If you work in a bookstore, particularly an independent one, you hear a lot about "handselling," or pushing individual books that you personally love. Word of mouth and handselling is supposed to be what makes or breaks a lot of books. The other day I got to fill out a questionnaire from BookSense (the program from the American Booksellers Association that promotes selected titles) asking which books I "most enjoyed handselling" during 2007. Note they didn't ask that I had actually read any of the books -- just that I enjoyed selling them. And even though I'm probably one of the people at the store who is most into literary fiction, I had honestly only read three of the novels they listed. I'd only read one of the non-fiction (though I'd hurriedly skimmed a few others!) and none of the kids' books. I don't often read new hardcovers, anyway -- they're too expensive. I ended up doing write-in votes for fiction, because I care a lot about it... but I happily checked off the titles of other books I enjoyed selling but never read.
The thing is... people hardly ever come in and ask me, What should I read? More often they ask, What was that book reviewed in the Times? or Who was that guy on Terri Gross? About half the people come into the store with a particular book or magazine in mind. Another quarter are just looking around. The rest have a vague idea, and only a few of those really want suggestions from the schlump behind the counter.
Sometimes they do, though. Most often it's because they're buying a book as a gift. The most common requests are for a book for a kid they don't know that well -- I almost always recommend classics, because you don't want to give a new, untried book in that situation. I constantly push the Oz books, but so far, no one has ever bitten. I've had more luck with The Secret Garden. And you can't go wrong with Curious George, in my opinion, especially the first one in which George is smoking a pipe in one scene and goes to jail in another.
Another common request is for a book for "My mom, and it should be uplifting." In this case I recommend Sue Monk Kidd, because my own mom likes her. I've never cracked one of her books myself.
Recently a customer asked me for a book that could be read aloud to the whole family and that everyone would enjoy. Gosh, that had me flummoxed, especially when he said they'd already done the James Herriot books. He ended up recommending a book to me:"My Family and Other Animals" by Gerald Durrell. It sounded great, so I ordered us a copy.
One of the most popular features of our store is the Staff Favorites shelf, though. We do sell a lot of books from it, but I think it's also entertaining as a psychological artifact -- people like to look at the books and make guesses about the store staff. A friend of mine said, "I could guess the ages of everyone just by looking at those books." Ha!