Monday, March 17, 2008

Old Booksellers Never Die

A parishioner recently asked me about the rather pretentious-looking list in the right-hand column of this page labeled “Currently Reading.” He asked if I was really reading that many books at one time. Before I get around to telling you how I answered him, perhaps a word is in order as to why this list, and its companion list “Recently Read”, are even on this page at all.

Many will know that I was, for many years, the Retail Sales Manager of Toronto’s Anglican Book Centre. I spent a good deal of my time reading catalogues, meeting publishers’ sales representatives, ordering books, classifying books, recommending books, publicizing books, and of course, selling books. One of the great joys of bookselling was to receive what we called the “front-list” catalogues, that is, the catalogues of new titles for the upcoming season. It was as much an art as a science to come up with order quantities for any given new title. Much was involved in making that particular decision. In addition to analyzing previous sales figures, I relied particularly on my own sense of the Anglican market. Invariably, certain titles would immediately bring to mind particular customers. I knew that Father X, or Professor Y would almost certainly want a copy of a particular new title. It was often months between the catalogue solicitation and the publishing date of any given title, so I would either have to make a note of the title or simply remember it and place it in the hands of the prospective customer when the book arrived. Nine times out of ten, my intuition was right and I could make a sale. Old-time bookselling.

Thus, religious bookselling involved not only a deep and broad knowledge of the product, but also of the customer-base. The ministry involved in religious bookselling was simply this: getting the right resource into the hands of the right person. Time and again, customers would return and express their appreciation for this kind of relationship. To my way of thinking, at ABC we strove to go beyond a proprietor-client relationship to create a relationship as colleagues in ministry. I always thought of ABC as a sort of ecclesiastical “Floyd’s Barbershop” in which the relationship between the proprietor and customer was at least as important, if not more so, than business considerations. A close friend of mine described ABC as a “nexus”, or a hub where people met and ministerial relationships were formed and nurtured. I always believed, and still believe, that if this were done well, then the business would thrive.

This is all to say that solid and sensible book recommendations were at the heart of what we did and how we related with our constituency. I have built many lasting personal friendships through the recommendation of an appropriate book. I have also bridged many gaps in understanding through the shared experience of a book recommended and read. In an age in which so many Christians, and particularly Anglicans wish to go their separate ways, a good book has the power to keep us at the table, in conversation. I believed it then, and I believe it now.

And so it is: Old booksellers never die.

I have since left the book industry. Yet, I continue to find myself recommending what I read. I don’t recommend every book I read to every person that I meet. Instead, I continue to recommend appropriate books to those whom I think would be edified by the experience of reading that particular work. I often get this kind of gut feeling when I know that the recommendation is appropriate. As a priest, I frequently hear myself utter the words, “have you read?” or “do you know about such-and-such an author or book?” The lists on the side of this page are tools in the pathological continuance of my life as a “bookseller.” After making a recommendation, I can always say, “you can find the complete information on my website.” This frees me from having to scramble for a pen and paper or worry about giving the incorrect title or author.

And finally, to answer the question offered at the outset: Am I really reading all those books at one time? The answer, of course, is both “yes” and “no.” From time-to-time there will be books on the list that are collections of essays that I am working through slowly, one essay at a time. The book stays on the list until I get through them all. There may be commentaries that I am using fairly thoroughly and regularly, that will be on the list for some time. There are the half-finished “night table” books that are “in progress” but perhaps stalled a bit. If I don’t get back to them after some time, they get bumped off the list altogether. There are books that I am reading through for some academic or professional project and there are books that I am reading for pleasure. In general, they stay on until I’m confident that I’m not going to finish them or until they are finished and then they move to the “recently read” list. There are things that are not on the list either, like the several magazines, journals and comic books that I read monthly.

I’m not under any illusion that anyone is really that interested in what I’m reading. It seems I just can’t help myself from sharing. I guess I’m still just an old bookseller at heart.

Text copyright 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed by any means, either in whole or part, without the express, written permission of the author.

No comments: