I’ve had various interests in my lifetime, most of which (making hooked rugs and potholders, roller skating, Chinese jump rope, improv, and a fascination with the Civil War) I no longer care about. The one pastime that’s still with me is reading. Books have been an eye-opener, an obsession, a comfort, an escape and a teacher for as long as I can remember (don’t ask my mother or she’ll tell you the whole story about how I learned to read when I was 3).
For years I said I wanted to get paid to read all day. From July 1994 until July 1995 I came close, with a full-time job at Borders Books & Music. I had dropped out of the real world that year, having quit my first post-college job because I knew I wasn’t on the right career path, but wasn’t sure what to do next.
Despite the pay ($5.50 an hour) and the customers, working at the bookstore was, in all other ways, the perfect job for me. I spent my days wearing jeans and flannel shirts (hey, it was the tail end of the grunge era), drinking “free” coffee (depending on who was working in the café), surrounded by books and smart, witty people who loved books.
At that time there wasn’t a Barnes & Noble on every corner, there was no Amazon.com, and although Borders had been purchased by Kmart a few years prior, it still had an independent bookstore feel to it. The displays in the windows and throughout the store reflected the employees’ personalities, interests and knowledge – not a store diagram sent by Corporate once a week to make sure the stores in Los Angeles looked just like the ones in Des Moines.
My co-workers were like me – over-educated, complete book nerds/snobs willing to suffer the customers and low pay just so they didn’t have to work in a cube. We each had our own sections of the store to take care of and become experts on, based on our education and experience. A woman with a PhD in art history was in charge of the art section; a divinity school student had the religion section. My degrees are in psychology and education, so naturally I was assigned the section with books on psychology, education, sociology, anthropology, self-help and addictions – and also sex and erotica (which I neither have degrees in nor claim to know much about, but I did enjoy watching customers furtively grab those books and scurry to other parts of the store to lust in relative privacy).
I loved to be in the stock room when the boxes of new books arrived. I got to know a little something about nearly every book on The New York Times best sellers lists, the new releases, the hot new cookbooks and juicy biographies, the overly sentimental customer favorites (“Chicken Soup for the Soul” came out in 1993 and spawned a whole slew of similar dreck that people couldn’t get enough of) and whatever was featured on “Oprah” and the “Today” show.
Besides being responsible for stocking and organizing my section, I also had to take my turn at the three information stations and the cash registers. Spending time at the information station often resulted in exchanges like this one:
Customer: Do you have that book that was on the “Today” show last Wednesday?
Me: Do you know the title?
Me: How about the author?
Me: Um, can you tell me what it’s about?
Customer: No. But it’s got a blue cover.
Me: Oh, yeah, it’s right over here. [and I was actually able to take the customer to the right book]
When a customer did request a book by title, s/he usually got it wrong – sometimes more wrong than others. One time a woman asked for “A Thousand Years of Solid Food.” My coworker looked diligently on our various computer systems, but could find no such book. He then asked her where she heard about the book, what it was about, etc. What she was actually looking for was “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
I worked Wednesdays through Sundays and my favorite shift was Fridays 2:00-11:00 p.m. That shift had the best mix of employees, the store always had live music, and the place was buzzing with customers who tended to be more serious book lovers than the weekday crowd. After work on Fridays my coworkers and I often went to The ‘Dube, a true dive bar in existence since 1940 that brought you your bottle of beer with an orange juice-sized glass to pour it in. Most of us had to be back at the store the next day for the 9:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m. Saturday shift, hateful because the store was overrun all day with ill-behaved children and their snotty parents. So we stayed too long and drank too much, and made fun of the customers we’d dealt with that week.
I only stayed at Borders a year. Changes came down from corporate and it wasn’t the same place it was when I started. Besides, I had tens of thousands of dollars of college loans that were coming due, and I needed a real job to pay the bills.
Even though I’m now as likely to buy my books from Amazon as a brick-and-mortar bookstore (probably more likely), I still love bookstores, and books. So look for future posts about what I’m reading, and feel free recommend books you like. I promise not to make fun of them.
*from "Work: A Story of Experience" by Louisa May Alcott