Yes, It Is Boring. And, No, You Can’t Do Something Else

Josie Leavitt - July 26, 2012

We have a new teenage staffer this summer. We haven’t had a new teen hire in a few years and there’s something about training a teenager that makes me realize how dull parts of bookselling can be. Summer help often winds up doing the grunt work of the bookstore, and let’s face it, that’s not exactly thrilling stuff.
Alphabetizing, while vital to the store, is oh so boring to the adolescent mind. This is always what I have kids do first. I know it sounds cruel, but the picture book section is usually the section that teens are the least familiar with, and checking that all the books are in alpha order is a great refresher. I encourage staffers to really take their time with this task and to stop and peruse any and all books that look interesting as often these forays can turn into handsells weeks later. There is a method to the madness, but kids often cannot tolerate this task. The first teen who worked for us said after a scant five minutes, “Can I do something else? I’m bored.” Wow. No was the answer that time, and every ten minutes thereafter until she feigned a migraine an hour later and went home, for the rest of the summer.
Training people, especially teenagers, can be a challenge. Often we are someone’s first job and there is a lot of responsibility that comes with this. I try to make the job seem fun while still imparting the responsibilities needed to actually succeed at a job. I’ve noticed that many kids have only been told that they’re doing a great job at everything they do, so to be told by someone that their effort is lacking comes a surprise to them. Luckily, the kids who’ve been in this situation have risen to the challenge and become very strong workers.
One amazing thing about teen staffers is their total fluency with computers. They are not afraid of the computer because it’s the only thing they know. This is a revelation to me. I have a new employee question for my next hire: do you know how to do control, alt, delete? If the answer is no, well, then, that might actually lose you the job. Ask a kid that and they’ll probably go on to tell you how they’ve built their own computer from parts. This is the kind of computer skill the 21st century bookstore needs.
So, while the manual tasks of bookselling may allude some younger folks, their speed at picking up how the point of sale works often balances that out. Not being afraid of the computer is a huge positive in the kids’ favor. And, while I might find some aspect of teenage staffers to be a little irksome, I love their enthusiasm, and I love how they can sell the same book to a kid who just rolled their eyes at me.
I have been told by my staff that I “can be scary” when I’m mad. I try so hard not to be, but I do get this focused look that can be a little frightening. It’s become a rite of passage that you’re not really a full staffer until I’ve scared the bejeebers out of you. Well, several weeks our newest hire, David, found this out first-hand. We had an honest discussion about his work habits in one area (alphabetizing) being unacceptable. Before I even said a word, he looked ghostly pale. I asked if he was all right and he said, “You’re really intimidating.” I had to stifle a laugh. This mean look comes from being a substitute teacher in New York City where the kids would eat you alive if you couldn’t hold your own. We spoke about what needed to change, what he was doing that was great, and I sent him back to put the animals back in the right order in our animal section. He did a tremendously good job on reorganizing so the pandas were no longer mingling with the polar bears and kittens weren’t mixed in with the sharks.
One unhappy consequence of our little discussion is I’ve sufficiently scared him that he now calls me Ma’am.

18 thoughts on “Yes, It Is Boring. And, No, You Can’t Do Something Else

  1. Kay Wyma

    Loved this post. As a mean-mom who endures the “I’m bored” comment often, you give me great hope that all my ignoring might pay off. And I’m with you on the crazy great upside for these kids… if they can lean into the mundane. Thanks sharing. You’re an inspiration to us all.

  2. Holly R.

    Josie, this is great and I hope it gets shared with young staffers all over the industry. As we know, these kids will soon find out that even as they get older and move up, there will ALWAYS be things that are boring or that they don’t want to do. That’s a fact of life. The truly awesome part is that someday, on a random summer afternoon, they will be doing something else and wish it was all still as simple as separating kittens from sharks in the picture book section. Oh, how they will remember and cherish their bookstore days! This I know for certain.

