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    Adventures of a rare book dealer (and former small bookshop owner).

GTD-ing A Used Bookstore

Written on August 31, 2007

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For some time I’ve been utilizing (or trying to, anyway) Dave Allen’s noted Getting Things Done system of personal organization and time management. (For those not familiar with “GTD”, this provides a decent overview). I’ve been using the system to manage my paper-flow and email, to-do lists and the like.

One problem with the system though is that for bookselling, it doesn’t work all that well. GTD tries to get you to focus on “next actions” and “projects” which are largely extraneous concepts when a book dealer’s actions basically fall into a few categories (catalog books, price books, shelve books, etc.), conditions which are always present and always ongoing. There are exceptions, but one doesn’t need projects or lists to manage much of not most of what happens day-to-day in the shop.

Despite this, I was struck my how organized my files, email, and inbox were, yet everywhere else (at least in my office and behind the counter) were scattered piles and piles of books with no formal organization and little rhyme or reason. In short, it was a mess. Like many booksellers, I was drowning in books, and quickly running out of space to work efficiently – if at all. I had – in the words of David Allen – too much “stuff”:

Here’s how I define “stuff:” anything you have allowed into your psychological or physical world that doesn’t belong where it is, but for which you haven’t yet determined the desired outcome and the next action step. [pg. 17]

In short, I realized that (and it seems so obvious now) I needed to apply much the same work-flow to the books that entering my shop as I did to the emails and papers that crossed my desk (duh). I needed to treat my entire bookshop as a GTD system writ large, consider my front counter as the inbox and the rest of the shop as a giant combination next action list/archive.

Now, let me stop here and admit that in many ways what I am about to describe to you goes against some things that David Allen suggests. Primarily, Allen is against using items in your physical landscape as a reminder of things to do. But as I couldn’t keep a “next action” list of books to catalog or price, and I was being overrun with tomes, something needed to change. I also should admit that in order to get the ball rolling, I had to create what Merlin Mann calls in a slightly different context a “DMZ.” MANY of those book that were piling up were simply boxed, marked and put in storage. I’ll have to deal with them some day soon. But in the meantime, at least things aren’t getting worse.

In it’s place, what I devised was a workflow not unlike the GTD one featured here. So now when books come in the first thing I do is code and date them (arrival date, price paid, and other obscure information I might need). Then I have boxes or shelves (marked accordingly) for each of the following situations:

1. Books that need to be priced
2. Books that are priced and need to be cataloged for the internet
3. Books that need Brodarts
4. Books to photo/scan

(1-4 equivalent of GTD “Next Actions” – all books need to go through one or more of these steps)

5. Books that are priced and need to be shelved
6. Cataloged books that are not for shop sale and will be taken to storage (5-6 equivalent of GTD “Archive”)

7. Books to donate (GTD equivalent of “trash/delete”)

8. Books to save for print catalog(s)
9. Books to quote / hold for customers or other dealers
10. Books that need further research

(No perfect GTD equivalent for 8-10, but sort of a combo of “As Soon As I Have Time,” “Projects,” and “Someday Maybe”)

This allows me to do is see exactly what needs to be done by simply looking around. A book’s location tells me what it’s “next action” should be. And perhaps more importantly, a book’s location tells me what has already been done. In short what I did was organize and use my entire work area in much the same way I do my inboxes: books get processed and either acted on immediately or “filed” so to speak. Or to put it yet another way, I began treating books just like any other piece of paper that crosses my desk, since after all that’s basically what they are. Or to put it still another way, what I set up is a system that encourages me to evaluate and act on the books that enter the shop. In this regard, it is less about the system itself, and more about my attitude and approach, more about seeing clearly.

And so if I find books piling up anyplace they don’t belong it means either a) I need to just decide what I need to do with the book (I had too many books piling up about which my attitude could best described as “I don’t want to think about those now” – books, in other words, I simply neglected to make decisions about or process) or b) I’ve run out of room in one or more of the above sections and need to catch up to make room.

This is perhaps more detailed than many need, but with so many books coming through an open shop it’s easy to get overwhelmed VERY quickly. Likewise this may seem patently obvious to the more neat-oriented among you. But so far, working pretty well for me.

Happy GTD-ing!

Comments closed


  1. Comment by Jeanne Jarzombek:

    An absolutely excellent post! I’ve also tried to implement GTD with mail, email, etc., but I have found that I’m not utilizing it as much as I’d like (a combination of family members who do not practice GTD, and my own fault for letting it slip). However, it is a brilliant concept to apply to bookselling. So obvious–why didn’t I think of that (slaps forehead). Thank you for putting GTD and the book process back into perspective, especially with the steps you’ve outlined. FYI for those of you who’d like to dive into GTD and don’t have the book (yet), there are many on-line resources. Many people have taken the concept and tweaked it a bit for their own approach.
    Now off to organize piles,
    The Book Prowler

    September 17, 2007 @ 8:21 pm
  2. Comment by nigel:

    Thanks for turning me on to GTD- this Allen guy looks very reasonable. however when it comes to sorting books out ,what you are doing (10 places) is what I have been doing all along, occasionally haphazardly. It’s a question of space and in my case the ‘to do’ piles expands into a warehouse. And then theres the 550 boxes of books that I’m saving for later, there’s even a small pile of books I might read. When it comes to dealing with paperwork I do it in 25 minute bursts at my office desk. I find that 25 minutes is a bearable time to spend on something I find excruciating and sometimes I have so much fun it expand to 50 mins. But never more than once a day and sometimes just once a week. Off to AMZ to get a real cheap GTD! A 2 minute task. Thanks — Nigel

    November 5, 2007 @ 9:51 am