Confessions of a Former Bookschlepper

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When Julie Valerie announced this month’s Fiction Writers Blog Hop theme was “bookstores,” I was so excited. The mere thought of those hallowed retail establishments inspires all the feels in me, because they’re my second home—and not just for shopping. My undergraduate degree was a BA in creative writing, which meant that it was highly likely my first job was going to be at a bookstore, and…yep, it was.

I started out at the Village Green Bookstore in Rochester, NY, for the incredible minimum wage of $3.35 an hour! When I got a whopping 25 cent raise, I thought I’d hit the big time! (Yes, I had to live with my parents, but I loved that job, so it was worth it.) My second bookstore was the Brookline Booksmith, where I worked part time while I was attending Boston College for grad school. And when I became disenchanted with teaching high school, I sought refuge at Borders, once again in Rochester. So after two indie places and a chain store, I kind of know a little bit about bookstores. Here’s the inside scoop:

  1. If you come to us with some vague description of a book you heard of—our favorite is along the lines of “it’s got a blue cover and is about [gesturing with fingers] this thick”—we consider it the ultimate challenge. And more often than not, we will find what you’re looking for!
  1. The cliché is true: If left to our own devices, we bookstore employees will bankrupt ourselves spending our paychecks on more books.
  1. You probably won’t find any juicy first editions on our remainders (discontinued or overstock books) table because we bookstore workers are collectors, and we paw through all the boxes before the books ever make it out to the floor.
  1. Don’t bother approaching the customer service desk with the pronouncement “I’m looking for a book.” Of course you are. If you were in a bookstore looking for a plumbing part, we’d call the men in the white coats.
  1. Surviving the Christmas season is like surviving a war. We consider it a badge of honor. Where are our medals? (Or perhaps raises? …Okay, okay. Too much to ask.)
  1. Speaking of Christmas, there’s nothing we like better than locking the door at closing time on Christmas Eve and watching late shoppers pound on the door, begging to be let in. It may seem cruel, but we’ve earned it. No, we won’t let you in once the doors are locked. But we will toast you from the other side of the glass—and yes, that’s real champagne in our glasses—at least it was when I worked there.
  1. We love holding events like storytime for your kids…as long as you don’t use it as a babysitting service. The children’s corner is not a dump-and-run free-for-all.
  1. We do not know why customers insist on renovating the public bathrooms to resemble something found in a crack den. Damn, people! If you won’t do it in your own house, don’t do it in a retail establishment where unsuspecting, underpaid workers have to (literally) clean up your…you know.
  1. Yes, it’s sexist stereotyping, but for the most part, female employees are better at gift wrapping.
  1. We get judgy when customers only show their faces in a bookstore when they’ve seen a book endorsed by a major television personality, like Oprah. Come in, browse, discover something on your own. It’s far more rewarding.
  1. It’s true that full moons bring out the crazy people. It’s as if the bus from the loony bin empties out at the front door of the bookstore once a month.
  1. Bonus crazy-person tip: People in odd hats are a red flag to customer service workers. If a person is wearing an odd hat, it’s highly likely they’re going to be a time suck. We’ll still help the crazy person; it’s just that we can spot them from a mile away and adapt accordingly.
  1. This one’s for the teenagers: When we try to dissuade you from choosing the shortest books on your summer reading list, it’s not because we want you to suffer reading the giant tomes; it’s because we’ve read all the books on your list, and we know which ones are really more entertaining and will keep a non-reader engaged. Trust us.
  1. The juiciest stories won’t be found in the romance section; they’re happening among the bookstore employees. Also among the customers.
  1. Those giant, expensive, glossy coffee-table books you buy your relatives at Christmas? They get opened once—in front of you, on Christmas Day. Then they sit around collecting dust.
  1. You won’t find a more educated retail workforce than the folks working in bookstores. No, really—bookstore workers, by and large, have more college degrees, including graduate degrees, than any other service staff. And we love to share our knowledge with our customers.
  1. That means we really do want to help match readers with the perfect volume. Although there may be a few disgruntled workers in bookstores, the majority of us are happy to persist in our search until you’re happy with what we’ve found for you. Ask us for our recommendations; we have a lot of opinions.

Thanks for stopping by! If you’d like to read more great blog posts about bookstores and other cool topics, head over to Julie Valerie’s Fiction Writers Blog Hop!

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20 responses »

  1. What a great list! Especially the one about red hats. And I’m not sure I’ve ever thought of bookstore staff as retail workers. You seem to have way more panache and a touch of alchemy about you. After all, you probably have/had the dream job of every other person who walks through the door. The ones not looking for plumbing parts, at any rate…

    • So many people used to come in and say “I would kill to work here!” Er…it wasn’t always fun and games, not by a long shot, but it was better than digging ditches for sure. 🙂

  2. This: “We do not know why customers insist on renovating the public bathrooms to resemble something found in a crack den. Damn, people! If you won’t do it in your own house, don’t do it in a retail establishment where unsuspecting, underpaid workers have to (literally) clean up your…you know.” I haven’t worked in a bookstore, but I worked in a small local grocery years ago and it was exactly the same thing. Why?

    Great post! I now want to wander through a bookstore today!

  3. Three bookstores? You lucky girl! Ugh. So jealous. When I shop in a bookstore, I follow the employees around and I’m like: “WOW. You work in a BOOKSTORE!” No lie. I’m a total fangirl when it comes to people who work in bookstores. I think it’s the perfect job. Although, if I worked in a Big Box store (you know the one) I’d get frustrated having to work all that space that’s NOT devoted to books!

  4. I’d love to work in a bookshop if I could move at my own pace, spend hours talking to customers about what they liked to read, and sit in a chair drinking coffee flipping through my treasure trove. For sure I would be fired on the first day. Instead I do that as a customer and probably drive everyone crazy. Love this post, Jayne.

    • LOL you could get away with that to a certain extent—no bookstore manager would ever hustle you away from talking with a customer, for instance, and the amount of coffee bookstore workers drink is the stuff of legend—but you could do whatever you want if you own the place! 🙂

  5. Wonderful hearing about your time working in bookstores! Some of these overlap with my years as a university librarian. (We had a saying that the crazy people always came in on Fridays at 4pm — we closed at 5pm.)

    Some very funny stuff here. 🙂

  6. What a great post. Some of your points were so funny and I can imagine that you must have come across quite a few hilarious characters during your time working there – like the ones in Notting Hill 🙂 I can understand that there would be both the good and bad points of working in a bookshop but I must say that I’ve always wanted to work in one… specially a cafe/bookshop. Thanks for your great post.

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