Great Expectations

Elizabeth Bluemle -- October 15th, 2013

Hello there!  It’s resident New-Girl-at-the-Bookstore Laura, guest blogging for my lovely bosses Josie and Elizabeth. I’ve been working at the bookstore for two and a half months now and I thought it would be fun to share my bookstore expectations vs. bookstore experience with all of you.  Here are a number of observations I’ve made:

1.  People Want to Talk About What’s New

I recently graduated from college with a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing and I was thrilled to find a job in my field of study. But it turns out that my degree has nothing to do with bookselling at all! For what feels like my whole life, I’ve been studying the works emphasized in most curriculums—that have withstood the test of time. I haven’t had time to read new releases because I’ve been immersed in Ovid, the Bible, Thoreau, the original (and delightfully strange) Beauty and the Beast etc. If you try to convince a customer that she should purchase a copy of Gawain and the Green Knight because the poet’s subversive portrayal of gender and homoeroticism is so ahead of his time she will likely not be convinced that it is the right book for her. Of course! And while I didn’t think I would be selling copy after copy of Beowulf (though we do have the late Seamus Heaney’s wonderful translation on the shelf) I did sort of think that I was well on my way to reading many of the Great Works that people might come into a bookstore wanting to talk about. It turns out that people who are interested in classics have already read them—or at least don’t need my recommendation to know why they’re great. People want to know what’s new—what they couldn’t possibly have an opinion on yet—which brings me to my next point:

2.  It is Useful for Publishers to Send Free Books

Hallelujah! There are so many galleys in the back room that they’re stacked in double rows on the shelf. And while it feels a little bit like I’ve cheated the system or something, it turns out that I am much better at recommending a book if I’ve read it, and that I’m much better at reading it if it’s free and sent to me without my having to ask. I shouted for joy when the advance copy of the new Mollie Katzen cookbook came in the mail—and after trying it out, I’ve recommended it to everyone I’ve seen poking around the cookbook section. I think the technical term is symbiosis.

3.  There Are a Thousand Tiny Ways to Disappoint People

It turns out that much of the job is crisis-aversion. I told a customer who finds it difficult to read small print that I would order a book for her and later found out that it is published only in mass market. I’ve given a teacher a quote on a discount only to later discover that the particular book she was interested in purchasing couldn’t be discounted. I have looked up books in our inventory for customers over the phone and discovered that the copy is missing once they drive to the store. And worst of all is when you haven’t read any of the books a customer is interested in asking about. Once, after a customer asked me about three mysteries in a row that I had not read, she said “You haven’t read that either? Don’t you live in a bookstore?” much like a child might assume his teachers live in their classrooms. Having not read any mysteries since Nancy Drew, I struck out book after book after book. It seems like there are a thousand things to learn, and about a billion books to read and it can all be overwhelming, but it’s okay because:

4. People Are Generally Very Nice

People are really quite patient with me. When I’ve charged someone’s credit card for the incorrect amount and I have to call them up to fix it, or when the computer is taking a thousand years to look up the book they’re trying to order, or when I forget a customer’s name for the millionth time, everyone seems cheerful and ready to forgive me. And not only ready to forgive me but excited to talk to me about the talk that Billy Collins gave, or that hilarious interview we both saw on Jon Stewart. Despite all the chaos, and my being woefully underprepared for many aspects of the job, there is something very exciting about working here: I think it is the potential of all those beautiful sentences sleeping in their books waiting to be read by the person who will take them home.

4 thoughts on “Great Expectations

  1. barbara

    I have worked in bookstores for 35 years,independent and big box, and your last line made me cry because that is why I am there bookselling everyday

  2. Msgalfriday

    I wish you the best of luck, especially since the Christmas season is just beginning. That patience end of things with customers starts to run out BUT quick. Especially when they start coming down to the store with reviews and listings of books they want and you don’t have it inventory. I like to compare being a bookseller to being a detective ( and i have an english degree too- it doesn’t help). Your main job is to get something into their hands that will satisfy them and come back. If you don’t jump off a cliff with the endless Christmas music that’s about to start you’ll make it through to the returns in January. Cheers!

  3. Susan

    I worked in a bookstore for close to 20 years; many of our customers were wonderful, but the ones who stand out are the ones who have no idea what working in a bookstore really entails: carrying stacks of books from point A to point B and being asked “Do you work here?” and “Wow, you must get to read all day!”
    Then there are the head-slapping questions: “Where’s your non-fiction?” “Do you have the new book by the mystery writer with the mustache?” “Do you have the book that Oprah talked about today…I think it was blue, or maybe red and was written by a man, or maybe a woman…” “My kid has to read a book on this list; which one is the thinnest?”
    I could go on for a long time, but I think you get the gist. It was a wonderful experience and I met lots of great people, plus ALL THOSE BOOKS!!!!!

  4. Debbie

    I’m sure it’s all overwhelming and there are a million things to learn! But that’s also the joy of working with books. There is always something new and each day can be so very different. Sounds like you’ve grasped a lot in the two and a half months you have been there. Just keep reading and learning and you’ll be an expert in no time!

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