns regularly and have become practically ruthless about yanking slow- or non-sellers off the shelves.

To a point.

There are some books that just need to be on the shelf, even if they don’t sell often, because… well, they just need to be there! Though the list is, of necessity, dwindling as the recession lingers on, there are some books that I will always strive to keep on the shelves regardless of their performance. A Wrinkle in Time is at the top of that list, though thankfully that one remains a steady seller, in paperback at least. The once or twice a year that someone comes in asking if I have The Little Prince, not really expecting me to have it, I am always happy and a little bit smug when I hand it to them. I stubbornly insist on stocking The Shrinking of Treehorn, even though I am lucky to sell one copy a year. (My major concession on this title is Treehornthat I now only stock it in paperback.) Treehorn, in fact, is such a favorite of mine that I have been guilty of using it as a litmus test for new acquaintances. Which is not to say that if you don’t love it, you can’t be my friend. I’ve just noticed that the people I share a certain sense of humor with generally find this little book as hilarious as I do. If you don’t like it, or only find it mildly amusing, it doesn’t mean that I think you don’t have a good sense of humor. But if you laugh hysterically at it, we will almost certainly click. I have a copy at home, of course, but I suppose I just need to make sure that there’s always a copy close at hand, wherever I am. I never know when I’m going to need to size someone up. So to speak.

And thank goodness there are kids out there who can stand to let go of books they have at home and bring them in for trade. It keeps our used section going. In fact, when I decided to start the used section a couple of years ago, I realized that although I had bought countless used books over the years, I had never actually let any of mine go. The only way my personal book collection shrinks is if I loan a book out and it never gets returned. (Joey, are you reading this? Still missing that copy of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland that you swore you’d replace!) And when I notice my collection shrinking I can’t help wondering, as Treehorn’s parents wondered, if it’s doing it on purpose. Just to be different.

Published in: on July 15, 2009 at 3:45 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Mr. Thompson told us the worst mistakes are usually made in the first sentence: “I did REPLACE . . . .”

  2. Leslie,

    I DID your copy of “Herland” (I hate that I cannot underline or italicize the titles of novels in most online forms — of course, “Herland” could be considered a very long short story, so I needn’t lose sleep tonight), and it sits quite happily on my shelf, in my classroom, in San Francisco. (I said I would REPLACE it, not that I would give the new copy to you! Heehee.) You will, rest assured, receive the first copy, signed, certainly, of the sequel I soon will have finished; its working title is “Herland of the Lost,” and I have already signed Deidre Hall to play the caped and Elektra-Com’ed heroine. I had not thought about a theme song, but it is clear, as a nod to Spellbound and this particular blog entry, that Gloria Gaynor must sing the theme song. You and I will both make cameo appearances. “Every time I think I’ve had enough and start hea-ding for the door . . . .” My next project: “Laurie and the Yellow Wallpaper.” Charlotte — she was a babe, you know — would have been proud!

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