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Behind the bookshop window: love of literature with a calculator in hand

“I guess people think we attend and read. In reality, there is no time for that. What we do most is, as unromantic as it may sound, open and close boxes, receive new items and replacements and prepare returns”, Patricia Millán says of her work in the Cámara bookshop, the oldest in Bilbao, which opened in 1921. The image immediately clashes with the idealisation of the profession, with that scene reminiscent of Julia Roberts in Notting Hill or Emily Mortimer in The Bookshop. However, the work, although vocational, is something else. 

“There is a part that consists of supplying the business that we share with any type of business,” explains Isabel Sucunza Alfonso, a co-owner since 2014 of the Calders bookshop in Barcelona. It is, in her words, the closest thing to office work: invoices, event production, and meetings with publishers. “Normally, the mornings are the time for visits from sales representatives from different distributors, banking issues, and receiving orders. During the afternoons, we almost exclusively focus on sales and activities,” she adds.

Patricia Millán, Cámara bookshop

Esther Gómez, who runs the Moito Conto bookshop in A Coruña, says the bookseller’s work is demanding. She explains, “you have to: select, open boxes, place them with the best layout, attend to the public, to the sales staff, to the piles of proposals of various kinds that keep coming in, make a cultural agenda, return what doesn’t move, fix the shop’s windows, manage social media, hundreds of emails, and never stop. Finally, you go home with the feeling that you have a lot left for tomorrow”, she states.

And, as if that were not enough, there is also the digital presence. “We also have to deal more frequently with social networks and electronic orders. In our case, we receive orders by phone, but also by WhatsApp, by email, through our website or the Todos tus Libros website,” explains Millán. It is necessary to have a digital showcase that conveys our personality and our literary background”.

Esther Gómez, Moito Conto bookshop

In two words, the day-to-day of the profession is “hustle-and-bustle” and “life”, say Álvaro Muñoz and Cristina Sanmamed. “When we open the doors of the bookshops, readers start arriving, taking orders or choosing books”, share these two booksellers who, in October 2011, ventured to open La Puerta de Tannhäuser in Plasencia (Cáceres), a work for which they received the National Prize for the Promotion of Reading in 2016. “We carefully select the new books, we don’t receive books indiscriminately, but despite this, there are times when we receive a lot of readings. We take the books out of the boxes, open them, and they have a unique smell. Once we know what we have in our hands, we place them on the tables or shelves”, they explain.

What the customer does not see

They are custodians of books and publishing novelties, and there goes a lot more work behind a shop window than we imagine. “It is surprising how many people think that books arrive by magic. They believe that books place themselves on the shelves and that there is no risk of financial loss because the publishers leave everything on deposit with us, and what we don’t sell can be returned without any problem,” says Gómez. This misinformation makes everyone think that working in a bookshop is wonderful and reading those amazing books that speak to you from their covers must be a delight, but the reality is that we can never do it. We read at home like everyone else. The bookshop requires a lot of organised work, and there is never time to read. Setting up a bookshop with a total lack of knowledge of this sector must be a terrible ordeal”.

Because, as with everything else, you have to know. What the customer does not see, says the co-owner of Calders, is the whole supply process. “The books don’t come to us directly from the distributor as soon as they are published. The selection process consists of looking at catalogues and deciding which books fit best into our stock”.

Álvaro Muñoz and Cristina Sanmamed, La Puerta de Tannhäuser

For example, Millán explains spending time analysing sales statistics is necessary. “To make an accurate choice from the entire range of publications on offer.” She adds, “our purchasing criteria is based on experience, above all with a small dose of intuition and a great deal of attention to the market and to what different sources recommend. The books we highlight are always the ones we have liked. We work with several booksellers with different tastes, and in this way, we widen the range of readings to suggest to people”.

A chain of trust

There are many values to combine, says Gómez: “Authors, publishers, book previews that we read before they go on the market are among the most important. The line of work of some publishers influences us very much, and we always highlight them because we admire their work. We create movements of trust with them just as our readers create them with us. It is a chain of trust, no doubt about it.

