Independent Bookselling: Making Friends with Imperfection

“As machines become more and more efficient and perfect, so it will become clear that imperfection is the greatness of man.”-Ernst Fischer

Here at ABC (like all of our bookseller members) we are always doing as much as we can with the resources we have, and sometimes we get a little discouraged.

In one recent moment when reality and perfection were having trouble reconciling themselves, and I was forced to admit that yes, there may be less hours that things to be done, I came across the following quote from (of all things) Stress Management for Dummies:

The old adage “Anything worth doing is worth doing well” is misguided. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do something well, even very well. But when your standards are too high, and you aim for perfection, you will feel stress. Perfection is overrated. Being perfect for any longer than three minutes is very hard.

Whenever you strive for perfection, you fall into one of two time-wasting and stress-producing traps:

  • You spend more time on the task or activity than is warranted.
  • You avoid doing the task altogether for fear that you won’t do it well enough.

Sound familiar? I’m sure it does.

The book industry often feels like human hamster wheel. Round and round we go as a river of books flows endlessly by, with all of the attendant catalogs, galleys, materials, knick-knacks and gee-gaws. One cycle treads on the heels of another leaving us barely a moment to catch our collective breath. By one count 27,000 children’s books grace us with their presence every year.

At the store level, independent bookselling can be a frustrating exercise in overachievement, underperformance, and throwing everything you have including the kitchen sink into the gap that represents the slender line between success and failure. It is about making it work, more elegantly at some times than others. In thousands of ways, we book-sters infuse this business with our own lifeblood.

Given this work environment, it is very easy to fall into the trap of seeing only what hasn’t been done, rather than recognizing what remarkable things HAVE been done.

In short, it is easy to burn out.


“I used to not be able to work if there were dishes in the sink. Then I had a child and now I can work if there is a corpse in the sink. Because you’re always on borrowed time. [No one] sits down in the morning and just feels great about the work ahead of them.” –Anne Lamott

How do we fight this? How do we celebrate the positive, and make peace with the imperfection that is the nature of this business? How do we make sure we don’t tip into the red?

One of the great ironies is that many of us have a self-help section right in the store that we’re way too busy to read.

Let’s practice what we sell. Here are three tried and true ways to fight burnout from these helpful gems on the bookshelf.

IDEA 1: Sharpen the Saw

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey (978-0743269513)

Love it or hate it, there is a reason why this book and the ideas behind it have sold more than 15 million copies and counting.

In this “Habit” Covey uses the common analogy of a woodcutter who is sawing for several days straight and is becoming less and less productive. The process of cutting dulls the blade. So the solution is to periodically sharpen the saw.

In practice however, many people misunderstand this to mean if you’re overworking yourself and your productivity begins to fall off, take a break, and maybe even go on vacation. However, that isn’t sharpening the saw — that’s putting the saw down. When you put down a dull blade for a while, the blade will still be dull when you pick it up again.

Sharpening the saw is actually an activity, just as the analogy suggests. Think about what it would mean to sharpen the saw of your bookselling life. Here are some ideas:

  • Set some new goals or review/update your old goals (personal or business). Why are you doing this crazy bookselling thing, and what do you want out of it?
  • Organize your office or backroom—do some deep cleaning
  • If you haven’t ever—make sure you attend the ABA Winter Institute and reinvest in your bookselling mission
  • Take a business class and study a new topic outside of bookselling
  • Subscribe to a new business magazine and seek out ideas (and put aside a small amount of dedicated time to read it regularly!)
  • Do a regional “tour” of other bookstores, and make dates to take other owners/buyers out for a quick bite and some good conversation “off the floor”
  • Re-read a classic (or three.)

The POINT: Take action and do something for yourself to kick start your passion again.


IDEA 2: Take it One Step at a Time

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (978-0385480017)

Anne Lamott’s advice in this book is so disarmingly elegant, and just so basic, sometimes it’s easy to overlook in favor of the theory of the moment. But let me tell you, there is no better book for addressing the overwhelming feelings of being an independent bookseller.

You know—that teetering stack of galleys, the pile of boxes that seem to spring back into being the moment you have broken them down, and the revolving door that is staffing. Not to mention reviewing catalogs, paying invoices, balancing the books, ordering for the bookfairs, and cleaning up the last coffee stain (or worse) from the rug in the kids’ section. And author events. And staff picks. And look, the toilet in the bathroom is clogged. Auggghhh!

Lamott’s advice is to approach a project of any kind in a step by step (bird by bird) way, breaking it down into smaller, more manageable chunks, and trust in the process rather than focusing on the end result.

Rather than get overwhelmed with all the things competing for your attention, take ten minutes, remove yourself from the hustle and bustle of the store, and write down all of the things you need to do. If you have the presence of mind to group them into organized categories, then do. Otherwise, just get it all down.

Then, look at the list, and determine the top three things you need get done.

Then pick one to do first.

Then do it, preferably by the end of the day.

Then the next one. Then number three.

Dip back into the list as needed, and make it a regular process to rewrite and reorganize.

The POINT: Concentrate on the steps, as opposed to the race. Find regular time to plan and prioritize instead of wasting energy and creating stress.


IDEA 3: Celebrate Everyday Achievements

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff by Richard Carlson (978-0786881857)

One of the biggest problems with being overwhelmed and stressed is that it’s hard to maintain perspective over what you HAVE accomplished, rather than what you didn’t get to.

Richard Carlson’s little book about mindfulness is all about slowing down and finding ways to celebrate the everyday, thus reducing stress and raising positive emotions.

In an industry like ours which is so demanding, it is critical to recognize that we are working hard and getting somewhere even if it sometimes feels like we’re losing ground.

How do we do this? Celebrate every day successes publicly. Did an employee do a great job on an endcap? Send around an e-mail of praise. Thank staff for being courteous, or for a particularly good customer interaction. Practice civility, and your staff will follow suit. Build it in to the structure. Make a weekly award, and give it away with much fanfare for achievements large and small. This helps to keep the practice regular.

Once a year—New Year’s is always a natural time—evaluate what the store has accomplished in the past year. Set some goals for next year to work against. Have a party and share this process with the staff.

However you do it, build a culture of praise and positivity, and recognize that although no one is ever perfect, there are always successes to be proud of. This positive mental environment will make it easier to pace yourself, and fight burnout for you, your staff, and that baby who is patiently sitting in the sink.

The POINT: Find ways to celebrate small achievements (and big ones too)—this will help balance the negativity that comes from working in such a challenging industry.


One response to “Independent Bookselling: Making Friends with Imperfection

  1. What a great article– very inspiring as I end 2008 knowing I didn’t accomplish everything I had hoped I would but also realizing that I did do quite a few things this past year. Here’s to 2009!!

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