London Bookseller James Gilbert on the Art of Recommending Books
This Week on the Book Dreams Podcast
Welcome to our last regularly scheduled episode of Book Dreams. We started the podcast because books, more than just about anything, bring us joy. So we thought, what better way to end the podcast than to spread that joy and talk about how to make great book recommendations for other people? Our guest, James Gilbert, is a bookseller at the Heywood Hill bookstore in London, which runs, in its words, “the most personalized book subscription service in the world.”
James makes personalized book recommendations for Heywood’s subscription (and other) customers—including, for the past several months, Eve and Julie. James talked about the key to being a good book recommender, how to help people figure out what they want to read when they’re not sure of it themselves, how he decided which books to send to Julie and which books to send to Eve, and when it’s okay to recommend books you haven’t yet read yourself.
One more thing: This is not our last episode ever—we’ll continue to air bonus episodes every month or so. And we’re working on a new podcast! It’s called Rebel Nuns. We wanted to focus on stories about groups of people coming together to take collective action with a positive outcome, and it turns out there are many fascinating accounts, from ancient Mesopotamia all the way up until today, of nuns banding together to fight the powers that be in the service of causes they believe in. These stories are all-too-often hidden, and they reflect larger forces in society, and we can’t wait to tell you all about them. We’ll post updates about Rebel Nuns here in the Book Dreams feed.
Thank you so very much for listening to Book Dreams, whether you’ve been with us from the very beginning or whether you’re tuning in today for the first time. We’ve loved learning and sharing and bonding over all things book-related with you, and we’re excited to keep connecting over bonus episodes and all that is to come.
From the episode:
Julie Sternberg: Do you have any favorite stories about a time when you recommended a book to someone?
James Gilbert: There’s one in particular, which always sticks in my mind because I was still very young and sort of wet-behind-the-ears bookseller at Hatchards, I think it’s the oldest active bookshop in the UK. It’s been going for 220-odd years now. It also has royal warrants as well. So it was a bookshop used by the Royal family for, well, for over 200 years.
There are lots of local customers, but there are also loads of tourists as well, who know to go there for solid recommendations for books, be that something that the shop is championing or indeed if they could just go up to a random bookseller, such as 22-year-old me.
A Little Life had just come out at that time. It’s a masterful piece of work. It’s an incredible book. I can appreciate why some people have criticisms of overdoing the drama and the violence and the trauma of the story, but it is a dramatic and violent story and it’s so brilliantly written. And it was a book, which when it came out, quite a few of us as booksellers read it and were just like, “Bloody hell, this is unbelievable.”
And there was this chap from Brazil, and he said he came over like every—it might even have been as infrequently as once a year. At best it was six months and maybe as infrequently as once a year. He wanted a book recommendation. I think he said he’d read A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, which is another sort of slightly hard-going epic about the hardships of people far less fortunate than myself, but similarly spectacular in terms of scope and in terms of the writing and how much you really do feel for the characters in it.
And I had a chat with him for a couple of minutes about A Little Life and why I thought it was so special and so worth his time reading and worth his what, at the time, was 17 pounds to buy. … He took my word for it and as far as I knew, that was the last time I’d ever see him.
You meet hundreds of people a day in a bookshop in Central London. It’s bustling. It’s busy. It’s important to remember faces and remember the people who do come in and support your bookshop a lot. And more often than not, one can make a really lovely rapport with those people, whether you agree on reading tastes or not. But so many come and go so swiftly that it’s very easy to forget about those conversations and forget about those faces.
I went away to a couple of other bookshops over the course of the next however long, whether it was six months or a year, and I came back to work in Hatchards for a few more weeks the following summer. And this chap came back. I remember it was one of those very sort of serendipitous moments where I was about half an hour late for going for my lunch, getting crabby about the fact that I was half an hour late going for my lunch and I shouldn’t have been there at that time of day.
And this chap, this Brazilian chap came in and almost theatrically pointed to me and said, “Oh, it’s you again. That book was incredible. Can you recommend me something else?”
Book Dreams uses books to explore topics we can’t stop thinking about. Hosted by Julie Sternberg and Eve Yohalem, Book Dreams releases new episodes every Thursday. Visit our website for more about the show, find us on Twitter (@bookdreamspod) and Instagram (@bookdreamspodcast), or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
James Gilbert has been a bookseller and professional recommender of books for eight years at Heywood Hill, an internationally renowned bookstore in London that runs “the most personalized book subscription service in the world.”