Following a death in my family last year, I temporarily withdrew from the world to grieve. When it was time to return, a part-time job seemed a good way to rejoin the living. “Why not work in a bookstore?” someone asked.
My first job in our industry was as a bookseller at Pickwick Bookshop in Hollywood. Throughout my long career as publishers’ sales rep, freelance editor, and West Coast correspondent for this magazine, I’d never stopped missing the quirky energy of bookselling, the spontaneous conversations between customer and bookseller, and recommending favorite reads to people whose lives sometimes seemed to depend on them.
I called my local bookstores, but they weren’t hiring. I considered my neighborhood Barnes & Noble, even though I questioned working for the corporate Man. But B&N had now taken up the same anti-Amazon cry as the independents, and therein lay my justification. I emailed my résumé to B&N at the Grove in L.A., just three miles from home and waited—but not for long. I was called for an interview the next day.
The manager recognized that I was a book professional. “I wish more of our applicants had your background,” she said. Five days later I was hired. The pay was $10.50 an hour, but the job would get me out of the house and around book people again.
The night before my first day, I imagined helping erudite customers on the sales floor, expertly running the fiction and mystery sections, and bonding with my fellow booksellers over coffee, as we’d share witty, ironic stories about the bookstore’s clientele and the current bestselling books. I was excited about bringing my career full circle. I was delusional.
My book expertise was solid, but the B&N systems were a mystery to me. Along with my fellow trainees, who were both 21 years old, I focused on how to detect and deter shoplifters, use a handheld scanner for stock checks, punch in and out of a computerized time clock, and interpret B&N’s complex inventory codes. The store didn’t appear overstocked, yet there was a mad rush to return thousands of books. Scanner in hand, I cruised the aisles aiming the red light at barcodes, waiting for the irritating sounds that meant one of three things: leave as is (R2-D2 chime), pull for return (three-note foghorn blast), or move to correct section (emergency-system burrrp, burrrp, burrrp).
There were no category specialists at B&N. Booksellers acquired a general knowledge about every section. This seemed counterintuitive, but for once I kept my mouth shut. Decisions were made in the chain’s New York office, and store staff had little say in matters of policy. There was no room for creativity.
Every display and endcap in the store was formulized, clearly marked on the printed examples that arrived frequently from corporate. Everything was precisely copied; nothing was left to chance in the book, music, and gift departments. Booksellers didn’t have to think about merchandising—it was thought out for us, and all we had to do was match titles with the designated spaces on shelves and tables.
Besides going mental from the scanner alerts, reaching the bottom two shelves of a bookcase meant twisting into positions that defied gravity. Reaching up, I fell off the step stool and onto my behind twice. And then there were the metal book carts I had to haul from receiving to the category section I was scanning. After filling them with books pulled for returns, I steered the heavy carts back, with great effort, to be placed in the publishers’ designated shelves along the wall. They were scanned yet again to determine which imprints belonged where (publisher or distributor), and finally I pulled out the mass market books for strip-cover returns. Once the cart was empty, I dragged it out to the floor again to start all over. Like a shark, I was constantly moving, my legs and back in agony.
Breaks lasted 15 minutes, so no one had time to chat, fixated as we were on slamming food down and reading texts. On average, my coworkers were 35 years younger than me. Patty Duke died, and no one knew who she was. I missed the days of a more motley, mutinous crew of booksellers than the nice young staff at B&N.
After two weeks, sciatica took me out and I had to resign. I’ve no regrets. The book business continues to change; it’s not possible to come full circle. But there remains one thing that’s eluded me that I’m looking forward to: the pleasure of simply browsing, unhurried, through bookstore shelves, with the luxury of being a customer rather than having to get a job done, with books on all sides of me waiting for my affection.