Sometimes It’s Boring

Josie Leavitt -- July 13th, 2010

Let’s face it, sometimes working in a bookstore can be dull. Is it fun to check the alphabetical order of picture books? No, not really. Is it necessary? Totally. I was struck recently by the plethora of mundane yet vital tasks that booksellers must do in order to keep the store running smoothly, because I’ve been training staff.

Last week we had a teenager work with us a few hours every day last week. Shelby’s a voracious reader and has always visited our store while on vacation. Her work ethic was remarkably good, but I noticed there was something she was hesitating to ask. Finally I asked her in between chores, “What is it?” Her reply was so earnest it almost broke my heart. “When do I get to read?”

I think the biggest misconception about owning a bookstore, or working in one, is that we sit around all day reading. I told Shelby that if she ever walked in a bookstore and saw the staff reading, for sure that store would be closed within the year. Reading, while vital to the store’s survival, happens on non-work time. When Shelby heard this her eyes widened and she said, “So you work all day and then read. When do you get stuff done?” Oh, Shelby, I wish I knew.

The seemingly boring tasks are important because they help the store run smoothly. If a bookseller can’t find Where the Wild Things Are because a customer mistakenly put it back under W,  we might lose a sale while we try to figure out where it went. So, making sure all the books are in the right order is hugely important.

We have a spinner that houses our Early Readers and Chapter books and yesterday it got straightened out. You would think a fairly easy task: sort the early readers by level then alphabetically by author. Not so much. It seems that no one really understands just how the levels work, so books get put back most often by color. While this makes for a lovely display case, it’s not really effective. My valiant staffer who took on this challenge (for work like this, it’s best to put the OCD staffers on it) discovered that copies of Flat Stanley had traveled to every single section of the spinner.

Is alphabetizing something all my staffers want to do? Not really. But I have one staffer who sees the real value in working on a section she doesn’t know that well. Alphabetizing is a wonderful way of getting to know an entire section, and it’s amazing how often that hard work is rewarded by being able to get exactly the right book for the right person.

We have a rule at the Flying Pig: If the customer stays in the store long enough, we will always find the book, and with the completion of these mundane tasks, the wait time is cut in half. And that can only be a good thing, since we have all to sing the ABC song when we alphabetize, and five minutes of that makes children join in and adults flee the area.

8 thoughts on “Sometimes It’s Boring

  1. bookwoman

    I completely identify with Shelby! When I was looking for my first summer job, I applied at my local bookstore. I didn’t get the job, because the manager said he didn’t believe in hiring his best customers. The exact words still live with me, “Sorry, but you already spend a significant amount of time here. I’ll lose you in the stacks.” Little did he know I’d spend all of my adult life in book publishing.

  2. Pingback: Book News, July 17th « The Librarian Next Door

  3. Carin

    I’ve been known to alphabetize sections in a store when I’m browsing. I’ve also been asked many, many times by other customers if I work at the store. Nope. Just working for free for a minute becuase I’m crazy-organized that way!

  4. Cassandra Chan

    I’m one of the ones who loves to alphabetize and re-organize spinners. Me, OCD? No, never…

    I wish like anything I could get the higher-ups at my store to understand how important it is to sales to have everything alpha’ed.

  5. Christine

    So true! I don’t work in a bookstore but I am a librarian and much of what you write, Josie, is true in my realm too! I don’t know how often I’ve had to dispel the myth that I sit behind a reference desk all day lost in a book. While I sometimes wish that were true, there are SO many other aspects of my job…both mundane and exciting! Congratulations to you and your staff for the wonderful work that I’m certain you do. I’m up here in Canada and have never been to your store but I read your blog often and feel like I’m part of the Flying Pig family:)

  6. GMR

    Here, here! I ‘moonlight’ part time in out local bookstore. Why? Because I love to read….okay, not really…I mean I do, but this article hits the nail on the head. Reading is not an on the job skill that you get to use during on the clock hours….it’s a fun past time that you get to indulge further with your employee discount and off hour reading time. Organizing sections, walking the store, assisting customers with locating a sought after book, unloading new stock….all of these things and more help keep the store in working order, thus making the customers experience and the employees jobs that much easier (and enjoyable!). It never fails to put a smile on my face when I find a book that a customer just finished saying “I looked everyone…it’s not there” though that smile is just as big when the excitement of having the book in their hands right away is written plainly on their face. Happy reading!

  7. Lindsay S

    I used to work in the children’s section of a bookstore, and I loved alphabetizing–both for the pure joy of it and for the benefit to the cutomer. Somehow the mind (my mind, at least) reads a well-alphabetized section as easier to approach and more accessible than a disordered one. A neat and organized bookshelf is one of my very favorite things in the whole world, so I salute you, Josie, and everyone at the Flying Pig for making that happen!

    And I absolutely sympathize with trying to keep a spinner in order. . . .

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