Reflections of a Former Bookseller
I visited one of my absolute favorite places today, Barnes and Noble. I was looking for a blogging planner which they did not have, yet I still managed to leave with $50.00 worth of stuff I just couldn’t live without.
Each time I walk through those heavy wooden doors, the smell of paper and leather filling my nose, I am overwhelmed with happiness. See, two years ago I decided to check this place off my bucket list and get a Christmas-season job there. I had the time off from work, and I thought the extra money would be helpful for my holiday spending (be assured, there was no extra money). B&N was just one of those places I always thought would be an amazing place to work, and it was.
I learned volumes about all different kinds of people from a perspective that I didn’t possess when I was a college student working for pennies twenty years earlier. Starting off two decades ago to try to acquire an education in education and then working for a decade or more in a professional career took me out of the minimum wage trenches, thank goodness, but I’d forgotten a lot about that kind of existence. So to find myself back in the customer service industry in my forties, making a whopping $7.75 an hour, well…there was a bit of a re-learning curve for me. I tried not to be a snob about the strict 15-minute breaks we were allowed, but I was not used to letting someone dictate when I needed to go to the restroom. I had to keep my bossy attitude in check when a disgruntled customer popped off at me for no reason whatsoever, and I tried to be humble and obedient to my supervisor, who happened to be much younger, in an attempt to see this kind of work through grateful eyes, like the millions of people who do it every day see it. Here’s what I can tell you:
My lectures to my students about the printed word becoming extinct are completely invalid at this store. It’s always busy at Barnes & Noble, and as far as I can tell, the human love of paper books is not in any danger.
If you can’t provide an author, a title, or even a decent summary of the book you are looking for, there’s a good chance that the nice person trying to help you is not going to psychically know how to find your selection. Try to come prepared to be at least a little helpful and work together with them to find that perfect summer read. If you ask for suggestions, please take them.
Put your own stuff back where you got it!
The children’s department is not a free babysitting service, although let me assure you, many people think that it is. Imagine being in a Publix or a Wal-Mart and hearing a parent say, “Wait right here in the produce section, honey. Mommy will be back in a few minutes.” Somehow people think child kidnappers aren’t likely to go to bookstores, but I betcha they do.
Nevertheless, those kids receiving the “free babysitting services in the children’s department” think that it’s so fun to line up all 500 plush toys on the stage and then pull out dozens of books they can’t even read yet. Then, wouldn’t you know, their parents will suddenly decide it’s time to go home and will let those rugrats leave every single item exactly where it lay.
Alas! Children will be the biological undoing of our society. Our End of Days as the human race will not come from Ebola carried via the airlines from Africa. Oh, no. It will come from some vile bacterial beastie transmitted by children whose parents take them to my bookstore, leaving them to pee, vomit, snot, and spit on everything, including those upholstered chairs placed randomly throughout the store.
The homeless people I called “the regulars” are proof that everyone loves a nice, warm place to relax and have a cup of coffee. They are the most delightful people I’ve ever met except for the bathing thing.
Oh, yeah. People who do not bathe or receive dental care — ever in their lives — regularly spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars on Manga and Pokémon.
You won’t likely meet your future husband or wife there. It’s a far cry from a pick-up joint. Meeting the love of your life at the bookstore is an urban legend. I never even once saw a love connection happen in that cafe, to be honest. What I did see were a bunch of college kids trying to cram for exams while downing gallons of coffee, and I bet they were as surprised as I was to learn that B&N is not the quiet, studious environment that history has woven it to be. It’s a bustling hive of activity, and you’re far more likely to meet a friend there for gossiping and raucous laughter than you are to catch someone’s seductive gaze from across the silent aisle of the biography section.
Still, I love that little store. Even though my time spent there nowadays feels much different than it used to, back before I actually knew what the back rooms looked like, I still feel a connection to the place (a hint about those back rooms: hoarding for smart people). The people who work there are a refreshing change from the militant uniformity and propriety of my small, traditional hometown and the Wonder Bread-populated high school where I work. Tattoos and piercings are the norm, eccentricity is encouraged, and there is no judgment about anything except the unattended kids in the children’s section. The Harry Potter bookworms and cosplay nerds, as an example, are odd folks who apparently love working at bookstores, and I sure loved getting to know them! And these folks are humble. There’s not a spoiled one amongst them, not a single one whose parents gave them everything their whole lives. I know this because I heard their stories. For some, their job selling books was the third or fourth job they held down, just trying to make rent and afford health insurance by juggling numerous low-paying gigs, sometimes going to several separate jobs in a single day.
And that brings me to my point: There is one lesson that comes to mind without fail each time I go there, and it is these six words, a truth that I will proclaim as gospel:
You can’t live on minimum wage.
My last lesson of the bookselling trade is about the reason you might want to work in a bookstore. If there were one perfect place to work, albeit for less than $8.00 an hour, it would be this pleasant little library. But if you want to have a comfortable life, one in which you are able to afford $50.00 worth of books and still pay your electric bill, I would suggest getting an education or learning a trade. Minimum wage debates stir me personally, and I know firsthand the plight of the working class, having seen that tiny collection of B&N paychecks add up to much less than what I could ever hope to live on. Minimum wage is not supposed to be a living wage and the work of a bookseller will never make a mortgage. Each time I frequent that store, a little part of me does a cheer on the inside, one that goes like this: “Thank God I’ve got an education.” That doesn’t necessarily mean college for everyone, but it does mean learning how to do something marketable that people will pay you respectably for. Trust me on this…a lifetime of cobbling together an assortment of paychecks ranging from $60.00 to $200.00 a week is no way of life. I don’t say this to insult anyone earning $8.00 an hour. Thank God for you and your discipline; somebody’s got to do it. I say this so others will know what that life is like in the event that a young person right out of high school wants to take an easier path…easier in the long run, I mean. Learn how to do something of value, with your hands or with your mind or with your voice, and no one will ever be able to take that away from you. Ayn Rand said it best, “Wealth is the product of man’s capacity to think.” Don’t be a sheep, living as the labor to someone else’s dreams.
Make your own dreams come true. Own the bookstore, don’t work in the bookstore.