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.