Meet the ABA Young Booksellers of the Year: Simon McDonald from Potts Point Bookshop
In the lead-up to the Australian Booksellers Association (ABA) 2019 conference, Books+Publishing spoke to each of the five shortlisted nominees for the Young Bookseller of the Year award ahead of the winner announcement on 23 June.
In this instalment, we talk to Simon McDonald, a bookseller at Potts Point Bookshop in Sydney. McDonald instigated the shop’s crime fiction book club and is affectionately referred to as ‘the King of Crime’, according to store owner Anna Low. ‘He is totally devoted to books and bookselling, he is generous in his reading and astute in his recommendations. He demonstrates a maturity beyond his years and is patient and kind with even the most demanding customer,’ said Low.
What are the top three things you wish you’d known when you were starting out in the book industry?
The most exasperating preconceived idea about being a bookseller is that we sit around reading all day. Nobody outside the industry considers all the work that goes into ordering new releases and backlist, restocking shelves, ensuring everything is ordered and alphabetised, and aesthetically pleasing. Not to mention updating the website, conjuring ideas for the blackboard, sheathing books in protective plastic, making daily trips to the post office, and the vacuuming and dusting … all the while presenting as eloquent, well informed and welcoming booksellers, ready to put the perfect book in our customers’ hands. I wish I had been more familiar with all the minutiae involved in working in a thriving bookshop before I started.
Sometimes I need to remind myself that I don’t need to have read every book that comes into the shop to be an effective bookseller. I remember my first day on the shop floor and a customer asked for a recommendation, citing all their favourite books, and I just froze, because I hadn’t read any of them. I thought to myself: I’m a fraud. It’s been three hours and I’ve already been found out. But being a good bookseller is not just about your own reading, it’s about sponging off your colleagues, and critical reviews, and bloggers, and bookstagrammers and booktubers. And over time, you develop this startingly comprehensive knowledge about authors and genres you’ve never read. If only someone had told me on my first day: ‘It’s okay not to know everything about every book.’
Finally, bookselling will inevitably break your heart. Great books—books you love, and want to thrust into the hands of every person who walks into the shop—don’t always sell in the quantities you believe they deserve, or they can get lost in the hustle and bustle of a packed new release window. Staff you love, whose opinions you treasure, and whose company you cherish, often move on; such is the cyclical, bittersweet nature of life in a bookshop. But it moves so fast, you’ve rarely got the time for rumination. As quickly as your heart might break for a book that didn’t get the love it deserved, it fills to bursting again for the next one, and the next one …
What has been your biggest achievement or proudest moment as a bookseller?
You mean, besides being nominated and shortlisted for Young Bookseller of the Year? It’s difficult to pinpoint personal achievements when you work in a small team; our successes are earned together. I will say I am immensely proud to have established a second book club at Potts Point Bookshop, which is always attended by smart, articulate locals who I love spending an hour with once a month, even as our conversation disintegrates into books besides the one we’re meant to be discussing.
I am never prouder than when an author, publisher or agent hunts me down to thank me for reviewing or handselling a book. I love that my job allows me this connection with storytellers, and their gatekeepers.
Oh, and the day I discerned a customer’s request for ‘The Wet’ as Jane Harper’s The Dry (Pan), that was a proud moment too.
What is the most valuable thing you’ve learned on the job?
That hand-selling is an undervalued and absolutely vital skill. No newsletter, tweet, blog review or Facebook post will ever match the power of a passionate, articulate dialogue between bookseller and customer. It’s hard to teach because there is no right or wrong way to hand-sell, but it needs to be genuine.
What do you think this industry could do better?
The sheer volume of books being published is overwhelming. The relentlessness of the book industry ecosystem means books don’t always get the time to thrive, especially books by Australian writers. I often wish more was done to champion the diversity of Australian voices.
Where would you like to be in five (or 10, or 20) years’ time? And what do you hope the industry will look like then?
The only thing guaranteed about my future is that it will be surrounded by books!
As for the industry, I pray independent bookshops continue to combat the rise of the big discounters and monopolies, and I hope they are supported in their efforts by Australian publishers. There is something magical about walking into a perfectly curated bookshop and browsing its shelves, and talking to the knowledgeable staff behind the counter. We must unite and fight to keep these places alive and thriving.
I also hope publishers continue to publish a diverse, inclusive range of titles so marginalised communities are represented and there literally is something for everyone.
What’s the strangest/funniest thing that’s happened to you while at work?
Maybe the time a customer wandered into the shop with his dog and requested a seat, which I quickly provided, assuming he needed to rest, only to have him plonk the dog atop it? I still remember its piercing stare …
Or when I was asked to ‘rub out’ an ‘unseemly’ barcode on the back of an expensive hardcover in black texta, and refused to do it—trade secret for all you aspiring booksellers out there, scrawling on book jackets rarely works out well—so the customer borrowed the marker and began scribbling, their brow furrowing, until upon final examination of their work, they declared it didn’t look very good, and asked for a refund.
The 95th ABA conference runs from 23–24 June at Pullman Melbourne on the Park.
To read all the interviews with the ABA Young Bookseller of the Year nominees, click here. To stay up-to-date with Australian book industry news and hear about the ABA Booksellers of the Year winners, sign up to our Daily Newsletter and Weekly Book Newsletter.