What I learned from working for a major bookseller for six weeks

I worked part-time for Indigo Books and Music as a temporary seasonal worker on their sales floor during the year-end holiday season (including Black Friday, Christmas, and Boxing Day sales). These are the business lessons that I learned from my experience.

For many years it’s been a dream of mine to work in a bookstore. A while back it almost happened, when a friend who owns an independent bookstore offered me a part-time job, but I didn’t take her up on it because I was too busy with a full-time business at the time.

Recently my dream came true when I took a part-time seasonal job at my local Indigo bookstore. This is the story of what I learned about selling books and connecting with customers, during my six weeks working for the company.

Background – me and books
Do you have a place where, every time you go there, you just plain feel better? A place that soothes you, or lifts you up when you’re down? A place that calms you, or energizes you?

For me, that place is a place with books. Bookstores, libraries, homes…  wherever there are shelves and shelves of books, I seem to feel good.

My favourite bookstore in the whole world is Mandala Book Shop in London, Ontario. It sells New Age books and products like yoga mats, crystals and incense. It’s not only my favourite bookstore, it’s hands-down one of my favourite places on the planet.

The bookshop is in an old home in the downtown core of London, and it has beautiful wooden bookshelves, gorgeous natural light, soft New Age music playing, and smells like Nag Champa incense. Going there is like visiting a beautiful spiritual retreat – it’s quiet, it’s gorgeous, and I instantly feel calm and centred whenever I walk through their doors.

Another favourite bookstore is City Lights Bookshop, also in London. It’s a used bookstore, and I first started visiting it when I was a high school student. It was a 15-minute walk from my high school, and it was convenient to visit after school.

City Lights has a different vibe than Mandala, but it’s also very precious to me, because a good number of my early books were purchased there. City Lights was chaotic and eclectic, and had that old-book smell that reminded me of a cross between a library and a church rummage sale.

I remember when the first Chapters bookstore opened in London. It was in a big-box commercial development, and at that time was the biggest bookstore (in terms of square footage and inventory) that London had seen. Another one opened a few years later on the opposite side of the city. Both of those stores were havens for me.

While some people do their retail therapy in clothing stores, I do my retail therapy in bookstores and music stores. Chapters had both back then. It also had a Starbucks attached to the store, so you could pick up your beverage of choice, wander through the book or music stacks, pick up something to read, sit in one of their comfy chairs, and while away half a day.

I have spent literally hundreds of hours browsing through bookstores and libraries. I feel drunk on the experience just thinking about it. (And what is it about the smell of books? Am I right?)

So that’s the mood I was in when I walked into the Indigo store near me (Indigo bought out Chapters several years ago) in November. I was going to get a chai latte, browse, and enjoy some retail therapy. Then I saw the help wanted sign.

Why did I get a job in a bookstore?
I wanted to make some extra money over the holidays, and was already thinking about getting a temporary, part-time retail job when I saw the help wanted sign at Indigo. I applied online, was asked to submit a video interview, then got called in for a group “audition” with three other candidates. (Just as an aside, I loved their interview process. The audition involved sharing a bit about ourselves and the books we liked, then going into the store and selecting books and products to share with the others. It was the most fun job interview I’ve ever had.)

Three of the candidates from my audition were hired, and I received my policies and procedures training online before going in to the store for my physical training on the sales floor and at the cash register. I also attended a storewide staff meeting where new books and seasonal products were introduced, and had some in-person, proprietary training on Indigo’s approach to selling books and products, which I liked immensely.

Without going into detail (I signed a policy saying I wouldn’t reveal trade secrets), this sales training taught us how to connect with customers on the sales floor by initiating conversations about books and products. It was during this training that I first realized how serious Indigo was about sales, and growing the company’s revenue in the cutthroat North American book market. If you think that working in a bookstore is just shelving books and answering customer questions, let me educate you: not at Indigo.

Everything about the company is computerized, from the store inventories and sales to the tracking of customers entering and leaving each store. We had not only daily, but hourly sales targets, with expected conversion rates (the percentage of people who entered the store and actually made a purchase).

