What Librarians can learn from Bookstores

I have spent the last week or so working for my brother-in-law at the bookstore he manages. I’m helping him do inventory, something he has to do every year with the help of a few extra hired hands, but this year he only has me to do his bookly bidding. Doing bookstore inventory, from the perspective of a hired minion like myself, involves taking a barcode reader to every book in a section. And then moving on to another section. Lather, rinse, repeat.

After spending a few days with the bar code reader and watching what’s going on around me in a bustling and successful bookstore, I’ve decided that all librarians should regularly spend some time in the profit sector of the book world. As soon as profit gets involved, the whole concept of good service clarifies itself into the stunningly obvious.

At library school alma mater, several faculty have spent years researching the level of service offered by reference desks at public libraries in the province. The process of gathering information for that study involves sending out fresh-faced first term library students to a public library and having them state one simple request, with no clarification: “I’m looking for a good book to read.” The research measures how far along the classic reference interview a patron actually gets. The results are not very stellar.

When I first learned about the reference interview it sounded ridiculously basic. I mean, yes yes, listen to the patron’s question, ask an open-ended question, ask a closed-ended question, make sure you mention that if they have any more questions they shouldn’t hesitate to come see you. It seemed like straight up common sense to me. I thought they might as well have called this thing “how to have a conversation 101”. But on the ground running I can see why the common sense is important to underscore.

We get so caught up in our jobs, in the minutae of this and that, how much time we have and how much we have to do, how intimately we understand our own service and expect it to be crystal clear to everyone else, we forget how much courage it takes to show up at a desk in the first place. How intimidating it can be to open your mouth and ask a dumb question. How embarrassed people are if their first question is misunderstood, and how unlikely they are to clarify. How people generally understand the education of a librarian; my favourite quote: “My mother tells me I have to go to trade school if I flunk out of university. Maybe I’ll become a librarian.” The patrons basic expectation is that the reference staff will give it a half-hearted try if they have the inclination or the time and that they will be reasonably nice about it; since that’s the basic expectation, that’s often all reference staff do.

In the bookstore, the ultimate goal is always obvious. Have a question? Looking for a book? Can’t remember the author or the title? At the bookstore where I’m doing inventory, the staff jump to show you around and smile the whole time. They will help you remember the title of that book, or will talk about the content of it with you, or will offer to order anything out of Books in Print if you want it. Of course they’re polite. Of course they walk you over to where the book should be and make sure it’s what you want. They want you to buy it. They want you to be so happy with your experience that when you want another book, you won’t even consider going anywhere else.

Profit motive aside, in the end we essentially have the same motive, booksellers and librarians. I want to lead you to the book/resource that fills your needs exactly, and I want you to be so thrilled with it that you want to take it home with you. My brother-in-law wants to end up making a profit out of it, and I guess the “profit” of the library just isn’t so tangible. There’s no fire under a reference librarian’s behind to get them off their chair, to really listen to the patron and find out exactly what they want, and get creative about finding resources and make sure that patron walks away with something of use in his or her hands. If it’s not part of the corporate culture to bend over backwards for a patron, the reference staff isn’t going to see the point. The patrons are getting more than they expected anyway, aren’t they? The books are already free, that should be enough, right? There’s no profit involved; why do more work?

My co-op supervisor Jennifer was always pushing the idea of looking at the business sector for hints and directions, and from this angle I can see her point. In the bookstore they really care if you can read the signs and if the place is attractive. They care about cultivating a sense of space, an atmosphere. There is a clear profit-driven reason to make the place somewhere people want to hang out, and so the interior decorator comes in, the place gets a makeover every few years. That equals bodies in the bookstore, more visibility, and that means profit. It makes me sad that people so often need that golden dollar sign hanging over a thing in order to bother trying to make it worthwhile.

And then there are the things that happened at the bookstore that reminded me I was very much not in a library. At one point a woman came by looking for a book about blogs. She bought a book eventually, but not before telling me all about her blog and the issues she’s having, and getting some suggestions from me that were completely outside of the content of the books that were in stock. It would have been a very successful reference interview, but in the bookstore I felt guilty for the time it took. I’m not there to “chat” with customers, no matter how helpful I am. There was no more profit involved because of my detailed explanation about social networks and RSS readers; the book was bought in any case.

And then yesterday there was a fellow in the café having trouble with the wireless, and they sent for my brother-in-law, the local fix-it guy knows-what-to-do person. He told me to get my ibook and go see if the wireless signal was working from there or if the guy was sitting in a dead spot. The wireless was working fine; it turned out that the guy had never used wireless with that computer before, so he probably didn’t have it enabled, if he in fact had a wireless card at all. It was a windows machine.

“I’ll see who can help you with enabling wireless on windows,” I said, and scampered off. And then I realized; no one can help him enable his wireless. This is a bookstore. Not a library. They provide wireless, not technical assistance. Wireless does not equal sales; bums in seats, while a great thing at the library no matter what, does not equal sales in the bookstore. If the guy sits in the café taking up a valuable seat and just orders coffee after coffee, that’s a net loss. Someone could have sat there and ordered a more profitable lunch. Making a place attractive enough to want to linger in is a good thing, but giving them something other than buying books to wile away their time doing is not a good thing.

So in some ways I’m sorry that we don’t have a profit motive in the library; if we could pin a dollar value to ourselves, perhaps we would be clearer about why our services are so important, and why we need to keep our level of service and enthusiasm consistently high. Why we should be offering more than the patron expects and letting expectations (and levels of trust and usage statistics) rise. But on the flip side, our non-profit status means we are freed from picking a good information need from a bad one; one that will lead us to more profit versus one that’s just a drain on the system.

A couple of weeks every few years in a bookstore for every librarian; I think that would be revealing and inspiring. One of our goals should be to become everything an excellent bookstore is, with just as much excitement, enthusiasm, friendliness, helpfulness, and customer support. Librarians are lucky enough to have the option of going one step further and letting people leave their wallets at home.