In my early twenties I worked full-time in a bookstore whilst studying part-time. Even though I worked EVERY weekend (oh the joys of retail), it was a great year and a bit in my life. For a book addict like me, working in a bookstore was my dream come true. But like every retail job it had its array of lovely, weird and downright funny moments. I had the best customers and the worst customers but the books made it all worthwhile.
Take a walk with me down memory lane as I recount the good, bad and annoying parts of being a bookseller:
The Detective Work: A customer walks in asking about a book but they can’t remember the title or the author. All they can remember is that the cover was red and it started with the word ‘the.’ A game of ‘guess that book’ ensues. There was no better feeling than asking probing questions and finally guessing the title. I lived for those small triumphs!
The Needle in a Haystack: The computer shows there is one copy instore of the book a customer wants. I look in the appropriate section but the book is nowhere to be found. Someone has misplaced it! Try finding a missing book in a store filled with thousands of books while a customer waits impatiently. The best scenario was finding it against all odds. The worst was finding it five minutes after the customer left the store.
Spending Half my Salary on Books: The owners of the bookstore used to pay me weekly in cash. Yes, a small envelope stuffed with cash! Now that I think about it, this was a genius move because all the sudden I would have a handful of money and a whole bookstore at my disposal. I would end up handing a chunk of my salary back to the owners on payday.
Being at Peak Fitness: I spent 95% of the working day on my feet. There was one chair behind the counter that during the week the owners took turns sitting on, so I was always standing. I also spent the day lifting boxes of books, unpacking stock and carrying huge piles of books up and down the back stairs of the shop from our storeroom below. I would have to carry sales items on tables outside the store and get them in at the end of the day. I was the size of a twig during these days but paid for this strenuous work later in life with a very dodgy back.
New Release Week: For a few days each month all the new release books from publishers would arrive in a huge delivery of boxes, full of brand new books. In the later months of the year as Christmas approached, these new release days would bring a steady flow of deliveries. These days were the busiest of the month as we unpacked, processed and labelled all the new books and then tried to find space for them on the shelves. I loved seeing all the new books and got excited when I saw new releases from favourite authors or discovered something new and interesting. I always felt sad a few months later when some of the books that arrived with such promise to the shop, ended up being returned to the publisher due to poor sales and to make room for other new books.
Discovering a Fellow Lover of your Favourite Author: One of the best parts of working in a book store was getting to talk about books to fellow book lovers all day. Customers were always asking for recommendations and it was wonderful when I discovered someone else who loved an author that I loved. On the flip side, sometimes I got customers who had the complete opposite reading taste to me which made it impossible to win their business through a personal recommendation, which leads me to …
The Never Satisfied Customer (aka known as time wasters): I dreaded helping these people. They would come in, mostly during a busy time when I was working alone, and ask for my help with picking out a book for a friend or relative, or themselves. I would ask questions to try and suss out what genre they liked reading, who their favourite authors were etc. But the never satisfied customer was often vague in their answers making my job all the more difficult. I would spend ages giving plot summaries of books and personal recommendations and the person would reject every suggestion–even for books which were universally loved by all. I would then suggest a gift card so the person’s friend/relative could pick their own book. But no, this suggestion was too impersonal. About this time, I would have to leave to serve a customer who was buying a book and then the never satisfied customer would slink out empty-handed. I think they probably went and bought the books I suggested online. Worse, was the version of this customer who would actually listen to my suggestions, end up with a pile of books and then ask me to put these books behind the counter as they were just going to the bank. Then they would never come back…
The Last Minute Nellies: Without fail, these type of customers walked in a few seconds before closing time–usually when I was in the process of shutting the door. They either claimed to know exactly what they wanted and then spent 10 minutes browsing before leaving empty-handed, or they tried to take the moral high ground by claiming that opening hours didn’t apply to a paying customer. They never considered that the young female in front of them was on minimum wage, was not paid overtime and would miss the last bus home if they insisted on arguing. I got very good at being firm and not letting last minute nellies in unless they could make a beeline straight to their purchase.
