Meet the bookseller with Tom Hoskins
Tom Hoskins has worked at Readings for 15 years, and been manager of our shop at the State Library Victoria since 2010. Tom is also involved with making the Readings Podcast, and is the manager of the Melbourne Writers Festival Bookshop at Federation Square – please come visit him at this year’s festival!
Here, we chat with him about how bookshops serve communities, and the thrill he gets from seeing a customer pick up an unusual book he’s decided to stock.
Why did you decide to work in books?
To be honest, I just fell into it. I studied Creative Arts at uni and even though my focus was Theatre, I also majored in Creative Writing. At the time I was working part-time in a video store (VHS & DVD, I’m showing my age…) which lead me to working for Borders. Unfortunately, they were horrible. So, I crossed the road and begged the manager of our Carlton shop for a job – twice. The rest is (bookselling) history!
What is your favourite part of your job?
I love the curation aspect of my job. It’s not so much about ordering products I like (because I like everything we sell… even Pusheen!) but also about trying to anticipate what our customers will like. I’m quite often behind the counter and I still get a thrill when I see a title or section that feel I’ve taken a little bit of a risk in ordering being picked up, browsed or bought.
What is something new you’ve observed in bookselling over the years?
There’s been a lot of change in the industry throughout my fifteen years within it. We’ve had the invasion of the bookselling behemoth that was Borders, the rise of online shopping and the inexorability that is Amazon, and the emergence of eBooks, all emerging as threats to tangible booksellers with tangible books.
Funnily enough though, the one thing I feel allowed these booksellers to successfully navigate all these disruptions is not a new thing at all.
It’s been very trendy over the last few years to talk about the ‘third place’ – a space where people feel a sense of community and camaraderie outside of their home and their workplace. Bookshops have been serving this purpose well before it became a fetish or a commodity, and they continue to do so.
Readings does a wonderful job at being reciprocal with our community. We administer an amazing charity foundation with the Readings Foundation, convene an enormous and exciting events program, produce a free monthly newsletter, and foster talented and amazing staff. These are things we have always done – and similar things are done by so many other incredible independent bookshops around Australia and the world. The unique thing about a good bookshop is the anchor it provides for a community and the sense of importance and belonging that is gifted to it by the people it serves.
What I think is new is the belief that, oddly, this is enough. Us booksellers can’t – and shouldn’t – try to compete with multichannel web-supershops and their vapid algorithms. What our industry provides that online shopping can’t is an experience of fervour and sincerity that overrules the drabness of straight commerce and this is why booksellers continue to thrive despite everything.
What issues do you hope will be addressed in the near-future of bookselling?
Notwithstanding the fact that I think physical bookshops offer a far superior experience to online shops and Amazon, I do think we can learn from them.
I’d like to see booksellers embrace technology more to help remove friction in the customer service experience. Amazon has recently opened a number of stores where there is no cash register, customers simply pick up what they want and walk out the door and their purchases are automatically charged to them. Sensors at the door can detect exactly what customers have picked up and bill them accordingly.
I wouldn’t want in any way to remove the humans from our stores – as I mentioned earlier, our staff are our greatest asset. However, it’d be great to use the same tracking technology to hunt down all those lost and incorrectly shelved books!
What kind of trends do you see in books right now? Do you have any predictions for the future?
Australian country towns are very dangerous right now. Rural romance novels have been around for a while, but Jane Harper, Sarah Bailey and Mark Brandi et al have taken us from ‘The Farmer Wants a Wife’ to ‘The Farmer Has a Knife’. Makes me feel a lot better about living in the city…
Perhaps this terrifying regional crime wave will give way to rural personal development and self-help books: ‘How to Make Hay and Influence People’, ‘Think and Grow Things’, ‘Shearing Greatly’, ‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Cluck’. I should stop…
What is the hardest question a customer has asked you in the bookshop?
‘So, I need something for my 7 year old niece…’
And finally, what are you reading right now?
I’m reading an early copy of Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, which is due to be released in September.