My Journey Into Retail, or How I Spent Three Fun Days in Salt Lake City's The King's English

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By Oren Teicher, ABA COO

From December 16 to December 18, ABA COO Oren Teicher joined the booksellers at The King's English in Salt Lake City, Utah, for a three-day stint as a frontline bookseller. This is his account of the final, hectic holiday sales days at one of the country's leading independent stores.

Day 1

In order to have my full three days at The King's English (TKE), I was up early and on a 6:15 a.m. bus from the Hilton Garden Inn in suburban Aurora, Colorado, and on my way to the Denver Airport to make a 7:30 a.m. departure.

I was on the ground in Salt Lake City by 9:10 a.m., retrieved my luggage at the baggage claim, and was in my rental car on the way to the store 20 minutes later. And, once you figure out the Salt Lake City street system (all major thoroughfares, except Temple, Main, and State, are called East, West, North, South, with numbers), it's pretty easy to get around. My sense of direction kicked in from previous trips, and I made my way to TKE at 15th South and 15th East. I arrived at the store just a few minutes after its 10:00 a.m. opening. The store is located on one block of retail establishments in a residential neighborhood.

I was greeted warmly by store co-owner Betsy Burton, was introduced (or re-introduced) to her large and very friendly staff, was shown around -- and quickly fell into the flow of activity in the store. Before long, I was shelving books and acquainting myself with the IBID inventory control system to locate appropriate sections for those titles that are not so obvious. Fifty or so titles later, I had become pretty familiar with where everything was.

TKE is a series of fairly small interconnected rooms, all jammed full of merchandise. There's not a lot of customer signage, and pointing customers to the proper section is a major pre-occupation for the staff. The store is heavy on fiction, reflecting Betsy's and her staff's predominant interests. However, despite that, I was struck by the number of people asking for nonfiction.

The store is a very interesting and welcoming space (can you believe part of it was once a gas station?), though it violates virtually every rule about having anything resembling decent sight lines. There seemed to me to be a lot of staff around ... though everyone appeared to be keeping busy.

Around 1:00 p.m., I joined two of Betsy's seasoned staffers -- Anne Holman and Margaret Neville -- at a holiday Book Talk at the University of Utah, which was 10 to 15 minutes away from the store. When we arrived, about 50 people were gathered to hear Anne and Margaret provide a rapid-fire recitation of the best holiday choices, as recommended by TKE staff. (Actually, my job was to carry the boxes.) Their presentations were great -- describing books with the kind of knowledge and passion that so well defines independent bookselling. TKE believes that these talks generate good will for the store and, of course, sell some books. We sold a few hundred dollars worth of books afterwards, but it did seem that the boxes that came back were just about as full as what we brought (though at least two people who had been in the audience on Friday came into the store over the weekend).

Back at the store (after repacking the books and unloading the boxes), it was time again to work the floor. I joined others in handselling a bunch of titles, and I even remembered to use the piece we had done in Bookselling This Week a month or so ago about books related to film, especially Good Night and Good Luck, to help a customer who had just seen the film and was asking if we had anything about Murrow or McCarthy!

Also, that afternoon I received a phone call from my ABA colleague Dan Cullen about the great news on the Patriot Act vote. I chuckled to myself: Having spent the better part of the past three years obsessed by every development with the Patriot Act, I had almost forgotten that the critical vote was taking place back in Washington, D.C., while I was shlepping a few boxes of books. It just shows how easy it is to become so absorbed by the events of the moment in the store, and to forget the outside world.

To restate the obvious: I found myself so much more comfortable handselling what I knew, or, more accurately, what I had recently read. So, no surprise, lots of customers I talked to left with Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin's new book about Lincoln (the book I just finished)! By 5:00 p.m., Betsy was shoo-ing me out the door; she said it was enough for one day.

I drove downtown, checked into the Hilton, and after a bit of a hotel Internet hassle was able to read all the good news emanating out of Washington on the Patriot Act vote. Betsy and her husband, Kit, had invited me to her home for dinner, and, after getting slightly lost trying to find their home (maybe it's not so logical a city after all) had a really nice evening with them. They are really wonderful people. We talked bookselling, politics, London, travel, kids, etc. etc., and, before I knew it, it was after 10:00 p.m.

By 10:30, I was back in my room at the hotel, had read another 20 pages of The March by E.L. Doctorow (which I wanted to read because TKE was heavily pushing it!), and fell asleep. Day 1 done!

Day 2

Because I was still on New York time (okay, I'm always on New York time), I was up by 6:30 a.m., so I got my running in before heading out to the store. Since I almost always run at night on my way home from work, I am always amazed at the number of people up and running at 7:00 a.m.!

But, after my workout, I was still at the store by opening time, ready to go to work. With no deliveries on Saturday, there was not much to shelve.

The staff warned me that, because Christmas was falling on a Sunday this year, this Saturday was likely to be the busiest day of the year. And by 10:30 the store was full of customers -- and it remained so all day. At times, it even became slightly chaotic, particularly when a customer's credit card seemed to have vanished into thin air!