How did I enjoy the experience?
I absolutely loved working for Indigo. Every time I walked into the store for a shift, I felt elated that I could work in that beautiful place. I loved the company’s mission and vision. I loved the physical store. I loved the stock. I loved the people. (I loved having the occasional chai latter from Starbucks before or after a shift. I also loved the number of daily steps I racked up on my Fitbit, walking the sales floor.)

Most of all, I loved being surrounded by books and paper products (journals, agendas, greeting cards) all day long. Indigo also carries a substantial and growing “lifestyle” section with scarves, “reading socks”, bags, mugs, picture frames, cushions, scented candles, a selection of gourmet and kitchen items, and more. The stock looked beautiful, and I found myself several times each shift stroking the wooden and marble cutting boards with my fingertips as I “faced” them (straightened them after customers had picked them up and put them back askew).

Was there anything unexpected?
I wasn’t prepared for how physically tired I would get, not only from walking around the sales floor during my shifts, but from constantly greeting customers and assisting them with searches, recommendations, and orders. During my breaks I shut down, physically and emotionally, until I went back out on the sales floor again.

I also didn’t anticipate how wonderful it would feel to help people find just the right book for themselves or their loved ones. I discovered that I loved recommending books, and that my knowledge of certain categories (business, biography, New Age, wellness, art, design, and crafting) was enormous, and helpful to others.

What I learned about being successful in a highly competitive business
This was one of my favourite aspects of working for Indigo – getting an insider’s perspective on how to succeed in a very competitive marketplace. Here goes…

Data matters. Measure the right stuff, efficiently.
I’ve mentioned above that Indigo keeps track (electronically!) of all sorts of data: store inventory, the number of people coming into and leaving the store, each individual sale, and which section of the store the sales are coming from. The amount of data is immense, but computerization helps track it efficiently and accurately.

Set “stretch” targets, and review results.
The management team has sales goals for each day of the year…  plus incremental goals for each section section of the store, for each hour that the store is open. These goals are “stretch” goals – they’re aspirational, based on data from previous years, comparable seasons, and days (such as major sales days like Black Friday and Boxing Day). There’s no question that the sales targets are on every manager’s mind all day long, and they are tracking the store’s results daily.

Coach and reward performance to improve results.
One of the things I really admired about the management team’s focus was the way they coached sales staff to reward good performance, and improve lagging results. They regularly communicated performance data throughout the day to all staff, and everyone was ecstatic when we surpassed the day’s targets. We also received positive, specific encouragement throughout the day about opportunities for improving sales performance. (For example, if one area of the store was underperforming, staff members were encourage to initiate sales conversations with customers in these areas, or talk about specific merchandise that was underperforming.)

Communicate, communicate, communicate.
If you’ve ever been in an Indigo or Chapters store, you may have noticed that staff members wear earpieces to communicate with each other. I initially wondered if I would find wearing the communicators annoying, but I quickly realized it was a blessing to be able to immediately ask a question of the entire staff, including managers, on a moment’s notice.

The management team made use of the communicators to relay sales performance updates throughout the workday, and I frequently used (abused?) my own communicator to ask questions of the other staff members about things I didn’t know – from book recommendations for genres that I was less familiar with, to where to find the kiosk keys, or where to find a certain category of merchandise in the store.

It occurred to me that if I had been able to communicate this effortlessly and transparently with other staff and supervisors at previous jobs, it would have made a huge difference to productivity, employee morale, and the client or customer experience.

Build relationships to nurture repeat business
Another huge part of Indigo’s success strategy is encouraging staff members to make each customer’s experience inside the store enjoyable, so that the customer will happily return to the store in the future. Indeed, during my six weeks working in one store, I recognized several “regulars” who happily spent hours in the store, browsing through the books and merchandise. Staff enthusiasm and personality seemed to be key qualities that were considered during the hiring process, and it showed on the sales floor, even during the most hectic holiday sales.

I would happily work at Indigo again, and miss the store and the staff, now that I’m no longer there several days per week. I’m also grateful for the sales experience; I feel like I improved my skills at connecting with customers and closing sales. To finish, I’ll share the books I recommended most frequently to customers during my six-week tenure.


  • Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss. This book was released in early December 2016, and I had preordered the e-book on Amazon, so I started to read it immediately. I’m a follower of  Ferriss’s podcast, and had heard Ferriss talking about the book for several weeks leading up to its publication. It’s a summary of highlights from his first 200+ podcasts, organized by topic (Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise). Guests featured in the book include comedian Margaret Cho, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Foxx, Tony Robbins, shame researcher and author Brene Brown, surfer Laird Hamilton, former pro volleyball player Gabrielle Reece, marketing and business guru Seth GodinBrain Pickings founder and blogger Maria Popova, and CD Baby founder Derek Sivers. It’s huge (over 700 pages) and chock full of great advice. I recommended this book to several customers looking for a good business book to gift to others, and after Christmas I also recommended it to people looking for a book for themselves.
  • The Jack Reacher series by Lee Child. I read the entire Jack Reacher series during my breast cancer treatment, and I adore these dark mysteries. They remind me of the hard-boiled style of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, updated for the 21st century. What I love most about the character of Jack Reacher is that he has an inner moral compass that is unbending; you can always rely on him to do the right thing. I recommended several of the gripping books in this series.
  • Anything New Age-y (Deepak Chopra, Abraham-Hicks). This is my wheelhouse – personal development and spirituality. I often got assigned to this area of the store, and really enjoyed making recommendations to customers looking for books on personal development. Chopra and Abraham-Hicks are some of my favourite authors in this genre, and I recommended both several times.
  • The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. I first read this book a couple of years ago when my mom lent it to me (she had bought it for one of her book clubs). I LOVE THIS BOOK, and it was the one fiction book I recommended most often at Indigo. It’s an adventure story set in the distant past in Spain and Northern Africa, but it’s also an allegory for how to live the life you were born to live (as opposed to living a “safe” life, or living the life that others want you to live.
  • Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur. I came across the poetry of Rupi Kaur in an article about her Instagram page earlier this year. I love her simple, feminist, and diverse poems about relationship and finding meaning in this world. Her line drawings that accompany the poems are beautiful, too.
  • Colouring books. During my audition for Indigo, I admitted that I loved adult coloring, and created my own adult coloring pages. It became a bit of a joke when we had to go onto the sales floor and select books and merchandise to talk about. Everyone thought that I would choose coloring books…  so I didn’t. But that didn’t stop me from recommending them to customers walking by that section of the store during my shifts.
  • Books of prompts, and how-to-draw books for kids interested in art. One of my colleagues from my aikido dojo came into the store one night with his son, and asked me what books I would recommend to parents wanting to nurture their children’s love of art. I loved this question, and it’s prompted me to draft a series of posts about children and creativity for one of my other blogs. Interestingly enough, I ended up recommending some of the books to several parents during my time with Indigo. They included books of prompts like 642 Things to Draw (which I own myself, and love) and other  learn-to-draw books.

How to figure out what to do next

This blog post could also be called, “How to brainstorm,” “How to choose a new career,” “How to come up with some new ideas for projects,” or “How to create something successful by creating something that only you can uniquely create.”

Back story:
I’m an entrepreneur and creator at heart, and I have a number of business ideas that I’m currently trying to prioritize. My ultimate goal is to develop a few diverse sources of online income. And while I don’t mind doing the hard work of creating content (like writing blog posts and e-books, creating webinars and courses, or making videos), I’d like to try and avoid sinking too much of my time and energy into a project that would have a low return on investment.

Tools of Titans (a book by Tim Ferriss)
Then I started reading Tim Ferriss’s Tools of Titans at the beginning of December. (If you’re curious about who Ferriss is, and what the book is about, I’ve included more information at the end of this post. Let me just add here for context that I love this book so much, in the last six weeks that I’ve been working part-time at Indigo Books and Music, I’ve been recommending it to anyone looking for a business-themed book for themselves, or for a gift.)