Working for Ladies with a Reputation: The book store where I worked was a franchise of a larger book chain and owned by two very smart, but formidable women. They had very firm ideas of what was acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in their store. The customer was not always right here! Customers sometimes unwittingly broke rules they didn’t even know existed and were then faced with the wrath of the owners. While they were very good to me, it made for some uncomfortable situations. They weren’t fans of people browsing too long and a favourite comment of theirs to customers was “this isn’t a library.” It also wasn’t a creche. Parents often left their kids unsupervised while going next door to do their grocery shopping. The kids sometimes went wild pulling books from the shelves and throwing them around. While the ladies were never mean to the kids, boy did the parents often cop it when they came back for their kids, and rightly so. Outside drinks and food were also banned from the store and any rudeness from customers was met with rudeness back, sometimes tenfold. When I managed the store on weekends, I often had people telling me they never came in during the week because of the ladies. But I got my first job in book publishing because of their fearsome reputation and not because of my degree. My new manager said if you can work with those ladies and win their approval, then you can definitely work for me.
Refund Renegades: We had a strict no refund policy, unless the book was misbound or printed incorrectly in some way. Exchanges were fine if the book was in perfect condition. But even though we had signs up at the counter, customers regularly tried to refund books that they had clearly read, or started to read. The telltale sign was the cracked spine.
Crushing on Guys who Read: It didn’t happen too often that a male in his twenties would come into my particular book store. But when they did, and purchased a book or two, I definitely noticed. Most of the males who came into our store were dads with their kids, business men in their forties, elderly gentleman, or kids and the occasional teen. One favourite customer of mine was a guy who walked in wearing his motorcycle gear and carrying his helmet who was around my age and not bad in the looks department. But I was just attracted to the fact that he read books! I never did summon up the courage to make conversation with him. Luckily, years down the track I married a man who loves to read.
Dusting was my Favourite Job: I loved grabbing the feather duster and going off to ‘dust’ the books and shelves. Our book store was on a busy road so always needed a good clean. But my real reason for loving this chore was so I could read the back of books and work out which ones I wanted to buy.
Harry Potter Day: One of my favourite days as a bookseller was the release of a new Harry Potter book (I can’t remember which one). We all dressed up for the occasion and even though I worked in a book store, there was a strict embargo on opening the boxes, so I couldn’t even have a sneak peek. Seeing all the kids and adults lined up outside to store waiting for us to open was such a thrill. Everyone was so excited to receive their new book and it was such a win, win situation for the bookseller and the reader. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much excitement over a book series since then.
A Book Store is the Tourist Information Bureau: It must be something about working in a book store that makes people think you know everything. All day long we would have people come in and ask for directions to other places, ask to know the time, about the weather, ask for recommendations for places to eat… I got very good at answering all these questions.
Author Visits: My book store unfortunately never had book signings or author events, but that didn’t stop authors dropping in to try and sign stock or to ask if we stocked their book. The owners didn’t let authors sign stock as they then wouldn’t be able to return them to the publisher if they weren’t sold. But they often let self-published authors stock their books for a small amount of time. There was one self-published author who tried to get his books stocked at the book store (before I worked there) but was rejected. The same author was successful in another store, his book was picked up by someone in the publishing industry and he got a book deal. Now he is one of the biggest authors in Australia. It just shows where perseverance and not accepting rejection can take you.
For the Love of Books: My time as a bookseller was wonderful because of my love of books and reading. It didn’t make me very rich then, and I’m not rich now, but books and the stories they tell give me unforgettable experiences. Even though I buy many books online these days, or on my kindle, I still love browsing book stores and buying books to help keep them going. Nothing beats a bookseller’s recommendation!
Do you have a favourite book store or bookseller story? Tell me in the comments.