by Penny Grubb
For the past seven years, once a year, I stop being a crime writer and become a bookstore manager, selling every genre under the sun. From the initial experience which I thought of as ‘helping out,’ things have evolved and the job has required a more fundamental change in me than anything I’d envisaged when I took it on. I shouldn’t be surprised. Running a bookstore is a wholly different role from writing novels. I simply hadn’t thought it through.
This metamorphosis happens annually at the FantastiCon convention held in North East England. It is a science-fiction, fantasy, and gaming extravaganza run by Fantastic Books Publishing. They use the event to launch their new books which are sold through the Fantastic Books Store which I manage for the weekend of the convention.
I’ve helped out at events before. I can run a stall. But this was different. The range of books and merchandise, though small compared to a high street bookstore, was huge compared to anything I’d taken charge of before. This brought me face to face with two areas I wasn’t prepared for: the variety of books and the volume of behind-the-scenes admin. The latter was a steep learning curve and an adventure in its own right, but here I focus on how the experience affected my relationship with books.
The convention attracts an international audience, attending through a passion for science-fiction, fantasy, or gaming, or all three. Many come explicitly to buy one or more of the launch books as well as to stock up on other titles. However, the event is open to the public and a significant number of walk-ins arrive, attracted by the phalanx of Daleks parading outside flanked by cosplayers of every shape, size, and hue.
With all that is on offer – stage shows, virtual reality sets to try, drone racing, Nerf wars, escape rooms, computer games, tabletop games, even a free café for snack breaks – not everyone makes it as far as the bookstore. We have never been the main attraction, and I have secretly learned to be grateful for that.
Those who find their way to the bookstore come both for books and information. People homing in on specific new titles often want to engage in chat about how the latest from an author compares to their previous, and whether the new writers will appeal to them. Random browsers want advice; they can name their own favorite authors and want to know what is likely to appeal from our selection.
It shouldn’t have taken me by surprise that customers asked detailed questions, nor that when things aren’t busy, they come back for in-depth discussions about various aspects of the books. These conversations mirror many that I have had in bookstores from the other side of the counter.
Without thinking out the practicalities, I’ve always assumed that the person behind the bookstore counter knows all there is to know about the titles in their care. I shouldn’t have been surprised when customers had those same expectations about me.
I had at least read all the books I was selling, but it brought home to me the position of a full-time bookstore manager who deals with a far more rapid turnover of many more books. I have 100 or so different titles, of which twenty might be new, and I’ve had all year to read them. It gave me a new respect for the bookstore staff I’ve chatted with over the years and the depth of knowledge they possess.
An aspect where I didn’t do so well at the start, was in keeping pace with the general world of fantasy and science-fiction. I’ve had phases in my life where I have read both areas avidly, but lately my tastes have turned to contemporary novels in other genres and to non-fiction accounts and biography. I knew all the books I was selling but had difficulty keeping up with customers wanting to discuss the latest in the wider fantasy and science-fiction worlds. Listening to them comparing their new favorites to books in our store soon had me keeping a notepad especially for recommendations to seek out after the event. A good idea in principle, I found the list grew too long for me to make significant inroads before the following year’s recommendations swamped and outdated it.
I’ve learnt to be smarter about the world of books, to keep a closer eye on the genres that I know I will be asked about. I can’t read them all, but I can check what the reviewers are saying and get a feel for what is and isn’t relevant to our own books. Keeping track in a semi-organized way gave me a far more structured overview of the progression of the genres.
As a reader without bookstore responsibilities, if I wasn’t motivated to explore a genre, novel, or author, the books would simply pass me by. As an occasional bookstore manager wanting to do a good job, I push myself, and have found my eyes opened to the book world in unexpected ways. I have been drawn to titles and sub-genres I wouldn’t otherwise have considered; Grimdark, I learned, is a sub-genre, not a Harry Potter character, and Bildungsroman, a word I’d never heard before, is a genre into which Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre fits.
I’ve always been an avid reader, but being a bookstore manager, albeit in a very small way, has opened a new dimension for me on the world of books, although a minor downside has just come to light. The convention supports various charities and one of my bookstore jobs has been to run a ‘Stories behind FantastiCon’ quiz to bolster the charities’ coffers. With no physical event during the pandemic, support for two charities, Special Effect and Stack Up, is via a virtual quiz this year. Before the bookstore expanded my awareness, I would not have known what a Sennheiser GSP 305 was, let alone hankered to own one. Generous sponsors have provided these headsets as quiz prizes, but alas, I’m barred from entering.
However, everyone else is free to have a go. You don’t need to have attended the event, all the answers can be found online. Instead of an entry fee, entrants are asked to make a direct donation to one of the charities. All the details are on the competition page HERE.
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