Confessions of a Real Skeleton Bookseller: Working in a Bookstore is a Horror Show Honda-san Gets Right
Just how accurate is Honda-san about the real bookselling world?
Many people will step into a bookstore and see the new titles face out on the shelves, tidy tables with gradually stacked books, and displays of all different subjects. Sometimes people go there to browse, sometimes they go to pick up a new title, but being a bookseller seems like a serene job, especially since they’re surrounded by something as quiet as books all day. So why does Skull-face Bookseller Honda-san show all the booksellers in a panic all the time? Are things really that crazy inside? Surely bookstores are supposed to be a calm and orderly place! Of course, Honda’s experiences are fiction, so how close does the show come to depicting life in a bookstore? Allow me to shed some light on that--you see, I used to be a (skeleton) bookseller myself (although admittedly, I was probably closer to Okitsune-senpai in personality).
I worked for a chain bookstore in the United States for two long years, and books aside, it’s definitely a retail job. Of course, bookstores in Japan do function differently than those in the US, and if you’ve ever stepped into an overseas shop like Kinokuniya before, you’d notice one big difference: manga are shrinkwrapped. In the US, only certain titles are shrinkwrapped, namely those with explicit content, but it definitely isn’t the norm. As a result, browsing culture doesn’t exist in Japanese bookstores. You can guess the content from the cover or ask recommendations from employees, but there is no sitting and flipping through the entire book. Most likely this is to encourage customers to purchase instead of browse, but the flipside is you usually have to know what you want to buy beforehand.
With most books, you don’t have this issue--but for manga, there’s always the question of licensing. Like Honda trying to frantically figure out whether a certain manga title exists in French, the reverse is true for English bookstores. After all, just because a title is currently popular or even has an anime running, doesn’t mean it’s been officially licensed in print. Even moreso when comparing online scanlations-- just because a team has scanned it, doesn’t mean it’s legally available for purchase. More often than not the answer is no--but booksellers have to figure that out. Sometimes the computer will provide the answer, and sometimes they run across the floor to find that one coworker that knows what they’re talking about.
Another problem arises when dealing with shrinkwrapped books but also in general-- customer recommendations. When not doing basic retail duties, a fair chunk of encountering customers involves providing recommendations. After all, people want something good to read, but there are so many titles that many don’t know where to start. Booksellers have their own preferences, and assignments aside, they tend to gravitate towards whichever section of the store they are most personally familiar with. For me, it was manga, since I (naturally) read so much in my free time. There are other genres I’m familiar with, like horror and fantasy, but biographies? No clue. Working in the store familiarized me with popular titles, but that’s not always helpful when a customer is looking for a specific topic, or something tailored to their interests.
But the "crazy coworkers" are there to help. Everyone eventually breaks off into their own section of interest, but working in a certain area where one is already personally invested means they have and cultivate a kind of expertise. When a customer comes in wanting something specific that I didn’t know about, I’d dash away and try to find a coworker who was more familiar. It may not be exactly like the gameshow-type rapid fire answers that Honda’s coworkers do, but it feels exactly like that.
What about the famed "special yaoi books?" Doujinshi culture doesn’t really exist in the US (the closest thing would be zines), and for the most part, anything without a proper ISBN won’t be sold in stores. Even self-published books are not a guarantee, simply because they’re mostly created via print-on-demand and are tricky to return if damaged. However, my store did have regular BL titles from publishers like SuBLime, so we had a small but decent selection available for purchase. While I’m familiar with BL, I don’t personally read it. Honda looking at the covers and trying to pick out a title felt very familiar, because I’ve been asked the same question before. When you’re not entirely sure, you have to guess, and I’ve certainly felt as apprehensive as Honda when I presented something to a customer and they didn’t seem 100% pleased.
That second episode about the holidays is real. Everyone asks for the big new books and there’s never enough of them, ever. Trying to gauge demand is hard, and usually when a title becomes the next big thing, bookstores are caught off guard. The lines never end, and always need backup. There’s never enough staff, even with the holiday temp workers, so everyone’s in four places at once. Constantly running to the back room or the basement to pick up fast-selling titles to restock tables is a constant, because just when you think you’re done, that’s when a hole in a display appears. People are constantly ordering and reordering, so the new shipments coming in are endless. During the holidays, we’re all panicked skeleton people. Even if the reasons are slightly different, as Christmas is a much more massive holiday here than it is in Japan, the end of the year is filled with panicked booksellers rushing through the isles.
When the third episode came out, for the first time I found myself distanced from the material. Honda’s bookstore shows the sales reps visiting the store to inspect promotional items, and directly communicating with the booksellers in charge of the sections to determine what needs to be restocked. I worked in a chain bookstore, where corporate offices handled the promotional side. Booksellers can put in requests to restock certain titles, but they still have to be approved by management. They are the lowest rung in the tiered system. But that’s just for chain stores--what about independent bookstores?
I asked a friend of mine who currently works in a very small indie bookstore for some more insight. According to her, sales reps rarely have face-to-face meetings in indie bookstores. Most of the in-person meetings are reserved for book conferences. It’s not to say that there is no communication, in fact there’s daily correspondence with publishers via email or phone; after all, when a store has smaller space, it’s absolutely necessary to make sure that enough product is in stock. At the same time, correspondence between store and publisher/sales reps is usually handled by the owner or the store operations manager, not the booksellers. We’re not entirely sure what Honda’s exact position is, although he seems to be at least a full-time employee, but usually people without access to budgeting numbers aren’t allowed to officially file orders. This might be a cultural difference, or more likely because the time from pitch to manga publication to anime debut is a long one, and technology is ever-changing.
Altogether, Honda-san manages to show the strange culture of bookstores and booksellers in a fun and comedic manner. For those who haven’t had the chance to sell books, Honda-san provides a little slice of all the craziness that goes on where the customers can’t see. Despite the cultural differences and varying company practices, I feel a kind of familiarity whenever I watch the show--after all, that was my life for a period of time. It may be an anime, but I’d say it reflects reality pretty well. Whether you have experience in the book world or not, we can all agree that it’s hilarious seeing Honda and his coworkers survive the day to day.
What's your favorite part of the crazy world of Honda-san? Let us know in the comments!