In the book’s section about Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams (arguably one of the most successfully cartoonists in the English-speaking world), Adams offers this career advice:

If you want an average, successful life, it doesn’t take much planning. Just stay out of trouble, go to school, and apply for jobs you might like. But if you want something extraordinary, you have two paths: 1) Become the best at one specific thing. 2) Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.

The first strategy is difficult to the point of near impossibility…The second strategy is fairly easy. Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort. In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it.

How I adapted this advice
I was so inspired by this quote that I immediately started making a list on my iPhone, of all the activities I where I could reasonably be in the top 25%. They included things like writing, illustration, and making videos, but also included topics like breast cancer, eco-friendly cleaning, and nonprofit communications and marketing.

The list quickly became quite long. Which I didn’t see as a bad thing, but rather an exciting one. It gave me the idea for the exercise I describe below.

Try it yourself
I took a pack of blank index cards, and started writing down the activities and topics – one per card. I used Crayola markers because I like lots of colour. As I wrote, I put the finished cards on the table in front of me, spread out so that I could see them all. (This was also great fun for my cats. Just saying.)

Then when I was done writing all the words from my list, I sat back and looked the colourful cards. I didn’t try to force connections, but it was definitely connections I was looking for. Things like “writing / cooking / cleaning”, or “video / breast cancer / curly hair care”, or “illustration / crayon art / social justice”.

Or try this…
There are a few different ways you could use the cards. You could lay them all out at once the way I did, or you could separate them into random piles and start dealing yourself “hands” of two or three cards at a time. (I just did this with my cards, and came up with “drawing / strategy and planning / minimalism”, and “knitting / Gen X / aikido”.)

My mom came home, saw the cards all over our dining room table, and asked, “What game are you playing?” Exactly, I thought. It was a game!

Now I have a pack of cards that I can use over and over again to come up with new project ideas. The second part of the exercise (i.e. discernment, or choosing the best ideas to move forward with) looks something like this: Record the combinations that show up, and then when you have a number of combinations, compare them to each other. Ask yourself, Do I know someone who’s already doing this really well? (For example, I know plenty of people who are killing at “knitting / blogging / Millennials” or “sewing / DIY / videos”, so I wouldn’t personally prioritize those. But “video / breast cancer / curly hair care”? I haven’t seen anyone doing something like that yet, so I would prioritize that as a worthwhile project.

I’ve always loved brainstorming and mind mapping, and I can think of many ways to adapt this notecard brainstorming exercise. I remember I used to be so inspired reading Sue Grafton’s mystery novels, when Private Investigator Kinsey Millhone would jot case information on index cards and shuffle and re-shuffle them, trying to break a case. What you’re looking for are the unusual juxtapositions that you might not have otherwise thought of. I’ve suggested some variations on this exercise, below.

If you’re trying to figure out which career to follow
Write down as many jobs (e.g. doctor, teacher, accountant) or activities (e.g. horse riding, singing, photography) that you can think of, where you could conceivably be in the top 25%.

If you’re trying to come up with a new idea for a project
Write down as many topics as you can think of that interest you, that you’d be excited every morning to get up and work on.

If you’re trying to come up with some blog posts for your website, or a topic for a newsletter
Write down as many characteristics of your audience as you can think of… Then write down as many topics that might interest them that you can think of.

More about Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss
I love this book. It’s a (huge!) compilation of the best tips, tools and advice from some of the most successful entertainers, business people, scientists and athletes in the world today. Ferriss has taken the best content from his several hundred hours of podcast interviews and collected them in one tome. Podcast guests include comedian Margaret Cho, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Foxx, Tony Robbins, shame researcher and author Brene Brown, surfer Laird Hamilton, former pro volleyball player Gabrielle Reece, marketing and business guru Seth Godin, Brain Pickings founder and blogger Maria Popova, and CD Baby founder Derek Sivers, and the main topics are “healthy,” “wealthy,” and “wise.”

Ferriss is also the author of The 4-Hour Work Week (the first book about lifestyle design), The 4-Hour Body, and The 4-Hour Chef (which is ostensibly about cooking, but is really about understanding the learning process). I highly recommend his podcast, which you can find here.