Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Anecdotes from a Former Bookseller

Meg Schmidt owned and operated The Corner Book Store in Winsted, Connecticut from 1985-2000. An enthusiastic reader and novice writer, she now resides with her husband in Quechee, Vermont. These are her memories:

The book reps arrived in my bookstore in impressive numbers, weighed down by totes and briefcases filled with binders, galleys and catalogues. The small clanging bell above the door announced their arrival, and soon they filled the store with their wares and expansive personalities. 

I loved that although the reps traveled hundreds of miles and gave the same sales pitch to each bookstore owner, when they sat down with me, it was as if they were giving it for the first time, as if there was no doubt I would order in great quantities. I loved that despite how busy they were they took time to teach someone who knew nothing about bookselling something about ordering books.

Who they were

Bob Brown from Random House was a big burly man, always wearing a rumpled white shirt, a colorful tie loosened at the neck, and a wrinkled sports jacket that he would immediately remove and carelessly place on the back of a chair. He’d been selling books for Random House for decades. I quickly discovered that beneath the rough exterior was a kind, gentle man, willing to guide me through the maze of ordering. I was shocked and saddened to hear of his unexpected death a year after first meeting him. 

Don Brock, self-assured, was all business. He stood no taller than I, and as if to compensate for his lack of height, he spoke in a reverberating voice that filled the store. He wore striped oxford buttoned-down shirts and neatly pleated tan chinos. And he loved to gossip. As we became better acquainted, he would often pause, look around, as if to ferret out any eavesdroppers, and give me inside information. “You know, “ he said once, “my wife worked for Martha Stewart. She lasted for three years and then quit. Martha expected too much.” He looked around again, and added, in a whisper, “Martha Stewart can be demanding.” Martha’s demanding personality aside, Don always strongly encouraged me to buy her books. “You won’t be disappointed,” he’d say with conviction. 

And then there was Foxhall Jones, an older man, always smart in an expensive jacket, a color coordinated shirt, and a tasteful bow tie that complemented both. With thinning reddish-blond hair and a perfectly trimmed mustache, Foxy was also a model gentleman, the ideal publisher’s representative, dapper, refined, intelligent. Suddenly, unannounced, Foxy stopped coming to us: we became, I suspect, a casualty of a reorganizational shuffle at Harper and Row. I later heard rumors that Foxy had left publishing⎯perhaps also a casualty of changes that made his style of selling books obsolete.

And finally there was Kennedy McConnell, a Scottish gentleman with a wicked sense of humor and an infectious laugh that echoed off the walls. Ken always told a joke or two, often bawdy, always funny, and laced with a distinct Scottish accent. Ken had an uncanny ability to put me into an altered state in which I foolishly and consistently ordered more from him than I would ever sell. My real downfall was the annual calendar-shopping spree Ken and I went on. Each year I vowed to buy modestly, and each year Ken offered incentives I couldn’t refuse. “Girl, I understand what you’re saying, but look at this. If you order twelve Trivia Page-A-Day calendars, you’ll receive two free! And, I can’t believe they’re doing this, but if your order totals one hundred and forty-four… you’ll get a fifty-five percent discount!”
“Oh, I don’t know, Ken. That’s a lot of Page-A-Day calendars. Too many, really.”
“No, Meg. No. These are going to fly out of the store. Trust me. I would even consider getting more: think about two-eight-eight. Fifty-five percent discount and free shipping. Workman might as well be giving these away!”
I was sunk.

Times Change

I miss bookselling, being surrounded by the books I love, our loyal, book-reading customers, and certainly those book reps. I wonder if they are still going from store to store with their totes filled with catalogues, always smiling, excited to tell you about the wonderful new titles that will soon fill your bookstore shelves. With all of the upheavals in bookselling and publishing, I doubt that they are. But maybe somewhere a bookseller hears the bell above the door clang and warmly greets one of them, ready to convinced and entertained.

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