SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Last summer I had the honor of appearing at beloved mystery book shop, Murder by the Book, in Houston, Texas, to promote THE PRIME MINISTER'S SECRET AGENT and talk about historical mysteries. I appeared alongside fabulous New York Times-bestselling authors Lauren Willig and Beatriz Williams. The evening was facilitated by Murder by the Book's publicity manager John Kwiatkowsky and Sally Woods.
Readers, it was heaven.
What was so wonderful? The books, of course (my credit card took a serious dent), meeting Lauren and Beatriz (I've been a huge fan of their novels for years and it was lovely to meet them in person), and most of all, the staff, who were knowledgeable and professional and fun and funny. Do you ever meet people and just know that you're going to be fast friends? Well, that's what happened to me when I met John and Sally.
We all read mysteries and thrillers, but I thought it would be fun to take a peek "backstage" at a particularly fantastic mystery bookshop — and what happens behind the scenes. John and Sally, take it away!
JOHN and SALLY: Working in a bookstore comes with all the usual challenges of working retail, and throws in challenges of its own. Those challenges can be trying to figure out which blue book a customer saw on the new release table at another bookstore, trying to remember the name of a long out print book, or explaining for the 5th time why you don’t know if a book is available for the Kindle.
It also comes with some pretty special rewards. We have a lot of customers that have moved away from Houston, but always include a trip to the store when they’re back for a visit. We get to meet authors that we love, hand-sell books that we’re excited about, and spend our days surrounded by books.
Each bookstore is different. Working at a Barnes and Noble is different from working at a specialized indie bookstore. (If you want to know what working at big box store like B&N or Borders is like, read Elaine Viets's Murder Between The Covers, she nails it!)
One of the comments we hear all the time is, "I'd love to work in a bookstore and spend all day reading." We laugh, but know that reading is the last thing we get to do when we’re at work. Here’s what a typical day behind the counter looks like...
9:30 a.m. - Get to the store. If last night's event ran long, start the day by putting the store back together. That includes putting away event chairs, picking up stray books that wandered off the shelf, and picking up empty wine glasses left on bookcases. (If it's Tuesday, put out this week's new releases).
9:45 a.m. - Sort books from last night's event and get them ready to mail out.
10:00 a.m. - Open the store.
10:15 p.m. - Answer email, and update the store’s Twitter and Facebook accounts. Add any newly scheduled events to the website, while still helping customers and answering the phone.
11:00 a.m. - Dave, our UPS driver, shows up with 45 boxes of new books. Each book has to be checked in, sorted, and shelved, while still helping customers and answering the phone. If there are any damaged or missing books, they have to be called into the publisher for credit or replacement.
11:45 a.m.: Answer the phone:
Employee: Hello, Murder By The Book!
Customer: Is this homicide?
Employee: No, we're a bookstore.
Customer: I need homicide.
Employee: I think you should hang up and dial 911.
11:52 a.m. - A customer comes in asking for Victoria Holt’s series about a midwife. You realize she’s looking for the series by Victoria Thompson and give her the first in the series.
12:30 p.m. Thirty minutes for lunch
1:15 p.m. - Patrick, our mailman, brings an advanced reading copy that that’s been eagerly awaited. A happy dance ensues.
2:05 p.m. - Check for online and email orders.
3:00 p.m. - Archie, our FedEx driver, shows up with 3 boxes full of special orders. Each book has to be checked in, sorted, and customers need to be contacted to know their books have arrived.
4:00 p.m. - Meet a teenager in town for a lung transplant. His family is in Houston temporarily, and he loves mysteries. Show him some staff favorites, and recommend some great places to visit while in town.
4:45 p.m. - A customer from Shreveport stops by the store on one of her quarterly trips to Houston. After spending 45 minutes helping her pick out titles, she asks for a hug when you carry her bags out to the car for her. Your bookseller heart skips a beat.
5:00 p.m. - If there's an event that evening, put out chairs, set up the signing table, put out wine.
6:00 p.m. - Close for the day, unless there’s an event.
If there is an event:
6:10 p.m. - Author arrives. Take them to the back to sign presales (books ordered by people who couldn’t make it to the signing).
6:30 p.m. - Introduce the author to the crowd. Double check for last minute orders for signed books while trying to pay attention to the author’s talk.
7:15 p.m. - Author talk is winding down, tell the crowd we have time for one more question. When the talk finishes, line customers up so they can get their books signed.
8:00 p.m. - Signing line is finished, take the author to the back to sign books for people that couldn’t make it, and the rest of the store stock. Once the stock is signed, thank the author for coming and put the store back together.
8:30 p.m. - Head home (11 hours after the day started). This is where we actually get our reading done.
As you’ll see, there wasn’t any time for reading. We might get a few minutes to read while we’re on our 30 minute lunch break, but any reading is done once we get home and finally put up our feet at the end of a long day. That book we just recommended? We read it while we were off the clock.
At the end of the day, we all love what we do. No one ever worked at a bookstore to become rich. We do it because we love books, and we love finding the right book for the right reader. And that’s the best perk of this job, having someone come back and tell you they have found a new favorite book or author.
SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Thank you John and Sally, for taking the time to drop by today and all that you do. (Also — Jack Reacher! He's adorable!) Reds and lovely readers, have you ever been to Murder by the Book? Have you ever worked in a bookstore or wanted to? What does your ideal bookstore have? (Mine has a few cats.... No offense, Jack Reacher.)
John and Sally will be dropping by to answer all of your questions, even "what's the name of that book, you know — the blue one...."