Selling books is hard work

ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

A warm cat on my lap, my favourite book in hand, a steaming mug of good coffee, on-trend music lingering in the air, the intoxicating smell of new books - this is what I imagined owning a bookstore would feel like. I was certain it would be the most comfortable job ever.

I was wrong.

At the end of an eight-hour shift at independent bookstore BooksActually, my sore feet had turned to lead. I had notched up a score of paper cuts from folding brochures and flyers and opening paper bags. And, surprise, surprise, I didn't get any reading done.

Neither did I get any affection from the store's three resident cats, who were more interested in irritating one another, scratching customers, burrowing into my bag and eating my lunch.

Last month, a group of writers and book-lovers, myself included, volunteered to run BooksActually for two days, to give its owner and founder Kenny Leck a break from the grind. Kenny and his partner, Renee, are at the bookstore 24/7 with hardly a break in-between, and we felt they deserved a good rest.

Before my assigned shift, I thought it would be helpful to learn the ropes by shadowing the store's full-time staff for an entire Saturday, one of the store's busiest days.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

All the participants promptly received a long, thorough list of instructions, warning us repeatedly not to lose any of the cats and concluding with: "AS LONG AS THE CATS ARE NOT MISSING, AND THE BOOKSTORE DOES NOT CATCH FIRE, WE'RE GOOD."

I showed up at 10.01am, a minute after opening time, and there were already a handful of customers browsing in the store, which is surrounded by some of Tiong Bahru's most popular coffee joints.

I felt a nervous twinge in the pit of my stomach. While I've been an avid reader my whole life, I have zero retail experience and I'm not a particularly patient person. The day yawned ahead, packed with worries: imaginary difficult customers, possible shoplifters and disappearing cats.

My job was to assist whoever was behind the cash register - to stamp the last page of each book as proof of purchase, pack it into a paper bag (horizontally and spine down, so it doesn't wobble around too much or end up creased), throw in a couple of pamphlets for good measure (in-store discounts, membership schemes, a brochure for the Design Film Festival), tape the paper bags shut, and say "thank you, see you again!" with as much courtesy as I could muster.

I think the (very kind) staff mostly viewed me as a large, slow-moving obstruction that was holding up their packing process.

I panicked whenever I was behind the counter alone. Someone asked me if I had a copy of a certain book.

I stared back at him, my cheeks turning pink: "Uh, I'm, uh, actually a trainee. Let me get someone else to help you."

But even if the reality of running a bookstore was nothing like the experience I'd dreamt up in my rose-tinted imagination, there were so many wonderful moments - I was a witness to so many readers and would-be readers discovering Singapore literature.

A pair of visitors from Thailand came to the cashier three times to make three separate purchases of Singapore poetry. They would buy a few books, return to the stacks, buy another one, return to the stacks and then buy a couple more.

Similarly, an American tourist first bought the latest volume of Rubbish Famzine, a magazine with a twist lovingly crafted by a Singapore family of four in limited editions, then came back after lunch to buy a few travel guides and a DVD of Anthony Chen's award-winning film Ilo Ilo (2013).

Another woman bought more than $250 worth of books in a single receipt and signed up for membership on the spot.

Then there were the two adorable Japanese tourists who came up to the counter and said in unison, "where is gat-u?" I turned around and pointed to one of the cats, Pico, sleeping behind me. They squealed (also in unison) and burst into a stream of excited Japanese, whipping out their mobile phones to take pictures, while bowing and thanking us repeatedly.

Often, it was the little things that made a difference. We had at least four different customers compliment the music that was being played over the sound system (on that day, American duo MS MR) and we minions weren't allowed to change the musical selection because it had a measurable impact on sales.

Books that were new or about to sell out were placed in strategic, prominent locations, so that a customer's wandering gaze might snag on a promising book cover.

The entire bookstore was a living, breathing creature, with limbs and emotions that fluctuated and flailed with the crowd and time of day.

As I limped home, I realised that being a bookseller for a day was like being a sort of literary weatherman, sussing out the mood of the room and reacting accordingly. Sunshine, rain, hail, haze - we were there to create an atmosphere where the written word could be best appreciated and find loving new homes.

Whether it's Books Kinokuniya or BooksActually, I know I'll always thank my booksellers next time - and maybe give them a foot massage.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 20, 2015, with the headline 'Selling books is hard work'. Print Edition | Subscribe