Sunday, November 30, 2008

FAQs About Working in a Bookstore

“Do you like working in a bookstore?”

This is one of the FAQs people ask when they meet me for the first time. I guess it is a fair question when you are trying to get to know somebody. Our job is often an important part of our identity – but I hope to be someone who is more than my job.

I have been working in the same bookstore the past seven years. Working in a bookstore, to be a book person, is an important part of my life – but it is not the whole of my life. I have family, friends – people I love – I have a (somewhat recently neglected) yoga practice, and I have other interests outside of my workplace. I want to travel more, I want to learn more.

“Besides working with books, Is there anything else you want to do?”

This is a question I often ask myself; at the moment I have no answer. There is of course, the business side of the bookstore, which can be boring, technical and sometimes downright dirty. The business side of a bookstore means each time you order a book, there is a cost involved. A retailer has to monitor the boring side of business – freight, stock-turn, pilferage, profit and cost. Which is why in many bookstores, you see three hundred copies of The Secret, but probably not the first book written by a worthy but somewhat obscure writer. It takes money to invest in stock – which is a vulgar term for books, I know, but that is what it is in book retail: books are your stock.

That is the nature of Business. A business has to stay profitable, because a store has to cover the overhead and pay the employees’ salary. To stay profitable, you often find yourself having to order truckloads of a title you may not always respect (The Secret, some of the titles recommended by Oprah, Mitch Albom titles, Chicken Soups for the Soul, Dan Brown and the multiple rip-offs, and of course, diet books – you have no idea how many diet and self-help books are released every year!)

Then there is the other side of working in a bookstore. If you are lucky, you will have colleagues who share your love and respect of books and reading – and who are also good-hearted people that you can trust. These are the people who make coming to work every day a joy. Over the years, I was lucky to have met some colleagues who stayed friends after they left the workplace. (You know who you are)

But from time to time, they ask me:

“Why are you still here? You can easily earn more money elsewhere.”

I wonder if I can ever explain to my friends, that in spite of all my complaints about the Management and office politics, I still love working in the bookstore. That in spite of all the frustrations, there is still enough love for the job to carry on.

I am sure many of you know that experience: there is that one author, or that one title that you have been looking for. You can’t seem to find the book anywhere. Then one day you walk into a strange bookstore in a different part of town, and there is it – the one book you have been searching for all these time.

Or – you wander into a bookstore: Every corner you turn there is something new and unknown to you on the shelves. Just wandering among the shelves becomes an adventure. You never want to leave.

Somebody working in that bookstore made the decision on the type of books they carry. The people working in the bookstore determine what goes on the shelves, and what are left out – either deliberately or through ignorance and negligence. The bookstore is about the people working in it.

Working in the bookstore means I get to be one of the people building the bookstore I want. To stay in this position I will need to make the kind of business decisions that keep the bookstore profitable. When the bookstore is profitable, the bookstore can then afford to keep the Robertson Davies or Barbara Pym in stock.

“What do you like about working in a bookstore?”

Right now I am in Dubai helping to set up a mega bookstore in Dubai. Most of our staff has no prior experience working in a bookstore this huge. They often come up to us for help, and we understand this is part of the training process.

I found out recently that H has told her new staff that if there is anything they are unsure about the books, they can ask me; she told them I will be willing to help, that I would be willing to teach them. I just shrugged and said, “Okay.” I didn’t think much of it until a few days ago, when H was angry at some of our colleagues for their refusal to help. That was when I realise how H sees me: she did not have to ask – she knew I would help, especially with our Literature section, which I love.

It is heart-warming to learn that someone sees you as helpful and willing to share knowledge, especially when you know how strong your self-serving impulses are. I believe H understands that the greatest reward about working in a bookstore is the sharing – whether it is just a casual conversation with a customer about a book, or imparting product knowledge to your new staff – when you are allowed to share your love and your passion with somebody, something positive is exchanged and you are happier for it.

H told me the reason she likes working in a bookstore is that it allows her to share knowledge with so many people. She believes it is her mission as a Muslim to share and to educate. When she meets people who work selfishly and who withholds information for the sake of their petty politics, it drives her crazy. She believes information should be shared – and I can respect that.

I love working in a bookstore. I love the books. I delight in the simple task of looking through a publisher catalogue. It’s the office politics and dubious management decisions that I hate. But office politics exist everywhere, and very few people can truly say they love their bosses. When I can get my mind around the little difficulties of working life, I have the best job in the world for somebody like me.

 "Have you read all the books in the bookstore?"

Of course not. Would you want to go to a bookstore where you have read all the books on the shelves? That's part of the fun. As long as there is something left unread, there is always that element of adventure, of something still left undiscovered. 


