Sarah – Former Dyslexic Bookseller More about this job at Prospects.
How Long Were You a Bookseller?
I was a bookseller for over four years.
Why did you want to be a bookseller?
I decided I wanted to work as one because I loved books and being surrounded by them sounded amazing.
It can sometimes be a way into publishing, there can be perks such as discounts or the chance to meet famous authors, you get to organise events, and the part time hours I started on gave me lots of time for writing.
Bestselling author Ben Aaronovitch wrote his break out first novel while working for a branch of Waterstones. This happened after I started as a bookseller but I certainly knew I would not be the only aspiring writer working in a bookshop. I thought it could be a good opportunity to meet like minded people.
How did you become a bookseller?
I searched for roles online initially and applied through the online process for the position. Some bookshops do not even look at paper CVs as they want to pre-screen you online. Getting into bookselling can be quite competitive. A lot more people tend to want to be booksellers than there are jobs available. The part time opportunities can attract aspiring writers, actors, students and a wide range of freelancers as well as those looking for a normal retail job.
I knew I was short listed in part because I have a degree in English, American Studies and Creative Writing. Some bookshops will only employ people who are university educated, but a degree is not an essential requirement in most cases. If you have one in a relevant subject then this can give you an advantage, and that was the case for me.
Voluntary experience made a big difference and my manager was really enthusiastic about this. I had supported dyslexic teenagers with finding books they could enjoy, helped with the summer reading scheme at my local library by running an activity station for children, and my manager also liked that I said I enjoyed acting. She thought this would help me when dealing with customers. I had reception duties in a past job and that gave me experience dealing with lots of face to face interactions. This experience was an essential requirement for the role.
Bookshops expect booksellers to have a good knowledge of books. I was quizzed on my reading habits in the interview, luckily I read widely and could easily answer the questions.
Sometimes bookshops are looking for someone who is passionate about a specific genre because it is one the existing team are less knowledgeable about, so it can be worth asking interviewers what areas of knowledge they most want to expand. Even if you do not have the specific knowledge they are after asking this questions shows an awareness of the industry and is likely to go down well. I was lucky, I mentioned that among the genres I enjoyed were fantasy, science fiction, children’s and YA books. The bookshop was recruiting because the person currently in charge of science fiction and fantasy was leaving to go to university. They also wanted a second children’s bookseller, particularly over the Christmas period.
What were you worried about before you started?
I never worried about the book side of the role but I was nervous about working in retail. I had never done this before. I imagined feeling humiliated because I was slow or gave the wrong change. This had always put me off applying for roles in shops but being a bookseller was something I really wanted to do. I knew the products and was passionate about them. I decided I would find a way to make it work for me if I could, and if it did not work out then at least I knew this from experience, not worst case scenarios I created in my head.
Where your concerns justified, and what were the hardest parts of the job?
The hardest part of the job was dealing with the general public. I think everyone should work in retail so they appreciate what it is like. Some people just see you as a representation of the shop instead of as a person, and they can be very rude.
I didn’t expect that when I had helped a customer that it might sometimes be difficult emotionally. I had a lady whose little boy had just been diagnosed with dyslexia come into the shop. I was really glad she spoke to me because I could not only find her the right book but tell her about the support available in our local area and online, as I used this when I was growing up. I gave her some information about how to help her son from my own experience, too. I said I knew how awful and frightening it felt right then but that over time with support things would get better for her son. I told her it didn’t need to stop him doing things in life, that I knew this because I was dyslexic and I had a degree in English, American Studies and Creative Writing. That was when she started to cry.
I felt terrible, because even though she said she was crying because I had helped her so much I felt bad for making anyone cry for any reason. It also upset me she and her son were not getting help already. What if they hadn’t come into the bookshop or she didn’t speak to me? Would she ever have found out about the support locally or online which I knew about? It was actually quite common to have parents or grandparents asking for help on behalf of dyslexic children. I was glad I could help, but it brought back my own struggles too, and the help I gave never felt like enough. These encounters are one of the reasons why I started Dysbooks. I wanted to help more people than I could in the bookshop.
There was another lady who got very emotional because I spent a long time trying to help her find a book about her husband’s illness. She was going through a very difficult time and all I could do was find her the book she wanted, and she was so grateful when I tracked it down for her. That was very hard, and I wished I could do more. I had to take some time out in the stockroom after she left to deal with how I was feeling.
The books people are looking for can give you a snapshot of that person and their needs in a way I think selling other products doesn’t. People turn to books when they need help, whether just escapism, entertainment, to learn, or for a specific issue. That can mean some difficult conversations and being out of your comfort zone sometimes.
Dealing with the till and giving change was not too big a difficulty in the end. It took me a little longer to learn certain things, such as the process for ordering books direct from wholesalers. No one cared too much because I worked hard, was really good at other parts of the job, and I made the shop money.
I hated dealing with ISBN numbers at first (the numbers on the back of books), but having to use long strings of numbers all the time really helped me improve how I dealt with these. I also got better at spelling and the using alphabetical ordering gradually became much easier, as I had to do it multiple times every day. Eventually, though, I just knew roughly where most of the books were rather than having to look use the alphabetical system and really staring at shelves every time. I could just twist around and grab most bestsellers without really thinking.
Dealing with enquires for really specific or rare books were difficult, but it was a great feeling when I managed to find them for a customer.
how did you overcome these challenges and what coping strategies did you use?
I was quite paranoid to begin with that I was going to make lots of mistakes and find the job really hard so I over compensated. I took notes in a pocket notebook when being shown how to use the till and computer software, as well as how to handle stock and deliveries. I then referred to this if I forgot something and I had the time instead of constantly having to ask others for help.
