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.