Tuesday, 14 April 2015

A Day In The Life Of Asia Bookroom

A Day In The Life Of…is an occasional series in which booksellers and people working in the publishing industry talk about their working day.  Here, Lynette Thomas, of Asia Bookroom, talks about a day in the shop.

For over 30 years, Asia Bookroom, in Macquarie, Australia, has specialised in new, out of print and antiquarian books of Asian interest.

So: over to Lynette…

“Is this a library?” is the most common question asked by people who stumble across Asia Bookroom, or who enter into it unwittingly, thinking it is actually the Chinese restaurant next door.  I suppose it’s a natural question to ask if you are a first-time visitor – the walls are lined with shelves, there are antique bookcases and interesting tables and cabinets, chairs to retreat to, quirky Asian artefacts scattered around, a quiet atmosphere free from the noisy chit-chat of daytime radio and a selection of books that are new, secondhand and antiquarian.

Located in a fairly quiet suburb in Canberra’s north, just 15 minutes from the city centre, Asia Bookroom is unique in Australia, and possibly the world, according to some of our well-travelled customers. Canberra’s prestigious national university (the ANU) which has a flourishing College of Asia and the Pacific and a new research centre, Australian Centre on China in the World, helps provide some of our local customer base, but the majority of our customers are from out of state or international.

A typical day – if there is such a thing – means attending to the most important priority and that is our customers, whether they walk through the door or are sitting thousands of miles away in front of their computer. We communicate new additions to our collection through email lists, to which our customers subscribe and which have consistently proven to be our most effective marketing tool. Our stock is dynamic as we acquire books from various sources, catalogue them and let our customers know what has arrived into stock. Eager customers snap up the offerings as some of these titles prove hard to find - either because they are long out of print or have been published elsewhere. Making sure we answer customer queries and getting their purchases packed and sent off is the most pressing order of the day. Special orders are also high up on the list – whether for new or out of print titles – and this is one of the services that specialist independent booksellers do so well. It may take a little time to research and find the book that a customer needs, and the monetary return may not be huge, but it does often result in a massive return in terms of customer loyalty.

Once the orders have been completed, there are always other tasks to be attended to. There is no shortage of newly acquired books to be catalogued and this involves a detailed description of the condition of the book and a knowledge of the terminology used to describe it. Our aim is not only to have a description but also an image for every book, print, map and piece of ephemera in the shop as this provides our customers with as complete a picture as possible of the item on offer. Customers spending over a certain amount  for an item will want to know about every bump, scratch and crease, whether there is foxing, rubbing or damp damage and whether it is a first edition or a reprint. Providing such details can mean the difference between a disgruntled and a satisfied customer! It is in our interests to be as professional in our standard of description as possible.

Of course having an open shop also means keeping the displays fresh and the shelves tidy, just as you would in any commercial establishment. Though some people love the idea of rummaging through piles of randomly placed books in boxes or on shelves, it is important for us to be able to direct customers to the right section so that they can put their hands on the book they are interested in, so our shelves are organised into geographical areas, and subdivided into sections such as travel, history, politics, biography, etc. or placed in areas dedicated to language, fiction, art or religion and philosophy. We also have an extremely comprehensive selection of children’s books about Asia with a breadth and depth that is really second to none, sourced from all around the world. The emphasis on Asia in the Australian Curriculum means that school libraries and teachers need access to such resources and this has been one of the core aspects of our business. 

Complementing our sales are events held throughout the year to launch new books or have authors talk about their body of work. The audiences at such events are well-read, well-informed and articulate, and authors are invariably very pleased with the response to their talks. Those attending enjoy the congenial atmosphere with drinks and light refreshments served after the event and time to speak to the author while they have their book signed. These events involve moving most of the furniture to the edges of the shop and setting up chairs, getting any audio visual equipment ready, and preparing a few nibbles and setting up the drinks table. Entry is by gold coin with all funds donated to charity and we have been able to raise a tidy sum for various charitable concerns over the years.

Another regular feature is our Asian-focussed book group and this attracts a regular attendance of some 20-25 people every six weeks or so. The books are selected from a growing list of new Asian authors or Western authors writing on Asian themes and the resulting selection can be a mix of classics, contemporary novels, biography, poetry, award-winners or books by relatively unknown writers. Members of the book group themselves volunteer to lead the discussion and there is a wonderful diversity of opinion and discussion in each session.

With such a varied timetable, there is no really typical day – it will largely depend on what is scheduled. However,  there is always plenty to do, so when somebody casually asks if we have read all 15,000 books (just a rough estimate), we smile and politely disabuse them of the notion that working in a bookshop means you actually have time to read!