Rules of the Handsell

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Melissa Lion

By Melissa Lion

Diesel, A Bookstore is known in both its communities -- Malibu and Oakland, California -- as a great store to visit for reliable, well-suited recommendations. Here are the rules that I, one of Diesel's enthusiastic handsellers, follow:

  1. Always ask what the person has read and liked before. Listen to what the customer says. They have probably not mentioned your favorite obscure '60s science fiction novel. They have probably not mentioned any book like it. This is not the time to acquaint them with the aforementioned title, or its friends.

  2. Never judge a customer by her cover. I recently had a woman ask me for a recommendation. She said she'd never read much before, but that she was into classics -- just not classics that looked like classics. I tried her with one of those sweet French flap paperback reissues of Graham Greene's work. No. I tried her with some Edith Wharton. I even tried the Penguin classics spinner. (I figured she meant library bound classics that you'd cover with a paper bag and decorate with your signature after you married that hunky guy in your homeroom). She wouldn't even touch the Penguin rack. And then, in passing, I put my hand on Crimson Petal and the White. I explained that it wasn't a classic, but had the Victorian lingo. Sold. She came back the next week and asked for something like it. I handed her Carter Beats the Devil.

  3. Sometimes the obvious is not. A woman came in for a suggestion. She said the last book she read and liked was The Poisonwood Bible. That gave me pause. I wasn't even a bookseller when that book came out. I still have my copy, though, and I loved the book, despite the mute twin, who bugged me. I looked around at the new Ishiguro, my old standby The Feast of Love -- or maybe I'd take it in a different direction with Spiral Staircase. But I just had to ask again: "So the last book you read and enjoyed was Poisonwood Bible?" Still yes. And for a moment I got a little nostalgic for my first weeks as a bookseller. I felt a tear. I went to our fiction section and pulled out a copy of Bel Canto. Sold.

  4. Gaddis is never an option.

  5. When someone comes up with a mass-market mystery and credit card in hand, never, never ask, "Would you like something more challenging?"

  6. Always up-sell. Here are some of my favorites:

    Customer comes up with a travel book for Thailand.
    Me: Have you read Bangkok 8?
    Customer comes up with a travel book for Boston.
    Me: Have you read Dennis Lehane?
    Customer comes up with Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus
    Me: Have you read this obscure '60s SciFi book?

  7. When a customer asks you if you've read a book, be honest. When he follows it up with, "What did you think?" Be honest ... if you liked it. If you didn't, don't stick your finger down your throat, cross your eyes, and pretend to gag. There are many ways to sidestep this question. Here are a few:

    "My fellow bookseller [fill in name of co-worker with the day off] loved that one."
    "It's been getting great reviews."
    "We're selling a lot of it."

  8. When a customer asks you if you know anything about the book, there's always a chance to make it seem like you do. I gently take the book from the customer, touch its front cover like it's an old friend. I murmur as I turn over the back. "Yes, I do know a little about it." And then I do a little verbal tap dance based on my scant knowledge of the people offering blurbs on the book, reviews from the front cover, and any keywords I've picked up as I've become reacquainted with that fine tome.

  9. Got too many copies of a kids' book you just can't get rid of? Maybe they're too tall to fit in the section, or when you try to face them out, they all slouch and drop onto the floor. Here's something I learned from a master handseller: "This title is perfect for the gifted child."

  10. Know when you're finished. You are finished when you have pitched eight books, and the customer has them all in her hands. Or you are done when she has none. And sometimes, despite any and all of your best efforts that huge stack of frontlist hardcovers that the publisher just knew would fly off the shelves will just gather dust and find its way back to a box, back on the big brown truck, and back to book heaven, where it may be reincarnated as a remainder. If you don't believe me, there are a few books I can suggest on the topic.

Melissa Lion discovered her mad handselling skills at Warwick's in La Jolla, California, and honed her craft on the mean streets of Rockridge, as a bookseller at Diesel, A Bookstore in Oakland. She currently has all of her old standbys in boxes as she and her partner in handselling madness, Steve Mort, move to Malibu to blow the minds of celebrities at Diesel's Malibu store.