Finally, a game that captures the best part of my old book store job: making the perfect book rec

Tiny Bookshop
(Image credit: neoludic games)

I worked as a bookseller for about half a decade. My favorite part of the job was when people asked me for recommendations. I like to think I got pretty good at it; even now I can still tell you some of the New York Times top lists from 2013. Whether I was helping a grandma trying to figure out the AP level of a six-year-old or a shy teenager preordering a Cassandra Clare book, while doing that job I felt like my positive influence on the world around me was easy to see.

So perhaps it’s no surprise my favorite trailer from the Wholesome Games stream last week was for Tiny Bookshop, a bookstore management game where you choose books for customers at your seaside micro-shop. In the demo available on Steam, you’re new in town and meet a kindly retired bookseller who shows you the ropes of moving copies, along with a newspaper reporter and a few other citizens.

I played through a couple days of bookselling, which was enough to get the hang of stocking inventory and dealing with difficult customers. Ahhh, home sweet home.

Tiny Bookshop combines two of the most potent ingredients of simulation games from the past few years: Running a small business, and interior design. You can customize your small green book wagon with items you buy with your day’s profits, which are decorations like ships’ buoys, plants, and a Billy Bass-like talking fish, as well as tables and stands to prop up even more books.

The heart of the game is selling books, which follows the same structure every in-game day. First, you choose a location to set up for the day. Then you open up your cart with a few clicks. Customers stream in automatically, and they pick their selections from the genres you have in stock. Each genre has a percentage chance to have the book they’re looking for, depending on how many books of that type you have in the store. If you have mostly fantasy novels, for example, the travel enthusiast is going to walk away disappointed. Every night you tally your profit, buy your decorations and reset your stock for the next day.

Your mobile bookstore can move around from place to place. In the demo there are just two locations, a waterfront area and a town square, each with unique clientele. In the first one a runner jogged up my ramp and asked me for classics. In the second, browsers came over from the nearby cafe. Every so often a customer can ask you for a recommendation, either to jog their memory or to find something new. You then have to look at your collection and guess from plot summaries whether your customer would like a book. These books are real, and some of them actually taught me about books I’d never heard of (did you know Kiki’s Delivery Service was a kids’ book before it was a Ghibli film?).

The process also felt relatively true to life, though maybe a little more punishing than in the real world. Helping a customer find the perfect book always comes with a risk, after all, that you might recommend something they absolutely hate. These customers are always ready to tell you if they don’t like what you offer—and follow it up by walking out of your store.

The art in this game is gorgeous, with a watercolor style that depicts the starting pier and the winding roads of the town in a soft, calming light. I imagine when I collect a few more decorations my bookstore will really start to feel like home. No matter how many cosmetics I add, though, the wall of books remains the centerpiece, and adding and selling books from it makes those I hold onto feel like a genuine collection. I lingered in-game at closing time, waiting to shut the bookstore’s doors and windows just to admire how it looked in the sunset. Tiny Bookshop really succeeds in giving me enough control over my store that it feels like it’s really mine, a shop but also a sanctuary.

Organizing my wares into tidy shelves reminded me of a game from last year called Book of Hours, where you manage a palatial library made of different types of books. That game was more mysterious, while Tiny Bookshop seems so far like more of an open book. I couldn’t sense any hidden darkness lurking under the surface, though the website hints at some small town drama. The writing in the demo stays light, and it never reads as too pretentious or too plain, which is important for a game about selling the written word.

There’s an in-universe newspaper that tracks your progress and where you can buy books from estate sales and literary fans. And there are plenty of literary jokes that never strain towards being stuck-up or annoying, like one about Sappho’s poems of passion (for women) or a summary of All’s Well that Ends Well (sometimes a happy ending can be a woman getting the man she wanted, even if he’s generally quite unpleasant).

But the center of the whole thing is bookselling and taking care of your store. While the demo never got challenging, the process of choosing what books to stock is a modest puzzle. I don’t see it getting much more complex than this, though I wish there were ways to sell someone on a book they never thought they wanted (as I remember doing with people who came in for a cookbook and left with a Donna Tartt novel). But ultimately I think simple, in this case, is fine. As with the plot, the overall impression of the game is made up of relatively simple parts—sales, interior design, and progressing the story—and none of them overpowers the others.

Tiny Bookshop Demo Release Trailer - YouTube Tiny Bookshop Demo Release Trailer - YouTube
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My favorite thing about Tiny Bookshop is that it creates a town where bookstores can exist on every corner. With the one-two punch of Barnes and Noble and Amazon, the last 20 years have been rough on independent bookstores. This game elides that difficulty, at least in the demo, creating a world where everyone reads and has money to spend on it. Similarly, being a bookstore employee can be tough; you spend hours on your feet, customers can be as rude as they are at any service job, and that rough market isn’t easy for employees either. But amid the romanticization that Tiny Bookshop is admittedly taking part in, there’s a kernel of truth—it feels good to make someone’s day by finding a book just for them.

Tiny Bookshop won’t be out until 2025, but I recommend holding yourself over by taking a trip to your local bookstore.