Bookselling in the 21st Century: The Deep Pain of Returning Books
John Gibbs Making the Tough Decision to Get Rid of a Book
Nothing can quite extend a bookseller’s to-be-read pile of books at home (real or imagined) like a returns cycle. Let me explain: some books don’t sell. Let me start over. All parts of a bookstore must be curated, carefully and frequently, and this curation is in large part based on which books sell and which don’t. And while it’s easy to look at the hard numbers and fall back on the reassurance of sales histories, there is also admittedly an intangible subjectivity to the process—which, honest to god, is one of the biggest reasons I love my job. Every store has its own system in place with regards to when to pull the plug on a title, when to send it back to the publisher. I only know mine.
A few months into my tenure at Green Apple Books & Music, I spied a slim volume of my professor’s poetry sitting on a desk among a bunch of other books my co-worker had sorted into neat piles. “I have class with him,” I told him in passing.
“Well, then you can tell him we’re returning his book,” he quickly came back with. All joking aside, this wasn’t altogether a shock to me. The book was published by a tiny, obscure press located somewhere in the Midwest, and even I knew the score when it came to poetry and the odds for small press books to develop a wide readership. Yet, it made me freeze momentarily, not so much as a result of my personal connection to the author, but for the sudden realization that this one book, this one return, this one isolated incident, was one of a whole host in a vast sea whose time in purgatory was now up, nobody from heaven was calling (paying). There were other piles full of professors’ life work on the table, other passion projects, and there were undoubtedly other bookstores across the country where similar procedures were being carried out. For a single moment I was that idiot human who, outside of the city, contemplates night sky, its infinite permutations, his own unequivocal irrelevance, and the irrelevance of the people around him who try and shout into the chasm their meaningless words.
The moment passed, and after some time I discovered that while mourning the loss of some books, I could celebrate the suddenly found space. Shelves, sections, and stores get stuffed, making it hard not only to pull a book off a shelf in some cases, but also to scan the stacks for what you’re looking for. A feeling of existential dread sets in for browsers and booksellers alike: there’s too much here! A claustrophobic anxiety arises from somewhere deep in the belly. It’s as if the gallerist decided to forego the white space between paintings in an exhibit hall to get the maximum amount of art hung for collectors to view, sacrificing aesthetics for volume. Who wouldn’t see that as immediately detrimental and insane? And while my metaphor misses its mark slightly, books do need space to breathe, to be faced out, to lean. Some of my more seasoned colleagues preach the old adage, bad books hide good books, which I’ve come to believe is more true than untrue. The space represents the future, what new voices will rush to fill the void—potential, not just for a sale, but for conversation.
However, one can’t turn exclusively forward, as there are no brainer books from the past to keep stocked regardless of sales (The Prince, The Cantos, The Executioner’s Song); books that will maybe sell less than once a year, but are kept on hand for fear of someone coming in and proclaiming your bookstore defunct for not having a copy of Confederacy of Dunces as a gift for their nephew’s upcoming high school graduation. On occasion, I’ve had to write-off unsold, musty classics due to accumulated shelf wear or sun damage and reorder a nice, clean copy. In reference to an overzealous return I once completed in the poetry section, my coworker, E.H., once told me, “If I walked into a bookstore and saw that much Mary Oliver and no Charles Olson, I’d leave.” Subsequent books were ordered.
Likewise, there’s a creeping nepotism that must be wrestled with when running the numbers. I’ve been guilty of leaving underperforming books untouched, because I attended a reading and was moved by a writer, performer, or poet for an evening enough to still recall it 18 months later. I’ve ignored local authors’ zines that are bought rarely, if ever, and only by friends or acquaintances, because I believe in providing the service to the surrounding community. Such admissions may make me look guilty of not being exclusively money-oriented, but there’s a personality and distinction to these facets that evade any algorithm: they contribute to the irreplaceability of the space. Certain books become stories upon which relationships are founded, talking points for people who arrive in the store without an idea of what they’re looking for, but are ready to be surprised by something unexpected. Certain, sometimes unsellable, books constitute a portion of the store’s backbone and character.
So back to where this excavation started. How does all this contribute to a lengthening of one’s reading list? Considering all of us gravitate toward the familiar. The books and authors you respect and read don’t change much if there is no venturing outward, and sometimes that venturing occurs with books facing a diminished readership, an extinction. I recognize small presses I revere proclaiming the new voice of a generation on my return report. I want to save it from exile, to prop it up and give it one more chance to make an impression. I want to buy it. But decisions must be made, and for the time being I log it somewhere in the back of my mind, on that running tab of books to come back around to when I have more time—whenever the hell that might be.