Why I am a bookseller

In all the hubbub of the last week (including: having Bill Clinton in the hotel across the street, having Senator Arlen Specter in the store for a signing, and getting ready for a HS book fair this week), I completely forgot to submit to the first Carnival of Independent Bookselling on time. Which is very silly on my part, as I wrote this entry about 2 weeks ago. So, although it is very probably too late for me to be in the carnival, I won’t let the entry go to waste. The prompt was:

“So what turned you into a bookseller? Was it the high wages? All that free time between Thanksgiving and Christmas? A total inability to resist alphabetizing?

For the inaugural edition of the Carnival of Independent Bookselling, ABA invites all interested bookseller-bloggers to share the stories of how they became booksellers.”

I have always been a bookseller. I just didn’t figure it out until a few months ago.

No, really. I have always had too many books (my parents’ words, not mine); always wantonly lent them out to anybody remotely trustworthy; always sent people home with at least one book. As soon as I was old enough to work, I started working at the Waldenbooks in the nearest mall, a place where my mom had worked before me.

I loved it immediately–it was definitely better than most of the food service and retail jobs my friends had. And even though I am now a fierce advocate for independent bookstores, I do not have any ill will towards people who work in chain stores, because my time at Waldens taught me that many of those people love books and bookselling just as much as I do. In fact, my time at Waldens also taught me the bulk of what I know about bookselling. My managers were strict about impeccable customer service, including the invaluable lesson “walk the customer OVER to the shelf, and take the book off the shelf for them, and put it directly in their hand.” I learned how to best upsell, handsell, and sell discount cards. I learned that one of the primary functions of a bookstore is as a third place for book lovers, that a genuine smile is infectious, and that if you have a stalker, it’s better to tell them off right away, rather than hide in the back room every time they come in.

At this point, though, I didn’t think of myself as a bookseller. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but it certainly wasn’t <insert snobby voice here> RETAIL. But when I went to college, I found that I suddenly lived within walking distance of an independent bookstore, which paid better than work-study. So I started working there over the Christmas season, and was lucky enough to be kept on after that. I worked there part-time the whole time I was at school, and as graduation stared me in the face and I still had no idea what to do with my life (only sure that I didn’t want to go right to graduate school), I figured I’d keep working part-time at the store while I figured it out.

Until just before graduation, when the assistant book buyer gave her two weeks’ notice. I could scarcely believe it. A job I would actually like? For which I was actually qualified, despite the fact that it in no way related to my degree? A full-time grown-up job, with benefits? Impossible.

As it was too good to be true, I promptly tried to figure out a dozen or so other things I could do instead, and told everybody I wasn’t sure if I was interested in the job. I had any number of awful reasons not to go for it. But what if I changed my mind about grad school? But what if I wanted to move? But what if ALIENS ABDUCTED ME AND I SUDDENLY BEGAN TO HATE BOOKS? Luckily, my inner neurotic prohibited me from not applying for the job, and did so by reminding me every hour that there was always the chance I’d be hit by a bus, and if I was, it would definitely be nice to have health insurance.

I think the first sign that I was making a good decision was that, when I told the head buyer that I was going to apply, she got down on her knees and then hugged me around the legs. I felt much more confident after that. I interviewed in a business suit that had been hand-tailored for my Nana, for good luck, and waited three endless days to hear if I would be granted the job. I tried to play it cool and wait for them to approach me, but by the end of the week—and, coincidentally, on the assistant buyer’s last day—I couldn’t take it any longer, and popped my head into the store manager’s office.

“So…do I have the job, or what?” I asked, very professionally.

“Oh, yes, of course you do,” she said. I tried to keep from dancing until I made it to the book department, but I’m pretty sure I could not. At this point, I began to realize just how much I had wanted the job, and how much I loved bookselling.

This realization was promptly lost the next week, when I began my new job. Suddenly, any number of things that I didn’t know the first thing about were my responsibility. Every time I thought I had a handle on one thing, another thing needed attention, such as my realization about a month into the job that the growing pile of damaged books with matching invoices next to my desk was in fact MY responsibility, and that I was going to have to call somebody about them. And a month later, the same thing happened when I thought: huh, these piles of books to be returned to the publisher are getting really, really big!

