Today marks one year since I quit my day job as a bookseller. For three years, I shelved books, helped customers, and, during my spare time, I wrote stories of my own. My dream was to become a full-time writer, but I knew how unlikely that was. Still, I spent my lunch breaks in the conference room with my laptop. I got up early every morning to pound out a set number of words before I went to work. I wrote on weekends. And I never stopped dreaming.
In many ways, I’ve always been a bookseller. I think everyone should read. I gave a copy of Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich (Free Press, 2003) to a friend of mine who claimed to hate reading. But I knew he loved blackjack and practiced counting cards. He begrudgingly took the book—and he read it in a single day. He gushed about how great it was, though he still insisted that he despised reading.
My motivations were selfish: I wanted company. A book is read in one’s mind (unless you’re a parent). When I finish a great book, the first thing I want to do is find someone to discuss it with. That often meant passing it off. “Here. Read this so we can talk about it.” So, I was a bookseller from the moment I could read. My mother was the customer who suffered my pushy ways, scooping up the latest from Dr. Seuss or Encyclopedia Brown.
I credit my mom with my love of the written word. She was a schoolteacher and taught me to read when I was very young. She worked several jobs raising three kids on her own, eventually running a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Spartanburg, S.C. No matter how rough a time my mother had making ends meet, we always had books. I would camp out in the Waldenbooks at the mall, and the people who worked there learned to ignore me. If I saw someone pick up a book I enjoyed, I urged him or her to read it. I had no idea you could get paid for what I was doing.
In college I needed a job to pay for expensive textbooks. A Barnes & Noble was about to open nearby and was hiring booksellers. They backed tractor trailers stuffed with pallets of books up to the doors, and we spent weeks stocking empty shelves. It was a dream job: I would’ve been hanging out there anyway. My paycheck rarely made it out the door.
Over a decade later, I left my career as a yacht captain to follow my wife into the mountains of North Carolina. There was an unsurprising lack of yachts up there. When I decided to chase my childhood dream of becoming an author, the day job that made the most sense to me was back in a bookstore. I fell into a routine with books on all sides of me. I reviewed them for a Web site; I went home with free copies from publishers; I chatted about books and sold books all day; and I wrote my own during every free moment.
In the last year, I’ve been extremely fortunate to find myself making it as an author. And my success has reinforced my idea that readers are booksellers. One of the books I wrote during those lunch breaks has gone on to become a New York Times bestseller, and I owe that entirely to reader word of mouth. The chatter that used to be limited to the space between bookshelves can now be heard everywhere. It’s on Twitter. It’s on Facebook. It’s strangers reading that last chapter, closing a book, and looking for someone to talk to. Bookselling is all of us seeking company in this enterprise we are so passionate about. As a lover of bookstores and someone who has spent much of his life in them, I believe they are as important as ever. Even though “buzz” is crucial, professional booksellers are also crucial to the discovery process. They know what’s out, what’s selling, what you might like if you enjoyed a particular title. They do every day what many of us dabble in—they infect others with their book-loving enthusiasm. This is the lifeblood of the industry, this passion for reading. It’s what my mother gave me and what I try to pass on to others. I may have quit my day job a year ago, but I’ll never stop being a bookseller.