How to keep staff productive and happy

“Wendy is a wonderful person to work for and her staff all love her,” says Time Out Mt Eden assistant manager Sarah Webster (pictured with Wendy below) when The Read’s reporter rings to leave a message about why we are calling store owner Wendy Tighe-Umbers (pictured with Sarah below).

The brief was to find out what store owners do to keep staff motivated, happy and productive.

Time Out book-buyer Nevena Nikolic is eager to give The Read her input: “Personally Wendy is very generous, sometimes buying us coffee and lunches. But Time Out is a very egalitarian business, with Wendy happy to have our ideas and then act on them.”

Examples of this are changing the sign outside the store to a blackboard, which is updated daily with news of latest book releases and author visits; taking out the table in the children’s area and using the space for extra shelving (with consequent increase in children’s book sales); moving a small card rack adjacent to the front counter and keeping it stocked with seasonal cards (again, increasing sales), a mural at the doorway into the children’s area and a new neon sign for the store’s verandah.

Tighe-Umbers herself then explains with a laugh that she only “employs staff who are brighter than me.” She’s given them carte blanche to write and send out the store’s newsletter. “It is a polished newsletter and they do it all themselves.”

There’s a staff of 17 overall – only three of whom are full time, a further three who come in for Christmas duties, stock take and fill-ins; Sarah Webster does the roster, and Tighe Umbers is happy for her well trained staff to juggle their own shifts to suit commitments.

“I’m going away for a month to London Book Fair and for other travel,” says Tighe Umbers. “I have absolutely no worries about leaving my team in charge.” She’s equally flexible in allowing her staff time off for travel, and Webster will take advantage of this by spending two months in France to learn the language later this year.

It is a policy that sees staff stay with the store for long periods – former manager Jane Arthur (now with Gecko Press) worked while completing her masters and doing a Whitireia Publishing course, staying with Time Out for six years. Other staff have worked for even longer years, including now-retired Sue Scott. Other rewards apart from the customary staff discount and the likelihood there will be bread and cheese in the fridge for a snack if necessary: five or six staff are hosted by the boss for the Montana New Zealand Book Awards and Industry evenings when they are held in Auckland, plus they’ll be given tickets for Auckland Writers & Readers Festival sessions of interest.

Page and Blackmore Booksellers

Page and Blackmore Booksellers (team and store pictured above) currently have two long serving staff members (apart that is from the even longer serving owners Peter and Ann Rigg and Susi and Tim Blackmore.) The Page and Blackmore approach to staff management reflects the laid back lifestyle of Nelson: uniforms: no – because the owners didn’t want to wear them. Celebrations: yes. They’ve just finished stocktake and everyone went off to the nearby Indian restaurant for curry and beers. “If anyone has a grizzle, we hear it then,” says Tim Blackmore. “But usually they want to tell me jokes.” Christmas is the same, with a big staff do and gifts of wine on Christmas Eve. The store owners believe in training, with five attending a Lucie Pepeyan course last year.

Blackmore says the other key is fitting the job to the person. “It is not good to have an introverted accounts clerk managing events, or the reverse.” Beverly Heeman has been with the company for 15 years; her expertise is in magazine management.

Manager Stella Chrysostomou has always worked in books, and has been with Page and Blackmore Booksellers for two stints, most recently for three years. There are also three part-time staff and two others who work during uni holidays or less frequently.

It is indicative of the smooth management/staff relations that for the coming public holiday on Easter Monday, no staff member will be required to work – the owners will be opening the store. “Everyone wants to take the holiday, so that leaves us” says Blackmore.

The Children's Bookshop (Kilbirnie)


John McIntyre (pictured above left) at The Children’s Bookshop in Kilbirnie is a great believer in rewarding staff for effort above and beyond expected levels. Current staff member Kim Gruschow (pictured above centre) who has been with the store for five years, is completing a Whitireia publishing course on line over two years, with fees met by the bookstore. It is appropriate for Grushow, who has a university degree but no specialist post graduate qualifications, says McIntyre.

