How to Not Get Hired

Cynthia Compton - May 15, 2019

Early summer is teasing us here in Indiana — we have cool damp mornings when we dress the kids in sweatshirts and pants, followed by warm sunny afternoons when the carpool conversation consists of asking those kids WHERE THOSE CLOTHES ARE NOW as we pick them up in their t-shirts and gym shorts. Jackets are scattered on the playground like the petals from the tulip poplar in bloom (our state tree) now washed to the pavement in one of our many spring rainstorms.
Dandelions are popping up in every road median, and so, too are the job applicants. Our 4 Kids summer college crew is back, a little traumatized by finals and battle-weary from the spring semester, glad (we think) to spend their days just straightening the leveled readers and wrapping birthday gifts. “Oh! Cynthia! I meant to tell you about my lit professor this year! He said that the smartest people in the world work in libraries and bookstores…. and I told him that I work in one, and he smiled at me and told me to say ‘thank you for saving civilization.’ And can I have Thursday off to go to the Slayer concert?” (For more on our seasonally rotating payroll, see Summer Staffapalooza.

Each afternoon brings a fresh-faced applicant or two, some prepared to interview with resumes and newly copied Social Security numbers in hand,  and some simply banished from their houses by parents overwhelmed by the price of both fall tuition AND keeping gas in the car, told to “come home when you find a job, and not before.”
I wish that I had a handout for job applicants. Not just for my store, but a general list of guidelines and advice for potential retail employees of all kinds. Sadly, that would probably not gain either new customers or fans… because most of my feedback is terribly judgmental and negative. Since we’re all friends here (and you already KNOW I’m a bit judgey) I’ll share my TOP TEN WAYS TO GET THE JOB (or not), for the general amusement and edification of hiring managers in the bookstore world:

  1. Don’t send your Mom. Your mother is lovely, and it was so nice chatting with her. She’s really impressed, by the way, with that stack of Harry Potter books you begged for in third grade. You’ve also managed to convince her that you’re smart, hard working, and REALLY REALLY BUSY — too busy, in fact, to stop by and pick up a job application. I appreciate both your theater schedule AND your need for “down time,” but we are open every single day… and it’s tough to schedule staff who “might get the lead in Pippin” in community theater this summer.
  2. No, we don’t do “group hires” so I’m not giving you an extra application for your friend “who is  filling out that online app at the kiosk at Target.” While you may have double-dated at Prom, and plan to room together at IU this fall, work is not something that can be done as “besties.”
  3. Yes, you have to read. I will forever replay the interview in my mind with the young candidate who answered my “icebreaker” question (so… what kinds of things do you like to read for fun?) thusly: “Oh, I’ve never liked books, or reading, really. I don’t really see the point, you know? I watch movies on my iPad, though, and some of them get made into books.”
  4. Don’t be a stranger. We have been asked the following questions by (unsuccessful) applicants at the register, when they drop by to apply: So, do you sell books? Are you a kids’ store? Have you been open long? Are these all new books? Do you sell toys, too? Are you a chain? Are you owned by Amazon? Do you have a website? Do you have employees? Is this a bookstore? Do you know who else might be hiring?
  5. Wearing actual clothes is good. Yes, your new bathing suit is super, super cute, and it does “almost” work as a top. Your track uniform, however, could do with a spin in the washer, and maybe you should change after practice. I TOTALLY appreciate your right to make personal statements with your t-shirts… but some of our customers actually attended Ohio State and Michigan, and might not appreciate either your suggestion for post-game activities OR your analysis of their coaches’ parentage.
  6. Two or three strikes applies: OK, so you didn’t show up for the first scheduled interview… and then a day or so later texted to explain that you got the “flu” and were home in bed (without the ability to email, evidently) and you need to reschedule and then the second appointment didn’t work out because your track coach called a last-minute practice that was MANDATORY and I get it…. but then the third time your best friend broke up with her boyfriend and was having a really, really tough time…. and I see how it is. On the list of your priorities, I’m somewhere between that late math assignment and finding your lost flip-flops. Thanks but no thanks.
  7. Java jive: I am the LAST person on the planet to dismiss an applicant because they arrived with a coffee in hand. (In fact, if they bring me one too, I will interview them on the spot.) But eat your snack in the car. Spit out your gum (NOT ON MY SIDEWALK, DAMMIT) before you come in, and finsh your Laffy Taffy before you open your mouth to engage in conversation.
  8. Be nice and wait your turn. After school hours are busy this time of year, and we get a line at the register. Customers are looking for books to fulfill last-minute school assignments, enroll in our summer reading program, and sign up for the race car parade next week. Job applicants (who are NOT SPENDING MONEY) do not get to jump the line for our staff’s attention, or generally get in the way of actual commerce. This kind of customer awareness is exactly what I’m screening for, and your inability to read the room is a big warning sign. One of my favorite long-term employees arrived for her first interview, saw that we were slammed, and dropped her jacket behind the counter. “Can I try to wrap something?” she asked. (No, you can’t have her email or her college address.)
  9. Have a question or two. OK, this is bookselling in a children’s store, not proverbial rocket science…. but even if you have been a kid, owned (or read) a book, and maybe once worked a retail job…. you still don’t know everything. Humor me. Ask me something. Ask me anything. Act like you’re interested, if only to inquire about what I’m looking for in a new employee. Show me that you can make conversation, are curious, and want to learn. Demonstrate a little energy, some eagerness to be part of the team…. make me feel like you want this job.
  10. Show up. Once you’re hired, be there to learn. Once you’re trained, be there to work. Once you’re experienced, be there to train new people. This is a lesson that you will need for more than just this job, and will be the single most important thing to guarantee your future success. Show up. There might be pizza in the break room.


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About Cynthia Compton

Cynthia is the owner of 4 Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, Indiana, a 2600 sq. ft. childrens store founded in 2003. She serves on the board of the American Booksellers Association, is a past president of the Great Lakes Bookseller Association, and is a former member of the American Specialty Toy Retail Association board of directors. 4 Kids was honored with the Pannell Award in 2013 and has received numerous "best of" awards in the Indianapolis area. The opinions expressed in her posts are her own, and sometimes those of her english bulldogs.

6 thoughts on “How to Not Get Hired

  1. Valerie Koehler

    Permission to post this everywhere in Blue Willow. Moms, do not force your overloaded child to apply. Child, you need to decide if you want a part time job or be in every theater production and the debate team. And please SHOW UP. We get more testy by the day.

  2. Leslie Hawkins

    A few years ago I was hiring for a part-time position and was blessed with nearly a dozen applicants worthy of interviewing, most of whom were students at the local university. Toward the end of the interview I usually talk about the phenomenon of ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies) and the opportunity to read books before they’re published. I’m trying to gauge enthusiasm for extracurricular reading. Will the applicant see it as (ugh) homework or as fun? One young lady’s eyes got wide and she let out a spontaneous “YAY!’ Needless to say, she got the job, which she kept until she graduated and moved away. Moral of the story: always look for the “YAY” factor.

  3. Susanne Gervay

    This is hilarious – I especially like the note that the new proposed bookseller can’t see the point of books! That’s a sure winner to get a job in a bookshop!

  4. Alice Meyer

    Sadly, this applies to the older generation as well (of which I am a Medicare card-carrying member). I had a woman come into the store looking for a job, because now that she was retired, she wanted to do something “mindless.”

    1. Cynthia Compton Post author

      Hahahahahaha! I would love to trade my “mindless” to-do list today! Thanks for sharing.


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