When I reflect on the many changes that have taken place in bookselling in the twenty-four years since I began working at Bryan Prince Bookseller, an independent bookshop in Hamilton, there is one fixed component that has never wavered: that Holy Grail of bookseller/reader relationships—putting the perfect book into the hands of the right reader. There are three pillars that shape this happy occasion: a bookseller who is attentive to what the reader wants to read/has liked in the past/may be willing to take a chance on and who can make good recommendations; a reader who has an idea of what they might be interested in reading, a sense of adventure, and the ability to convey this information to the bookseller; and a selection of books that might fit the bill. It is this last pillar that I’d like to focus on: the way that the book—or, rather, a bookstore’s inventory—is the foundation of this relationship.
As any bookseller knows, one must show great restraint to resist the temptation to fill your shop with every title you would like to have on the shelves. Book buying requires striking the delicate balance between classics and core titles; exciting new voices and ideas; local authors and issues; staff favourites; newfound treasures; and the rare weird-but-wonderful must-have. It’s impossible to carry everything, but a wide variety is ideal.
To choose new publications book buyers meet with publishing sales representatives several times a year to learn about the books that are coming out the next season. One of the challenges with this system is guessing what will be on the minds and in the hearts of readers six to eight months in the future (I can’t imagine the stress publishers face in making those decisions years in advance).
There are thousands of books published every season, so how to choose? A book-buyer must be familiar with the reading tastes and interests of the readers that frequent their shop, the social issues that matter most to their communities, and the areas of expertise and interest of their staff. After taking these factors into consideration, book buying becomes a matter of going through catalogues, title by title to see what might work, in addition to relying on publishing sales reps to highlight books that are expected to be big in a given season. Finally, there needs to be room left for underdog titles that steal the limelight, authors who enchant listeners on CBC radio, book club selections, and any number of other factors. Being able to adapt to these unexpected fluctuations is what makes independent booksellers unique.
Those of you who are familiar with our shop may be wondering why I am discussing inventory when we are in the midst of a renovation that will convert one of our book rooms into event space, and, inevitably, lose shelf space where we would otherwise carry books. It may be unexpected, but the answer is, ironically, a desire to have more of those Holy Grail moments. Sometimes the old adage “less is more” is true. We want the books on our shelves to be titles we are confident putting into the hands of readers. We don’t want to fall into a trap where books become wallpaper--filling shelves until it’s time to return them to publishers the following season to be replaced by newer selections. As booksellers, we recognize that each book we bring into the bookstore is a labour of love by a writer, a financial risk for a publisher, and a potential literary escape or homecoming for a reader. Although we will have to reduce the number of copies we order of a given title, I will be maintaining a stock that has the same variety of titles. This shift in mindset will help me focus on creating an inventory that is simultaneously dynamic and flexible and that leaves enough room to be ready for that underdog to take the literary world by storm. With any luck, this new event space will mean that they’ll even drop by to discuss their work in a newly renovated room full of eager readers and new fans whose support is what makes an underdog’s success possible.
Kerry Cranston-Reimer is the owner of Bryan Prince Bookseller in Hamilton, Ontario.