One of the main proposals of these bookshops is to go for alternatives. At La Puerta de Tannhäuser for instance, the aim is to promote publishers and authors outside the mainstream literary circuits. “Now, after the pandemic, we are resuming presentations and meetings in the bookshop. We are always thinking of independent publishers. La Puerta de Tannhäuser is more than just a bookshop. It is a meeting place for readers and authors to enjoy and live enriching cultural experiences”, they maintain.

To do this, aware that it’s impossible to cover everything, they select according to their literary tastes and the clients’. “We read as much as we can, and as we don’t have time for everything, we listen and talk to our readers so that they can tell us about texts that have impressed or pleased them, and we always take this into account. We are big fans of well-edited books in translation, and we have a weakness for illustrated books, both for adults and children”.

Isabel Sucunza Alfonso, Calders bookshop

But not everything is just a showcase. As Sucunza Alfonso points out, there are two central elements of promotion: the tables and exhibitors and the agenda of activities. “We are very stubborn when recommending and highlighting books. Also, of authors that we know well and that we think are worthwhile. We don’t rent promotional spaces, we decide everything on the tables ourselves, and we try to ensure that they are books with a certain solvency, not just the latest new thing that’s all the rage,” he points out.

Building community around the book

Among the ocean of new titles published every month, independent bookshops play an essential role when it comes to putting the spotlight on publishing work and determined authors. It is very complicated to fight for preferential physical space,” Millán maintains. We are readers before we are sellers, and we have an immense vocation to spread what we like with passion, something that no algorithm can replace. We also establish a long-term relationship with our readers, and it is a relationship that feeds back. We are interested in knowing what they like, and we rely on their criteria to create a community that revolves around the book”.

People who are regulars in independent bookshops put more trust in their booksellers than in any marketing campaign that any publisher can spread,” adds Gómez. People expect their trusted bookshop to discover something more than what they see everywhere. It is essential that we enjoy uncovering new voices and that we strengthen our criteria. There is also a lot of craft involved in this”.

And, as the head of Moito Conto explains, “not letting the larger markets teach us is one of the charms of independent bookselling. Personally, it is what I like most about the profession, that more human side of collaboration and respect for the people who visit us, always recommending that we think about their enjoyment, about putting a book in their hands and giving them time to encounter emotions”.

Swept up by newness

As for the difficulties, one of the biggest concerns for bookshops, Millán shares, “is the increase in the literary offer, which is impossible for a generalist bookshop that moves through different genres. It is a constant feeling of moving books around. However, these books don’t get a real chance to reach their readers because new releases drag them down. The truth is that it generates a lot of frustration”.

Gómez points out this is the less pleasant side but curiously one of the most beautiful. “For me, the selection of new releases, months before they come out, is a never-ending but attractive job to get to know where we will be moving in the coming months. The most unpleasant part is the returns, which are essential to maintain the economic and space balance in the bookshop. The administrative side is not pleasant either. The book sector has a lot of progress to make in this area. We still have many important suppliers who send us an invoice after each delivery note, which generates a lot of paper and a waste of management time that could still improve. All this takes away a lot of time for us to do better quality work in the promotion of reading”, says the head of Moito Conto.

Muñoz and Sanmamed point to uncertainty and external contingencies, such as the pandemic or the war between Russia and Ukraine, as the main threat. Owning a bookshop means keeping a close eye on daily expenses and income,” they say. People have to come and buy books for the bookshops to stay open and running for many years to come. We are very grateful for the support of our customers, but we always have to be on our guard.

But as Gómez argues, there is much more behind this vocation. I consider it a passion,” she says, “a passionate job, a way of life. All small businesses run by a freelancer, as in my case, require living the work this way. But when you sell books, there is something more. The book is not just a product. It has deep emotions. That’s why those who run a bookshop have that touch of utopia that makes us believe that we are doing our bit to make the world a better place”, she concludes.