In addition to books, we were definitely selling gift cards. TKE preloads cards in $10, $25, and $50 increments -- so staff doesn't have to activate them at the time of sale unless a customer is looking for an unusual amount -- which almost never happened. I had a satisfying gift card moment when a grandmother came in to buy Christopher Paolini's new book, Eldest, to send to a grandson in Connecticut but demurred when she saw the heft of the book. Having established that her family in Connecticut lives near Fran Keilty's store, The Hickory Stick Bookshop in Washington Depot, Connecticut, she became the proud owner of a $25 Book Sense gift card to send on to grandson!

The other side of the coin occurred when a customer wanted to send gift cards to adult family in the Minneapolis area and was chagrined (and surprised) to learn that we only have kids stores in the Twin Cities that take our cards. I tried Stillwater ("No, that's a little too far away") and, finally, the "but they're good everywhere because you can use them online" approach, but that just didn't fly either. Obviously, this is no news to us, but it sure is a disconnect to our members' customers.

The March seemed to be TKE's biggest seller; we were sold out by 3:00 p.m.; Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem by Maya Angelou also sold well. 1776, the new Joan Didion book, Jonathan Harr's The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece, and the Silver Spoon cookbook were also selling in some numbers. The biggest surprise to me was the new Jimmy Carter book, Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis -- people were coming in throughout the day asking for it and frequently leaving with three or four copies. That title, too, was gone by 4:00 p.m.

That afternoon, Betsy confided that it might be time to fill in some of the missing titles by making a run to their mystery emergency replenishment source, which I happily offered to do ... so off I went to a "Mystery Emergency Replenishing Source" (MERS). The first MERS that they sent me to looked like it had been hit by a tornado, and other than the Goodwin and Didion titles they had nothing else the store needed. Feeling like I was on a mission, I called back to TKE and asked if there was another MERS in town. Big surprise: There was.... So off again I went. This time I did much better, filling the cart with lots and lots of copies of the Carter, 1776, Silver Spoon Cookbooks, Narnia boxed sets, etc. Mission accomplished! The TKE staff greeted me triumphantly on my return.

By 6:30 p.m. or so things quieted down considerably. The lines at the cashwrap (which were six or seven deep at many times during the day) disappeared, with only a few leisurely browsers left in the store. Without the hubbub of customers, the store took on an entirely different feel.

I decided I had done my damage for the day and went back to the hotel, did my daily running, and was asleep by 9:00 p.m.!

Day 3

It seems to be permanently overcast this time of the year in Salt Lake City -- Sunday was no exception. Though today there were light snow flurries most of the day, too.

I was at the store by the 10:00 a.m. Sunday opening hour and was introduced to some staff members I had not yet met.

Sunday started slowly (remember this is SLC, where a few folks are at church on Sunday mornings), but it picked up as the day wore on. We only had a few moments where it was as busy as Saturday, but from 1:00 p.m. until their 4:00 p.m. Sunday closing time it was pretty steady.

And, the restocked Carter's, 1776's, etc. sure came in handy.

I worked the floor, and, I must say, was having fun doing it. Of course, I needed to rely heavily on the extraordinary knowledge of the TKE staffers for the answers to many of the requests (e.g., What do you have about golf, not written by John Feinstein? Do you have that book about that awful trial in Provo last year? What about the one where Freud has a conversation with C.S. Lewis?) And on and on.

Everything we say about how indispensable it is to have knowledgeable staff proved true time and time again. I also quickly learned that Google can become a booksellers best friend. It's amazing what you can turn up with only a little sketchy information (e.g., You know that book about crows that was on NPR?). Incidentally, all the talk we hear about how NPR sells books is completely true. I had multiple customers who said that they had heard about this book or that on NPR. My proudest handselling moment of the weekend came fairly late on Sunday afternoon when a customer volunteered that she was a potter (people in bookstores sometimes tell you the strangest things). In seconds, I had Suzy Staubach's new book, Clay, in her hands!

It also surprised me that in conservative "red state" Utah, though they are a minority, there are plenty of Democrats, liberals, etc. Of course, I suppose it's not a surprise that folks like that would turn-up in a store like TKE. I told someone on the staff that it seemed to me -- knowing how lopsided the Bush win was in Utah in '04 -- that I must have met everyone in Utah who voted for Kerry!

The favorite stocking stuffer gift at TKE this year was Pat Bagley's Clueless George Goes to War. Bagley is a political cartoonist for the Salt Lake Tribune, and TKE sold more than 1,000 copies of his latest!

It was 4:00 p.m. before I knew it, and my stint at TKE was coming to a close. The staff expressed their genuine appreciation for my being there and asked that I put together whatever thoughts, observations, etc. that I might have based on my three days, which I promised to do. But that's tomorrow's project. Off I went, into the snowy SLC late afternoon.