“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.