By October, the bloom was definitely off the full-time super awesome grown-up rose. Luckily, that was the same time my head buyer and I went down to Baltimore for the NAIBA Fall Conference. Suddenly, I was surrounded by the power and energy of the independent bookselling community, and could not help feeling uplifted. On the second day, thoughts like “hey, I could do this for a really long time” and “wow, I haven’t been this happy in quite some time” began to pop up, unbidden.

As had become my habit at this point, I began to bat them away a few days after the conference and kept thinking that maybe I would go get my post-baccalaureate teaching certification or apply for a Fulbright scholarship to Hong Kong. Bookselling just didn’t seem like a grand enough career, somehow, especially as most of my friends were off getting graduate degrees, or working in super-grown-up jobs for big companies in tall buildings. Whereas I was working in a smaller store at a desk that barely had room for my lunch. And let’s not forget, it was still <insert snobby voice> RETAIL. For a girl who had grown up encouraged to go to college, grad school, join this, and apply for that, a job in the dreaded retail seemed like a disappointment. Bookselling was the sort of job that one did to make ends meet while IN graduate school, not what one did instead. Basically, I had convinced myself that no matter how fun it was, no matter how many free books I got, it simply wasn’t prestigious or meaningful enough, and so I should treat it as a stepping stone to something nebulously greater, not the first part of a longer career. During the long Christmas slog, it became easier and easier to believe this.

And then I went to Winter Institute, just a few weeks after my personal life was thrown into complete upheaval. This time, just like NAIBA, I instantly felt perked up by the incredible energy of the community, met more great people (especially at the Emerging Leaders reception, which was sort of the turning point for me). But this time, it stuck. I realized how lucky I was to be a part of what is easily the most supportive, interesting, driven professional community in the country. Not to mention, I was lucky enough to have a job that reflected my personal value system and morals. And all that time wasted worrying that I’d have a boring RETAIL job that wouldn’t be important or help anybody was washed away as I came to realize that independent bookstores are leading the movement for independent businesses all over the country, as well as becoming involved in the green and sustainable movements. O yeah, and they’ve always been a part of spreading new ideas, giving great new authors the exposure they deserve, and combating censorship. Duh.

Well, it’s only been a month or two since then, but I haven’t looked back. Yes, this is an important job, a community-affirming job, a job on the front lines of all sorts of technological and ideological changes. But more importantly, it’s a great one. I can count on one hand the number of days I’ve gone home in a bad mood, and even on those days, I laughed at least a dozen times, read at least a few chapters of a good book, and met at least one interesting person. No one ever got rich as a bookseller, but I’ll never run out of things to read, which is a better way to measure wealth anyway.

And when I look back on it, I know this is always where I was headed—and I’ve heard many booksellers say the same thing. I didn’t turn into a bookseller, or become one. Bookselling was always there, like a patient childhood sweetheart, just waiting for me to notice it.


4 comments so far

  1. Sarah Rettger on

    I can sympathize with the whole RETAIL thing – but I work at a store that has an unusually high years-of-education-per-capita ratio, so I had to get over it. It’s hard to feel subjugated when you’re standing between a JD and a PhD at the counter 🙂

  2. bookavore on

    Hehehe, I can imagine! We’re actually all pretty over-educated as well.

    In fact, I wrote in an email to a friend earlier today: “It is impossible to be too smart for bookselling. It is basically the ultimate job for smart people, really, because you can learn new stuff constantly, and it is all-day multitasking. It’s many things, but never boring, that is fer shure.”

  3. Jessica on

    This is so fantastic! I was pointed to your blog today by another Emerging Leaders type, and I’m so delighted to find another overeducated, reluctant, totally passionate, young book nerd who has found her calling as a bookseller, that I actually giggled. In between all the crazy things I’m doing today (ordering books for events from tiny publishers, juggling returns and signage and publicists and reading guiltily, obsessively all the while), this made my day. Thanks so much for writing this — hope to see you at Emerging Leaders at BEA, and feel free to drop a line anytime!

  4. Angela on

    I saw a link to your site on the Written Nerd and I promptly hopped over. When I graduated from college I started working in a bookstore, thinking it would only be temporary. I’ve only been here a year but I moved up fast and now I can’t fathom the thought of leaving. Your blog is the perfect antidote to the ‘I don’t make much and my friends have grown-up jobs ‘blues. This is exactly what I needed today – thanks!

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