He believes in fitting the reward to the person. When Holly Robinson (later Booksellers Association and now with HarperCollins) worked at the store, she and a colleague were given a week long trip to Sydney with airfares and accommodation paid as a ‘thank you and well done’ reward.

Other rewards suit circumstances – part time staff may get leave for study at exam time, some are rewarded with extra holidays.

Currently, the Children’s Bookshop doesn’t have any particularly long serving staff members. McIntyre says that’s because he seldom takes on staff with previous booktrade experience, preferring younger staff so they can be trained for the store’s particular needs. “None of our customers are buying for themselves,” he says, “Every customer needs help matching books for the particular children they are buying for.” Helping staff upskill with added training is an appropriate step, he believes – even if they later take their talent and skills to other areas of the book industry.

Unity Books (Wellington)

Asked about staff relations at Unity Books (Wellington), manager Marion Castree (pictured above, centre) said, “Flexibility' is the first word that comes to mind to keep all people working together and happy.” Unity currently has 10 full timers and five part timers, with Castree herself doing the longest stint, about 20 years.

“I asked the staff who are on today to contribute to this question as we don't have any formal motivational practices in place. These were the things they promptly decided were what motivates them and keeps them happy working at Unity:”

  • Store culture and pride
  • Extended trade and shop network
  • Colleagues
  • Sharing ideas and information
  • Everyone pulling their weight
  • Tactful management
  • And a good lunchroom

“I suppose books, music, and parties goes without saying, and the huge fondness we all have for each other,” concludes Castree.

University Book Shop (Otago)

University Book Shop (Otago) has a large staff – 21 full timers and a pool of four to five part timers. They also have the longest serving staff member we’ve found so far – Anne Clark (pictured above left) who has been running the stationery side of the store for 33 years. Bill Noble has also been there 30 plus years. Five other staff have 20 or more years working at UBS and seven have 10 years or more.

UBS book buyer Bronwyn Wylie-Gibb (pictured above right) says the business doesn’t work on MBA or corporate management techniques. “One of the best things is people are left to get on with their jobs. We are all adults and we know what to do. And we all like working with books.

“As staff here we do have flexibility; not everyone has to work 40 hours a week which can be a big advantage. Plus the staff discount on book buying I guess is a reward.”

The store has three peak selling times – the start of Semester 1 and of Semester 2 and unusually for a uni bookshop, a Christmas rush. At these times staff all pitch in where help is needed.

On the social side there’s a big staff dinner at Christmas, and usually another one during the year. A birthday ritual is that the staff member having the birthday has to bring in a shout for morning tea, and the store gives them a present. Oh, and the staffroom has ‘really good coffee’ according to Wylie-Gibb.

Lucie Pepeyan, Australian Booksellers Association training manager, says a productive team doesn’t happen in a vacuum. “People need to know what’s expected, and their positive behaviours need to be recognised and encouraged. If a staff member does something well, thank them; if they do something exceptional, reward them.”

  • Let them know how their performance and behaviours contribute to the business: we all like to feel our contribution is important;
  • Give them opportunities to learn and grow: there are very few people who don’t want to develop and improve;
  • Encourage feedback and ideas and listen to what they have to say.

Build a strong communication culture in your business.

  • Stress levels will decrease, and so will staff turnover.
  • You’ll see your sales increase.
  • Staff who feel appreciated and valued, who know what’s expected of them and how they fit into the business, are more productive.

The do’s of staff management according to Pepeyan and our panel

  • Let staff know what’s expected of them: if they don’t have a position description, it makes it their job harder to do
  • Give feedback: good or bad, people need to know how they’re performing
  • Be constructive and consistent
  • Allow staff unpaid leave for study/travel if possible
  • Involve staff in industry/author events
  • Make rewards meaningful
  • Be flexible
  • Be proactive in staff development
  • Listen to staff contributions
  • Have fun sometimes

Note: Who is the longest serving bookstore staff member in this country? (Owners excluded.)

The Read knows of Mary Sangster with 25 years at The Children’s Bookshop in Christchurch and Tammy Webb who has been with Muirs in Gisborne for 22 years, and in the story above we found that Anne Clark has been with UBS Otago for 30 years.

Let us know other bookstore people who have notched up impressive years in the trade.