I worked in a bookstore for a little over two years and only quit to take a job at twice the pay. Being a bookseller was hard work. I lost weight and kept it off because I was on my feet eight hours a day, carrying books. It was exhausting; my feet ached every night. But I left work smiling and couldn’t wait to go back to work in the morning. Why?
In his book, Chronicles of Narnia: The Magician’s Nephew, C.S. Lewis describes the “Wood Between the Worlds”, a quiet woodland with many small ponds. Nothing happens in this quiet wood. It just exists to give a place for the ponds to exist. By jumping into a pond, one is whisked to a different world, a different universe. A bookstore is like that wood-between-the worlds. Walk along the stacks, select a book and open it and suddenly you’re no longer standing in a bookstore. Like Harry Potter and the pensieve, you’re transported to another place and time, completely disconnected from this reality. Adventures are lined up on the shelf just waiting to overtake you. Going home means leaving all of that behind for the ordinary world.
Part of the fun was finding books for people. Customers came in every day looking for a particular book, but might have only the vaguest clues about it. Perhaps they had no title, no author, maybe the general topic or subject. At first they did not even clarify fiction or non-fiction. For example, “a book about sailing” turned out to be Patrick O’Brien’s Master and Commander. It was like playing twenty questions for a living. One of my proudest moments was when a woman came in looking for “a book about math, it’s blue, dark blue.” I knew exactly what she wanted, I had picked up the same book many times, and I don’t even like math. I didn’t know the title either, but we went right to the book and I put it in her hands.
Generally speaking, working in retail is the pits. It’s thankless, grueling, and often demeaning. Customers are often disrespectful of both the clerks and the merchandise, rummaging through piles of clothing or what-have-you, making a mess and then leaving it.
Conversely, the best part about working in a bookstore was the customers: they’re literate, and that literacy brought with it a certain patience, and ‘gentleness’, if I may use that term in its archaic form. And somehow I didn’t mind the piles of books left on tables and carts, and even on the floor. Each night, for thirty minutes after closing, I had to ‘recover’ my section, collecting books that had been left out and placing them on a cart, then re-shelving as many as possible before pushing the cart to the back room to be taken care of the next day. And unlike a pile of unfolded clothing, un-shelved books are each still their own tidy self. A book lying on a table is even more visible to the casual shopper, even more appealing when the full cover is in view.
Bookstore customers are the best. I worked through three Christmas seasons. We had ten cash registers and the line sometimes stretched halfway around the store, there might be a hundred people in line. And on more than one occasion, the registers all ‘froze’ because of too much traffic on the system. No one got huffy and walked off. They may have left, but they did so discreetly. Despite the long wait standing in line, customers almost uniformly were polite and kind. At most, they might sound a bit fatigued, “You’re really busy…” No one was ever rude. Ever. Which is striking when you come to think about it. I never heard, “Oh my GOD why is this taking so long!?!” which I have heard on many occasions in other retail settings.
I left the business before the advent of the home computer and the cell phone. But when I visit big box bookstores, I find little has changed. Customers are still polite, and the store is full of the happy buzz of interesting people. Most bibliophiles still love the smell and heft of a good book. E-readers are fine for travel, but there’s nothing quite like having the actual book in hand.
Sadly, I think I’ve aged out of being able to work in a bookstore. My bad knees and fallen arches limit what I can carry and how long I can remain on my feet. But I’d go back in a heartbeat if I could.