Help Wanted Needed

by Michael Burnley

17 August 2009

Hiring Help for Your Bookselling Business

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23 lots to ship, several of them sets. 6 pending questions in email another 4 in voicemail. You just ran out of Brodarts. After you leave your stack of 90 new titles that need cataloging to visit yet another house call, your cell phone rings with a request to come see what may be a great probate lot on, of course, the other side of town. At once it crosses your mind that you need either a significant breakthrough in human cloning or you need help. For some reason the latter seems more realistic. Now begins the real work.

A successful entrepreneur rarely if ever scales their business alone and the book trade is no different. Every bookseller of note today (and times past) has at least one indispensable assistant - usually more - and in the spirit of modeling success, taking on staff is a critical step each serious bookseller should consider and reasonably pursue.

Base Case

Simple mathematics enables one to realize that there are only so many things one can do in a given day. Very successful dealers realize that the primary value they add to the used, rare and antiquarian book trade is stock selection and acquisition. THE most important aspect to success in the trade is the proprietor's ability to find and or attract the best possible inventory with which they will shock and awe their respective customers and cart away huge sums of money. Ok. Perhaps a small #10 envelope half filled with money. But you get the point. The more the boss can focus on the quality and consistent flow of quality inventory, generally, the more successful their business will be. I realized this long ago when I always found myself with more good and decent books to sell than I could ever possibly sell on my own. The light bulb went off when I found myself NOT going to local auctions and house calls not for lack of purchase funds, but simply because I didn't see the logic in continuing to buy more material than I could ever hope to sell by myself. Only then, I knew it was time to pull the trigger. However, every person isn't willing to make this plunge. A large percentage of booksellers are by nature, somewhat introverted and reserved, and the very thought of hiring, training, and managing an employee positively gives them the shakes. Therefore, it's key you know 1) what sort of person you are and 2) what sort of operational scale you'd like to achieve. Have that honest introspection first before involving yourself in the world and economics of another person.

Types of Help

We all have our areas of expertise or preference. Some loathe crawling about in attics and basements assessing books; others relish in it; while others rue the long hours sitting in front of the screen with bibliographies, researching and cataloguing. My personal cross is packing and schlepping to the P.O.

The book business owner must decide where his enterprise best needs him and where he or she will persevere, happily, the longest. After that decision is made, it's the proprietor's responsibility to seek out the right individual to fill that particular role. Sellers desirous of or fortuitous enough to inherit or otherwise fund a large operation may find they require a full time manager who in turn will be responsible for the gaggle of other more specialized and diverse staff. However, most of us with modest endeavors will find their need is limited to a specific task for only a limited amount of time. Determining this need is not always an exact science and might require some trial and error, which may depend on the aptitude and inclination of the person hired.

Sources of Help

One can look just about everywhere for help with their used book business, but the search inevitably seems to start close to home. A spouse, a child, a cousin, the unemployed brother in-law. Inasmuch as that person may be slightly incompatible or inadequate, we usually still choose to pick the "devil we know" because that person's abilities and ineptitudes are known and even anticipated. The challenge here is to step outside our comfort zone and seek out the best person for the task at hand vs. the temptation to collar the most available or needy warm body.

Our current world economy has found it necessary to cast off huge sums of people from their previously chosen field onto the sofa, so now may be one of the better times in the last several decades to find willing and able help. The internet is still the most efficient method of finding the right person but also consider:

  • Other bookseller references
  • Local college specialty clubs (History Club, Science Club, etc.)
  • Stay-at-home parents
  • Those with physical disabilities
  • Exceptional high school students
  • Quasi seasonal workers - i.e. school teachers, contract employees, librarians, etc.

In the process of selecting a person, attempt to talk to 10 people, interview and take writing samples of 5, and then select the best of that group. Just as with any book sale, auction or fair, you carefully survey what titles are available, thoroughly evaluate those that make sense and then you choose carefully from a vetted lot. The personnel selection process is very similar.

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