Sunday, December 10, 2006

Confessions of a Former Bookseller, Part I

I used to work as a bookseller for Barnes and Noble.

Yes, I did. Go ahead and start throwing rotten tomatoes and telling me how I should have worked for an independent bookstore instead.

Get it out of your system.

I admit that I worked for one of the Eeeevil national chains parodied in the movie You’ve Got Mail as Fox and Sons.

Some of the observations that I made as a bookseller at a major national chain might not hold true if I had worked at a local indy, therefore as budding novelist, I’m glad I worked at B&N. I think some of the observations may also prove helpful to other writers who would like to see their work carried in major chains across the country as well as indies.

I worked at B&N from 1994-1996 prior to the true rise of the internet. By the time I left, was just in its infancy and B&N did not have email access for their stores, nor was there a Barnes and – so some of the information is dated, but I think it will still prove illuminating.

How the stores are structured

I was one of the original store hires and so I was there when the store was still devoid of inventory. We had to start from nothing to over 100,000 books on the shelves categorized and alphabetized in about four weeks time. It seemed like a task worthy of Hercules.

The store was color coded by departments and each department had its own supervisor and crew was assigned to shelve that area.

Orange: Children’s

Green: Bestsellers and bargain books

Pink: Self-help books, (popular psychology, as well as psychology text books), motivational titles, health, games and puzzles, humor, field guides, travel and cook books

Yellow: business titles, legal reference, history, religion, philosophy

Blue: fiction, reference books, foreign language, drama, poetry, anthologies, art books, How-to manuals for car repair, gardening, woodworking, needlepoint

I remember exactly the floor plan of how the store looked when we opened, and they’ve changed things since then a few times over. I don’t know if any of those color designations still hold or if the home office had decided to tinker with what was in pink vs. blue departments.

The important part of the color designation was when the books were delivered. We had several days when entire UPS trucks delivered their contents to us and we would be like the proverbial fire brigade chain setting the boxes of books in the middle of the store. All the boxes came from Ingram, and it was considered to be the Superstore start up kit.

One of the assistant managers would open a box and yell out the various colors and people would then take the box and move it to a pile. Later we would be opening the boxes and separating them for their various appropriate shelves.

After the segregation and categorizing came the alphabetizing. All with the opening date looming.

The night before we opened to the general public we had a fĂȘte for the employees and guests. Several people wore tuxedoes, and we had food and wine. It was a glorious night. I was showing my husband around and took him to the receiving room and I saw one of the supervisors doing something that I will never forget.

She was stripping the covers off of paperbacks for the first strip return.

We had not even opened our doors to the public, but we were obligated by the home office to strip the covers off books and destroy the printed content. Because the strip returns were generated on a nation wide computer system and they did not distinguish between existing stores and new ones.

Our store was opening a week before the Thanksgiving holidays and the beginning of the Christmas book buying season, and yet we still had to destroy books that we worked to get in the store and alphabetize. Books that no consumer ever had the opportunity to purchase.

I thought of it as being sacrilegious. That was just my first observation of how corporate mentality is not necessarily predicated on logic or common sense.

There are more similar observations to follow.


Joan Price said...

This was a revealing look at the inside workings of a chain store so big that a store about to open had to destroy books no customer had seen yet! This shocked me! Thank you for letting us know about this practice... do you think it's still the same?

It makes me sick to imagine this!

-- Joan Price

Author of Better Than I Ever Expected: Straight Talk about Sex After Sixty (Seal Press, 2006,

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L.C.McCabe said...

I can't imagine how things would have changed. That "pick list" was generated by a computer, and unless they had programmers who were sensitive and would allow for certain stores to be de-selected from their criteria - I'm sure it would still be their way of doing business.

I'll talk later in a future post about some of my dissatisfactions with their computer system. Hopefully they've gotten a system in their stores better than the WINGS computer program, but I doubt it would be that much better. They paid their employees so dismally that I doubt they would pay big bucks for programmers. I believe they probably got college students or recent graduates who weren't good enough to work for the higher paying computer industry.

As the saying goes, "you get what you pay for." The computer system was adequate, but far from ideal.