Matching books to people is both our motto and our specialty at TKE.
It’s what we do best and what we most love to do. When, for instance, a conservatively dressed woman asks for a book for her elderly mother, we engage in a conversation about said mother to establish her tastes and make sure we’re right in assuming a conservative bent. It isn’t until this friendly conversation has taken place that we recommend, for example, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, one of Barbara Pym’s novels, something by Alexander McCall Smith—or one of the two novels just out in paper and stacked in a pile in the fiction room that would fill the bill, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand or The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Before offering to wrap whatever book has been chosen (we’ve always wrapped for free at TKE, considering it part of our handselling strategy, since it’s a rare customer who doesn’t pick up at least one other book while waiting), we ask whether the customer has recently read any books she’s loved; after a quick chat along these lines we pull out some like books for her to browse through while her mother’s present is wrapped.
Conversely, if a young man with spiked hair walks into the store, his body language screaming, “stay away or I’m outta here,” short of saying hello, one of our middle-aged, female booksellers would probably hold her peace—but one of our younger booksellers might as easily engage him in fruitful conversation about the relative merits of Chuck Palahniuk, George Saunders, or David Levithan.
We hire and schedule to hand sell, making sure the store is staffed with someone young and someone not-so-young, someone who knows children’s books and someone who knows the adult sections, someone with classical tastes, someone with an edgier sensibility, someone with a taste for philosophy or poetry, someone else who reads science fiction or science or mysteries, someone who reads about politics or sports or true crime. All of us try to read quite a bit of everything, too, so that we can sell competently and enthusiastically across genres, and we train our booksellers not to be judgmental; a bookseller must show interest in and respect for the customer’s point of view. It is only then that a conversation about books can happen; one which will lead to one—or perhaps several—sales.
Despite our many events, book-by-book handselling is what produces the majority of sales at TKE. What’s amazing about the process is the results the simple art of handselling can produce.
Here’s a story that will illustrate that fact:
In the Fall of 2008, when Betsy Burton and her family were on their way to the Mayo Clinic to have their son evaluated, she took along an early manuscript of a novel a rep had raved about, Cutting for Stone. We were all familiar with Abraham Verghese as a physician because he had been in town to speak to different groups over the years including our own Literature & Medicine Book Club. And we had hosted him at the store for The Tennis Partner.
Betsy read the manuscript late at night while sitting at her son’s bedside. Awash in the reality of medicine, surrounded as she was by bleeping machines and backlit by that eerie light only known to nighttime hospital rooms while her son slept uneasily under the nest of wires that capped his head, she opened Verghese’s incredible, medicine-steeped novel and started to read. She finished it at dawn the next morning and called the store to increase our order, wrote a blurb which she sent to Indie Next and to Random House. We asked for galleys, passed them around, then asked for more galleys. The novel caught fire with the staff as one bookseller after another read it. The booksellers even scheduled an impromptu book club discussion at a local Ethiopian restaurant to sample the food and rave further to each other about the novel—and all of this before the book was even published.
We hand-sold Cutting for Stone to any-and-everyone in 2009; Betsy gave copies to each of the doctors at the Mayo Clinic when her son was there for brain surgery a few months after the book’s publication. And Abraham Verghese saw our review, heard of our enthusiasm. In January of 2010 we had the great privilege of hosting him for the paperback release of his book. We held a reception at the bookstore prior to the reading and the Ethiopian restaurant happily provided delicious food with such exotic names as Alichaa Misira and Budenaa. The author read to a packed house; everyone in the audience left feeling transformed and wanting to share the experience with friends.
Dr. Verghese won the 2010 Indies Choice Book of the Year Award and it continues to sell well to this day. But the fun doesn’t stop there; if you could handsell any book to the President of the United States, what would you choose? Betsy chose Cutting for Stone (that story HERE). Abraham Verghese is returning to Salt Lake City in the spring to deliver the Tanner Lecture at the University of Utah. To date we’ve hand-sold well over 1000 copies of his book and plan to sell several hundred more before and during that prestigious event. One example of what a little enthusiastic handselling can do.
Is the tale of Abraham Verghese unusual at TKE? Absolutely not. Betsy actually helped to get the mystery novel Missing Witness by local author Gordon Cambell published, sending it to an editor at Harper she knew who stayed up all night reading it just as Burton predicted she would. The book was short-listed for the Edgar and we’ve sold well over a thousand copies. We’ve hand sold hundreds of copies of many local books, from the spectacular cookbook With a Measure of Grace written by the founders of Hell’s Backbone Grill (772) to Shannon Hale’s Goose Girl (1,335). We’ve sold many hundreds of books set in our area, too; Terry Tempest Williams is linked to our website and we handsell her books to tourists and locals in the hundreds (Finding Beauty in a Broken World, has sold 760 to date and we’ve sold literally thousands of Refuge) as we do Jon Krakauer’s (Under the Banner of Heaven, 930). We sell the novels of place by the hundreds, books by such authors as Walllace Stegner and Kent Haruf, Ivan Doig, and Mark Spragg, Louise Erdrich, Judith Freeman, and Deirdre McNamer.
Events count for some of these sales, of course, but the events wouldn’t have occurred without the initial hand-sales, and we’ve sold the majority of the copies one by one to customers to whom we raved about the books. Of the Cutting for Stone sales, for instance, only 250 occurred at the event; the rest were hand-sales. And that ratio probably holds true across the board. It’s the books we handsell one by one by one at The King’s English that not only help us survive but make us who we are. Handselling books, by which we mean connecting with readers one-on-one, establishing common ground, then putting good books in the hands of people likely to love them, is part of what makes our days at TKE the incredible pleasure they are.