  3. Carol Chittenden

    We have LOTS of young staff every summer here in our Cape Cod home. As the saying goes, summer help, summer not. But my latest discovery is a list called “Opportunities,” listing short projects such as alphabetizing, running posters around, cleaning out a drawer — always followed by a space for initials — and suddenly we’re getting so much more done. (And I’m much less resentful about the things people never seem to notice.)

  4. Kevin A. Lewis

    Being functionally worthless is all part of the joy and meaning of being a teen, of course, but what winds my clock is that large corporate stores with a fast pace that needs a certain skill level will staff their floors with don’t-give-a damn youngsters who call in with nightclub pneumonia every weekend to the exclusion of older workers who might actually generate profits…But maybe you’ll manage to produce a productive citizen here, so keep trying…

  5. Mark

    My boss once hired a 16 year old kid as part of an after-school jobs program. She baby-sat my children for extra cash, helped drag me kicking and screaming into the 20th century, and one day asked me to walk her down the aisle to her new husband. That kid is now heading up Human Resources at the airport, is about to celebrate her 40th birthday, and just this month helped me find a job at the bookstore there. (I closed my own store a little over a year ago.)
    Sometimes these teen hires do work out.

    1. jennifer laughran

      Oh, and Mark, you also let a 12 year old help with inventory… and now she’s 35, still a bookseller, and a literary agent. I think you have a pretty good track record! 🙂

      1. Mark

        Thank you, Jennifer. I wish I could take credit for some amazing insight or judgment or something, but you were always going to be whomever and whatever you decided to be. I admire you immensely.

  6. Lauren T

    I’m going to share this post with my 15-1/2 yr old son. Hope he finds it amusing and oddly relevant. (Ha ha.) Here’s a motto for adolescents (of all ages) everywhere: the only thing inherently boring is boredom itself. Or, as I read somewhere, if you’re bored, you’re not paying enough attention.

  7. Evelyn Krieger

    I’d attribute this intolerance of mundane work to a general lack of experience with activities such as: doing dishes, folding laundry, mowing lawns, dog-walking, weeding–things kids used to be expected to do. Instead, today’s teens have grown up on a steady diet of enrichment activities, electronics, and video games. So, like, duh dude, alphabetizing sucks!!
    You gotta love ’em, though.

  8. Dionna

    Excellent post! I wonder how those sighing-with-boredom teens would feel if they worked with my husband (like my 16-year-old son does) washing windows on a 100 degree summer day with 100% humidity hanging in the air! I bet alphabetizing picture books in an air-conditioned bookstore wouldn’t be so boring then!

  9. Kat Kan

    Had to chuckle at this post. My 17-year-old son has been volunteering at our local public library for a couple of years now; his main job is reshelving books and AV materials. The library staff in Youth Services love him because he doesn’t care that the work is kind of boring; he just keeps going, quietly, getting the job done. Now, if he can keep that work ethic going for anything else in his life (school, college – he’s going to be a senior this year), then I hope he can do well in his life. One of my early jobs, from my freshman year in college, was reshelving books in the college library. I’ve been working with books ever since then, as a bookseller and a librarian, and now with a book distributor AND in a school library.

  10. Shelver506

    Oh dear. I’m not THAT much older than the teenagers in question, but there must be some difference, because I LOVE alphabetizing! I think the order is soothing.
    Being on the register, however, makes me want to pluck my eyes out.

  11. Simon Collinson

    Thanks for this piece. I was hired as a part time bookseller at 18, and I’m sure I’ve given my boss a few headaches over the years (alphabetising was certainly one of them). I’m now 22, still at the bookstore, and hopefully a much better, more tedium-tolerant employee.

  12. Anne Driscoll

    What a great post! I was laughing about your “intimidating look” – classic! I love that the first task is alphabetizing, you don’t realize how much you are taking in by completing such a mundane task, but the results are well worth the effort.
    Thanks for writing about this – you made my morning start off with a giggle & a knowing smile!

    1. Josie Leavitt Post author

      Thanks. The great thing now is the young staffer volunteered to re-alphbetize the poetry section because it was making him crazy!


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