Yogamum said...

I loved working in a bookstore (the original Borders in Ann Arbor, MI). I was only there for about a year and then I felt I had to go do something more "important," so I went to grad school which I pretty much hated. So I can see why you stick with it!

darkorpheus said...

Yogamum - OMG, you worked at the Borders #1? One of my current colleague was from Borders, and he told me about it. Did they sell it eventually? Anyone knows?

Anonymous said...

I've not had the pleasure of working in a bookstore but my husband has for the past 12 years and he loves it especially when customers come back and say the book he recommended was great and could he suggest another?

Anonymous said...

Are Chicken Soups for the Soul still big hit? I have never read any of of the 500 in the series!

Bookstore is meant to be a converging ground of readers and book-lovers. Although bookstores have to make strategic moves to stock titles that book-savvy staff don't necessarily like, they're great places to browse and to work. Good luck with your new Dubai store. I'm curious what sort of titles you will be carrying. I'm amazed at the subtle difference of titles I see in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur at the Kinokuniya.

Anonymous said...

so That's what you're doing in Dubai--setting up a mega-bookstore sounds so great!

I've always loved bookstores--second only to libraries on list of favourite 'go out' places.

Bybee said...

OK, I really need to think about moving to Dubai!

Yogamum said...

I don't think they sold it, but it moved from its original location. When I was there, they were just beginning to expand and I helped open the store in Columbus, OH. I believe they had four stores then. The people I worked with were SO smart and cool and knowledgeable about books. It was a great time!

My favorite thing was when a customer would come in and say something like, "I'm looking for a book. I don't know who it's by or what it's about, but I think it has a green cover and about two months ago it was sitting on the corner of that table over there." And we would find it!

wil said...

Great FAQ. I love bookstores -- wandering the aisles, picking up something that catches my eye and settling into a comfy chair. Ahh.

And I always thought it would be fun to work in a bookstore. I just haven't gotten around to it...yet.

Ana S. said...

Lovely, lovely post. Sharing knowledge, sharing one's passion rather than withholding it for the sake of maintaining "intellectual superiority"'s things like these that make me want to flee academia and work at a bookstore or library.

Anonymous said...

I used to be asked "Oh, so you read everything that is on the shelves."

How can that be possible?

And the other question i hated "What's the difference (UK vs US covers)?

Carl V. Anderson said...

That love of work is such a huge thing. My favorite job ever was working in a bookstore during the first 4 years or so of my marriage during our 'still in college' and 'recently graduated' years. Being around books all the time just never got old. I am at a place now where there are a lot of things that I like about my job but I still don't have that same love that I had working around books. Maybe part of the reason it is hard to explain is that so many people don't work at jobs they love. I for one am thrilled for you.

Melwyk said...

It's so great that you still love working at your job. Sometimes I think I'd rather be working in the private sector; witholding info etc. happens in libraries too. Grrr.

darkorpheus said...

Stefanie - I know what he's talking about. That joy when somebody really liked the book you recommend - it's not something that money can buy.

Matt - Oh, yes. And Chicken Soup is still a big hit in Dubai. I'm pretty disgusted really.

As for the Dubai store - in a way we are starting from scratch in many things. The censor in the UAE is something still new to us, and there are some complaints from customers on the type of books we carry. But are still learning.

Ovidia - I am with you on bookstores and libraries as the favourite places to go, although I would also add music and video stores on the list. Or coffee places to chill and read.

Bybee - You might do better moving to Sydney, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok. They have Kinokuniya bookstores in those countries too, and they are cheaper places to live in!

Yogamum - I actually know what you're talking about! "I'm looking for a book. It's white with words on it, and it's about this South African guy." And that sense of accomplishment when we did find the book. Working in bookstores sound so much alike no matter where you live!

wil - oh, there's the fun bits, and then there are the bad bits. Especially when sometimes people are rich, and they think just because they buy a lot of books, they have the right to treat you like dirt. I hate that.

Nymeth - everything has it's good and bad side. It's the selling side of bookselling that I'm still getting used to. And freight, stock turn, the abuse from the customers....

Ah Leng - Yes, how the hell can anyone ask, "So, have you read everything on the shelves?" They think I have no life, ah?

Carl - Thank you. I think I need to remind myself of why I stuck with this job in spite of all the difficulties through the years - because I actually love my job.

But there will be compromises to be made. I don't earn as much as some of my ex-classmates, some of whom earn more than twice my current salary.

Melanie - Just keep reminding yourself why you stay with your job. But if it ever comes to a point when you can't bring yourself to wake up to go to work, then it's time to look for a new job.