Chapter 2. The Epiphany (dreaming of a bookstore series)

Chapter 1 of this story: Opening a Bookstore

A Book Nerd’s Dream: Stories Toward Opening My Bookstore

This is the beginning of a story that (I hope) will have in it the part about me opening my own bookstore. I hope the story doesn’t end there – as you booksellers know, it’s the ongoing narrative that’s the stuff dreams are made of, not the single moment of opening the doors. I’m a bookseller too, and have been for quite a while, but I haven’t yet made it to that climactic moment of owning my own store. In hopes that it will prove interesting both for booksellers and for those with entrepreneurial ambitions, I’d like to offer my story, unspooling behind me as it unfolds ahead of me, for the Bookshop Blog.

Chapter 2. The Epiphany.

I loved working at Three Lives when I was an undergraduate. Coming into the bookstore from the hectic streets and the stress of classes was like taking a deep breath. The quiet, the smell of books and wood and candles, the green glass lampshades, the colleagues who mothered me and gossiped with me and taught me about contemporary literature (which, despite my English major, I knew nothing about) – it was like heaven. I couldn’t believe I was getting paid for it. And I was learning to be a good bookseller – it was a great shop for handselling, and it was small enough that every employee had their hands on every aspect of the store.

During my senior year, I came back from Christmas break to be told that Jill and Jenny had sold the bookstore – what?!? – to Toby Cox, that guy who had been hanging around for the last couple of months. It turned out to be the best thing that could have happened for the bookstore and for me at that point. Toby was, if possible, an even better boss than Jill and Jenny. He had come from a publisher (Crown), but before that had worked for many years at the Brown University Bookstore in Providence, and brought a lot of experience and love to bear. As he promised, he kept the feel of the store intact, but made some practical internal changes that were all for the best, and was both reasonable and generous with employees and customers – a true book person, and still one of my best mentors.

And yet, as graduation approached, I announced that I would have to leave the bookstore to find a “real job.” I was a BA now, and BA’s worked in offices, or in universities. I wasn’t ready to commit to academia, though I still imagined I’d be a professor someday, so I opted for the English major’s fallback job: editorial assistant in a publishing house. I followed up on some leads, applying to Knopf and some educational publishers. Again it’s strange to ponder what a different life I might have had if I’d gotten hired at Knopf – that might have been my dream job, but I didn’t make the cut.

I ended up working at Bedford St. Martin’s, a college textbook publisher, in the Communications department. It wasn’t trade publishing, but it was publishing – I would have my hands on making books, and a steady if small salary. I had a good feeling about the people there, which turned out to be accurate – one of my office mates became my boyfriend and, much later, my husband.

But that was the only thing I was right about. I was a terrible editorial assistant. I found I didn’t much care about the books we were publishing, and I didn’t like the busywork that was my responsibility. I was unorganized and inefficient. I hated sitting in a cubicle. I hated the office politics and the early mornings. I cried a lot, seemingly unreasonably – there was no real suffering in my job, but it just felt so wrong.

I started working some weekends at the bookstore, for a little extra cash, and despite the six-day week, looked forward to it. At the bookstore I could do things right, and make people happy, and make up for the frustrations of the rest of the week. But I knew I couldn’t do this forever.

So I started applying to graduate school. Cocky because of my 100% acceptance rate as an undergrad, I stuck to the top tier: Literature PhD programs at Stanford, NYU, Columbia. It was time to live up to my potential, I figured; I would read and teach and write brilliant exegesis on Woolf and Bishop. I wrote my essays and got my transcripts sent off and waited.

And I got rejected by every single program (except NYU, my alma mater, which offered my a master’s program with no financial aid). I cried some more, but the reasons were obvious. I hadn’t published anything since graduation; I wasn’t versed in literary theory beyond my freshman seminar; I loved books, but I was faking it as a potential academic.

One evening at my boyfriend’s house, I was crying again over my rejection and the new open-endedness of my plan for my life. That was when that long-suffering man, himself a serious book person (referred to on my blog as the ALP, for Adorably Literate Partner), offered the observation that changed my life.

“It doesn’t seem like you really wanted to be an academic, any more than you want to work in publishing,” he said. “The only job you ever really liked and were good at was working in the bookstore.”

My lightbulb came on like a dimmer – slowly, but steadily. I loved writing and talking about books, but not as a theorist – as a chatterer, a handseller. I loved the experience of being a reader among other readers, not in the rarified world of academia, or the removed and abstract one of publishing. I loved the space of the bookstore, the physical tasks, the making and maintenance of beauty and order and comfort. I was a bookseller.

I can’t remember whether I shared this epiphany with Toby, but somehow, for some reason, he offered me a full-time job at the store. I didn’t hesitate – I walked into my boss’s office at Bedford and gave two weeks notice. My first day back at Three Lives, my mom sent flowers – it was May Day, and there was reason to celebrate.

It took some more conversations to figure out that this was not only what I wanted to do now, it was what I wanted to do for life. A friend working in urban development helped me articulate the importance of bookstores in community life, and my first regional bookseller conference showed me the wider world of bookselling. But that moment in the ALP’s bedroom was the one all of us booksellers have at one point or another: the moment when we realize this isn’t just a retail job, it’s our calling. The rest was history – or at least, it will be.

Posted by: Jessica Stockton Bagnulo

2 thoughts on “Chapter 2. The Epiphany (dreaming of a bookstore series)”

  1. Great post Jessica! I saw a lot of parallels with my own life in there (for instance – I also tend to cry a lot about work and then feel silly about it afterwards because, what exactly am I crying for?) As well, I don’t enjoy my full-time job but I look forward to my three days a week at my “half” job at a bookstore. Even though it feels like I work all the time, at least I enjoy that part of it! I haven’t quite reached the “epiphany” stage yet – but I think I’m getting close. Thanks for sharing and I can’t wait to hear what happens next!

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