In some ways, my life–the life I live now as a teacher and writer–began in a bookstore. When I turned thirty and my last babe was potty trained, I started working part time in an independent bookstore. It was the late eighties and I’d been a stay-at-home momma for several years. It was time to inch my way back into the real world. Claim at least a portion of my life again. Call something my own.
And while there were certainly challenges (pay, for one; retail hours for another), the memories I have of that time are bathed in a warm, lamp-lit glow. Here (in no particular order) are some of my favorite take-aways from those bookstore days.
- Working on Christmas Eve. I took a kind of sadistic glee in selling husbands (because, yes, the last minute shoppers were men) the heaviest, glossiest–and priciest!–book or tchotcke I could locate for his beloved. Because if she loved the British Isles, she was getting that $75 hardcover photo book of England. And if she loved to cook, the latest Martha Stewart was the thing for her. No paperbacks, no sale books. Nope. Buddy, if you waited until Christmas Eve to get her present, I’ll make sure she gets a good one.
- Sidewalk sale. Every summer the owners put on a book sale to end all book sales. Tables upon tables were set up in the mall, and pallets upon pallets of remaindered books were hi-lowed in, then stacked-cookbooks, children’s books, art books, history books, fiction. Set up made for a late night, but opening the cartons of books was like the best kind of Christmas morning.
- Shelving. I love physical books–their smell, the covers, blurbs on the back. There was no better way to get to know stock, authors, and titles that wouldn’t be my first pick than to take that cart out and shelve new stock. (Unpacking cartons and organizing the cart was pretty darn fun, too.) Our staff had total freedom to arrange shelves and face-out books we wanted to feature. So those three lonely copies of Barbara Pym’s Jane and Prudence? On my watch, I’d face them out.
- Hand selling books. Our staff was small–eight to ten–and our customers were loyal and depended on our recommendations. One of the perks was being able to read ARCs (Advance Reader’s Copies) that publishing reps left with the managers. The new Clyde Edgerton would get passed from one staffer to the next, and when it was published go straight to the We Recommend shelves. Many were the customers who came in for one book and left with three–all because staff raved about the story or author and the customer couldn’t refuse.
- Janie’s coffee and strawberry shortcake cookies. The cookie shop down the mall baked seasonal favorites and their strawberry shortcake cookies couldn’t be duplicated. Think Walkers shortbread with a dollop of ooey gooey strawberry preserves in the middle. And the coffee was robust coffee house coffee before Starbuck’s even moved east of the Mississippi. And, yes, we were allowed to discretely snack during work hours.
- Putting together mass market dumps. Those cardboard displays of new paperbacks that are sectioned off in neat little compartments are called dumps. They often have an add-on feature of some sort: a cut-out character or scene or blurb to make the display pop. For some reason the ‘insert slot A into segment C’ was incredibly gratifying. If you put them together correctly, they were sturdy and strong. If not, they swayed on the base or tilted off-kilter like a drunken sailor.
- Customers. Book people are, well, different. And I met a lot of characters. Like the Vietnam vet who was a voracious reader of poetry. Or the older gentleman who was as demanding and grumpy a man as I’ve ever met–who also founded a local accordion ensemble. The wealthy businessman who collected first edition hardcover mysteries. Or the woman who took out a purse flashlight and continued reading after the manager started flipping off banks of lights, our signal that we were closing soon.
- Staff. Book sellers are, well, interesting, to say the least. So conversations were satisfying. We talked about religion, relationships, recipes, authors, gardening, and the new Anne Tyler or Ken Follett. Readers and book sellers, I think, are people of infinite curiosity. There’s no better conversation to be had than with another person who is eager to know about something outside of themselves. I’ve run into a few of the staff (long since dispersed when the store closed) over the past twenty years and it’s easy to pick back up where we left off. One of my former co-workers is still my #1 Book Buddy (she’s also a blogger) and she, like the book sellers I’ve known and loved, is an incredibly interesting woman. And friend.
- Husband. I met my now-husband at the bookstore. See also #2, 4, 5, and 8.
- To Be Purchased Stacks. They were hidden under the counter, behind purses and bags, rubber banded together with our names written on a slip of paper. If our favorite author just published her latest, onto the pile it would go until we had the money. Let’s face it, a reader working in a bookstore is like the proverbial kid in the candy store. We needed to exercise some sort of self discipline or we’d never take home a cent of our paychecks. We’d add books, compare our stacks with other staff, change our minds, re-shelve them in some crazy book buying ritual we repeated again and again.
I mourn the fact that in my Midwest city of 200,000 there is one independent bookstore. Yep–one. Now granted, we have a couple used bookstores, a New Age bookstore, and (this being the Midwest and all) a few religious bookstores. But if you want to pick up a travel book, a copy of the Box Car Children, an Agatha Christie mystery and the new Rachel Ray cookbook? One. The other choice is what I call a Big Box Bookstore and the character and ambiance is just not the same. And I understand. With the blessing (or curse) that is Amazon, that special order won’t take five days–you’ll get it in two. Bookstore margin is slim (40%) and so is profit.
I eventually left to teach high school; the store closed. Now even I buy books on Amazon and my ARCs come from digial galley services. My bookstore days might be out-of-print–but I still occasionally take a memory out and flip through for old time’s sake.