It did take me longer to learn those things but hopefully having the notes meant I was a bit more independent at the beginning than I would have been without them.
Part of the job involved writing lots of hand written review cards and book recommendations. I didn’t always have access to a computer and these were going up on shelves for customers to read, with my name on, so I felt I had to get every word spelt correctly. I wanted to be independant and avoid asking colleagues for help with spelling incase they judged me or it took up too much of their time.
I remembered I had a pocket spellchecker I was bought by my grandmother as a teenager. I hardly ever used it at school as either I used a computer with spellcheck, I could not use it as I was sitting a test, or my spelling didn’t really matter. I brought a new one and took this into work with me. This solved most of my review card problem, though I still asked colleagues to proof read for me and did drafts on scraps of paper first.
Colleagues really liked my pocket spellchecker and sometimes asked to borrow it to write their own reviews, which was really nice. I realised I was not the only one who sometimes needed extra help in this area, and non-dyslexic people struggled with spelling at times, too.
One of the best things I did was eventually telling my colleagues I was dyslexic and about how this affected me. They said they would never have known as I worked so hard to deal with my difficulties, far more than I think anyone would have realised. They just thought I was really organised and thorough!
Some of my former managers had close dyslexic relatives so they were really understanding and supportive. Even the ones without this first hand experience only wanted to help me so we could do well as a team. They gave me less of the tasks that I found difficult and got me to do more of what I was good at doing. They made me feel appreciated for what I could do and as if my difficulties were not all that important so long as we all supported each other. It was one of the best jobs I could have had in terms of boosting my self esteem and confidence.
I will always remember when we were told we had to do lots of manual discounts. I was worried because I struggle with mental maths under pressure due to my short term memory issues. I turned up at the till and without me having to say anything one of the managers had taped a note showing a table with all standard book prices in one column, percentage discounts along the top, and the solutions underneath. He then came over and said he knew I found mental maths a bit harder sometimes and it made me nervous so he had done that for me, then asked if this was okay. He told everyone else it was to help all of us. I felt incredibly touched that they would consider me enough to do something like that to help me. I was not used to people wanting to help me as at school I often had to fight for even a small amount of support.
When there was a customer it was difficult to deal with we tried to support each other, including when this was not the customer’s fault. We would come over to help if we were not needed by someone else, commiserate, and cover for each other so one of us could take some time away from the shop floor after the customer left if we needed to. If someone was rude to me I would tell myself they could be having a really bad day or something very difficult could be going on in their lives. I also found if I continued to be polite and friendly then sometimes these customers would change how they behaved. When this worked it felt quite rewarding and I usually ended the interaction happier than when it started.
What were the best parts of the job and what were you best at? Were they what you expected?
The best part of the job was dealing with the general public. Most of our customers were really nice people. I had a situation where a lady threw a card across the counter at me. She refused to make eye contact or talk to me while I served her, and then scowled at me as she left. I had tried to be extra friendly and make eye contact with her as this sometimes helped in these situations, but she ignored me. It felt horrible. The next lady I served saw this and apologised to me for the other customer. She made a point of being really friendly and kind, even though she had a sleepy child with her in a buggy. She made my day. There were a lot of people like that, who were respectful and appreciated it when I did my best to help them.
Giving book recommendations was something I looked forward to. When people came back to say they enjoyed something I recommended that felt amazing. Helping with book recommendations for children always felt especially special as I got to show them the books I loved as a child as well the newer books I wished I had when I was younger.
I ended up being put in charge of organising regular children’s events and those were always great fun. I got to be really creative, coming up with different themed activities, crafts and ordering different event packs from publishers or give away items. We had a mystery box of events items in the stockroom. Sorting through this and props made for past events to see what I could come up with next could be quite exciting. I learnt quickly never to use the glitter or to put out too many pens, but the crayons and sparkly fabrics always went down well.
At one point I ran weekly story times where I read to the children (doing all the voices). This was fine as these where the children’s pictures books so they were easy to read and I could memorise parts of them beforehand with a few read throughs. There were some children who came almost every week and seeing how happy it made them was wonderful.
It turned out I was really good at handselling books. Considering this was the only reason I had been employed this was pretty important. I think it was part of why colleagues were so keen to help me and were less bothered about my difficulties. I still made the shop money, at the end of the day that was all that mattered.
Eventually I ended up doing most of our window displays as I was the one who liked doing this the most and everyone thought I was really good at it. I got put in charge of the store social media pages and marketing most of our events, too.
I like my current job but sometimes I miss now how creative and varied being a bookseller was. I got to experience and learn about so many different things. I also miss getting a store discount, the free books sent by publishers, getting new books from favorite authors on the day they were released, and discovering new writers while stocking the shelves. Working in a bookshop really expanded the range of book I read and I think this has helped me a lot as a writer as a person.
The best experience I ever had as a bookseller, however, was meeting author Neil Gaiman. He is one of my favorite authors and if I had not been a bookseller I probably never would have met him, even as briefly as I did.
What advice do you have for other dyslexic people who want to be booksellers?
Don’t let your fears put you off applying. It can be a really good job for dyslexic people, especially ones who are creative and love books. There is a lot you can do to help yourself with the bits you might find difficult and if you can sell the actual books then those things don’t matter that much anyway.
Make sure you prepare properly for the interview so you can answer questions about what you read confidently, and give responses that show you can work with a wide range of people, including under adverse conditions such as during the busy Christmas period.
If you don’t succeed the first time keep trying and consider volunteering at your local library to gain some related experience.
When you become a bookseller try to make the most of the opportunities available for learning and career progression. Volunteer to take on extra responsibilities or to try new things as this will help you grow as a person and with your career development, regardless of if you want to keep working with books long term or not.