What working in a bookstore has taught me (so far)

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. . . Truthfully, there are too many lessons to list.

My return to school (to study literature, of course) has forced me to make some tough decisions. The offer to live rent free in a cozy little house in a cozy little town (with none other than my newly minted fiancé) is one I can’t refuse. But, unfortunately, this joyous occasion first requires two sacrifices be made on my part. The first is to vacate my beautiful condo in the big city. A 660 sq/ft oasis, abandoned because it turns out that paying a mortgage on a full-time student’s/bookseller’s wage is not quite doable. Who’d have thunk it? Secondly, said bookseller’s wage is also being left behind as employers usually prefer not to pay someone for a job they no longer do.

I have quit the bookstore.

What a horrible, horrible phrase that is. Approximately a year ago to this day I was still pestering my local independents for a job, any job – just let me be near the books! And when the time finally came that I was welcomed into the wonderfully strange world of bookselling, quickly the aforementioned lessons began. And now, a random sampling:

1. People who shop at independent bookstores are bizarre. And I mean this in the most loving way possible. Not a shift went by that I wasn’t besieged by some odd/vague/rambling request. More often than not, the more the requester rambled, the more likely it was they weren’t actually requesting anything. They simply wanted to talk – and talk they did. The comments that accompanied these requests were on another level altogether. I was once told I had a “lovely aura”, which previously I’d only ever heard someone say in a movie. Truthfully, it was quite a nice compliment, but one that caused me to momentarily furrow my brow all the same. And as my experiences with folks of this kind span only one short year – I often wonder the tales a veteran bookseller could tell . . . any offerings?

2. People who work in independent bookstores are bizarre. Again, lovingly spoken. I have found myself to also be quite bizarre on many occasions, but this is something I’m used to. Something I’m not used to is a person who is so entirely eclectic that their staff picks shelf is lined with everything from Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” to Nora Roberts’ “Dream Trilogy”. Another coworker had the capability to quote both Homer’s “The Iliad” and Homer Simpson at the drop of a hat. Impressive, n’est-ce pas? And, most admiringly, one had a head so full of juicy book-related knowledge that a complex computer inventory system was no match for the index of his superhuman brain. I am in awe of such people. I, with my basic knowledge of sci-fi and children’s lit, bow down humbly before you.

3. The word bizarre originally meant beard. This brings me to the most important of the random samplings of things working in a bookstore has taught me because . . . it came from a book. Over the last year, each time I found myself among the stacks I was bombarded with brand new information. Did you know that blue eyes are a human evolution that has occurred only over the last 10,000 years? Did you know that E. E. Cummings preferred to have his initials capitalized, and not the lowercase “e. e.” that we so often see? Did you know that the word bizarre comes from the Basque word bizar, meaning beard? On so on, and so forth . . .

On so on, and so forth! I have been bitten by the bookselling bug. What is it about the exchange of money for books (and sometimes books for books) that is so damn intoxicating? In my one year at a magical, cherry-wooded, speckle-carpeted, lemon pledge-scented bookstore I learned a lot of things, but the answer to that question – I still know not. So, it is goodbye/so long/fare thee well . . . for now. My new cozy little town has its own cozy little bookstore . . . perhaps they’re hiring?

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8 thoughts on “What working in a bookstore has taught me (so far)”

  1. Larissa, this is lovely! I think I know the bookstore of which you speak. Oh, wait! I guess it could be any one of the 35 or so that I visit regularly.

    Best of luck in your new home. I’m sure you will have a wonderful relationship of some sort with the cozy little bookstore in your town.

  2. My uncle used to own a book store in the early 90s. He went on to become a travel writer. I remember spending my summer holidays on a hard wooden stool browsing through Penguin classics. I used to read and chat with my uncle and time would just fly away….

  3. Hey, I run a library in India and what you said about people with “rambling requests” and “need to talk is so true! We get that a lot too! Though I have to say, apart from some weird characters, most people are fun to talk to…kind of like discovering characters from a novel talking in real life.Nice blog!

  4. Hi Larissa,

    I’m a 21 years old English undergraduate living in Montreal, Canada and I feel stupid. I’m exactly in your “I was still pestering my local independents for a job, any job – just let me be near the books” phase, and I can’t find anything. The independents bookshops I’ve given my resumes to were simply not hiring. Maybe I’m doing something wrong? How did you make it? And I love independent bookstores (I wouldn’t to work in Indigo or Barnes and Nobles). How should I introduce myself? Could you give me tips?

    Thank you,

    Farah D.

    1. farah,

      I also live in montreal, and I am undergraduate in c. writing at concordia, so I understand what you’re going through. independent bookstores are few and far between in the city, and they have the luxury to pick and choose employees and even interns. drawn & q is (obviously) a really, really good one, though to get hired your only/best shot is to go to as many of their events as you can (book launch, readings and such, there’s a d & q group on facebook if you want to keep up), meet people and shake hands.

      best of luck,

      g.

      1. Hey Guillaume,

        This is kind of freaky: I am an undergraduate in Creative Writing at Concordia as well. Are you a first year student? Thanks for the tips too, I was feeling quite desperate. I found something related to writing for the summer though, so I might give it a try again in the Fall (most independent bookstore owners told me they weren’t hiring in the summer because it was the ‘dead season’). Did you ever make it?

        Best wishes,

        Farah D.

        1. hey farah,

          wow, this is random and also sort of awkward: I am also a first year student, though I was only part time last semester. currently still have a soul-crushing & possibly psychologically damaging full time-job career thing that I have to deal with. pays the bills but makes me loathe the universe. actually had a lead this summer for a copywriting gig which would have been perfect, though it fell through last minute because of random bad luck and also because I am cursed, maybe.

          lit, however, is where I belong (supposedly), so I am considering ‘taking the leap’ and committing to it full-time in the fall. still ‘mulling it over’, though at the moment seems like I am on a direct collision course with going back full-time.

          anyway, feels like we should be talking in private, as opposed to hi-jacking the comments section of some random blog.

          would love to know more about what you do/aspire to do/ etc.

          send me an email at morissetteguillaume [at] hotmail.com

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