An ardent reader for as long as she can remember, Jessica Stockton majored in English at New York University and assumed she would become a writer or literature professor. As an undergrad, she enjoyed working part-time in a bookstore, but it took a while to get comfortable with the idea of bookselling as a career.

"There was a time after college when I was embarrassed to run into classmates or friends and admit that I was working retail," says Stockton, who at 27 has more than five years of experience working for independent bookstores in New York City. "But after I realized that bookselling is a profession of continuously developing skill, great value to the community and vital importance in the world of books, well, I lost all shame. Bookselling is my great thing."

Stockton is starting a new job this month at McNally Robinson Booksellers in SoHo, the latest move in her strategy to learn everything about the business in hopes of one day opening her own store. Young, educated and committed to a career in bookselling, Stockton is the kind of person who is becoming all-too-scarce in an industry known for low pay, heavy competition and, often, limited opportunity for advancement. With fewer people attracted to the field, some are wondering whether there will be a new generation ready to take over for older booksellers.

That concern has led to the formation of Emerging Leaders, a new group designed "to develop the next generation of industry professionals," in the words of one of its founding members, Julia Cowlishaw, manager at Shaman Drum Bookshop in Ann Arbor, Mich. The group met for the first time at the American Booksellers Association Winter Institute in Long Beach, Calif.

The idea for the group was hatched last spring by Cowlishaw, Cindy Dach of Changing Hands Bookstore (Tempe, Ariz.), Allison Hill of Vroman's Bookstore (Pasadena, Calif.) and Neil Strandberg of Tattered Cover (Denver, Colo.). Its goal, according to Cowlishaw, is "to develop the next generation of industry professionals." That generation does not just include young people ("It's about attitude, not age," says Cowlishaw), but anyone who plans to continue a career in this industry for the next two decades.

While there are no firm numbers showing that the bookselling population is aging, "my impression is that sales floor staffs are, as a rule, getting older," says Rusty Drugan, executive director of the New England Booksellers Association. One relevant statistic he cites is that the median age (number of years in business) of NEBA stores is now 16, a figure that "seems high, reflecting the fact that many independent stores were started in the 1960s and 1970s." He adds that while this increase is a positive sign in terms of longevity, it may also signify that there are fewer new stores opening, which would bring the median age down.

Among the obstacles keeping young people out of the business, Cowlishaw says, "is lack of upward mobility in stores and the stagnant nature of many bookstores, stagnant in the sense of failing to anticipate change and/or adapt quickly to changes in the local community, the industry, technology."

Pay is another big—maybe the biggest—obstacle. In 2004, the average starting pay for full-time booksellers was $8 an hour, while managers got, on average, slightly more than $15 an hour, according to a survey of member stores conducted by the New England Booksellers Association.

Bookstores already struggling to make a profit can't afford to raise salaries significantly, meaning those who consider making bookselling their life's work have to accept their income will hover just a bit above poverty threshold. Stockton says she knew "a manager at Starbucks who was making more." She adds, "I've always sort of stoically accepted the fact that I'll never be rich."

That's one reason Emerging Leaders, of which Stockton is a member, plans to address issues such as how to help booksellers cope with low pay and how bookstore owners can increase profits to raise salaries.

But booksellers like Stockton will likely always find their biggest rewards outside their paychecks. She got her first taste of the business working a part-time job at Three Lives bookshop in Greenwich Village while she was in college. After graduation, she worked at Bedford—St. Martin's as an editorial assistant for 10 months. But she soon realized that bookselling was her true calling.

Her career so far has included a lengthy stint at Three Lives as well as a job as manager at Labyrinth Books in New York, which she is leaving to work at McNally Robinson Booksellers.

At Labyrinth Books, her responsibilities included training new employees, maintaining a staff picks section, providing customer recommendations, meeting weekly with the buyer, assisting the publicity director with events and creating store signage. "I've learned so much here about the different ways an independent store can work," she says.

"One of the characteristics of Jessica is that she is a bookseller after hours. It's what she does," says Chris Doeblin, co-owner of Labyrinth. "Jessica is a student of the management process and the publishing business and a lover of books."

In her new position at McNally Robinson, Jessica will have another opportunity to hone her skills because she will be working in a relatively new bookstore, where she will be able "to get involved in the developing process as the store adapts to its neighborhood and customers and finds out what works. I've learned a great deal about managing staff during my time at Labyrinth, but it will be nice to get back to the books a little and get back into hand-selling again."

She continues, "Handselling is one of my favorite parts of being a bookseller and everything I read affects what I present to customers, whether in display space or through conversation" She also shares her thoughts on books through her blog, the Written Nerd.

"I am so grateful to the mentors I've had in bookselling, but I'm also really excited about the ambitions and ideas of people my age," Stockton says. "Independent bookselling is a grand tradition, but I think it also has a lot of potential for progressive innovation. I hope my generation will be involved in uniting the two."