Fireside Chats With a Bookseller, III

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“So, have you read all of these books?”

To begin with, a brief primer on humour: even the wittiest of witticisms (of which this comment is not one) wears thin after repetition. This is the sort of fact of which I had hoped most canny adults were aware, but, like so much about adulthood, the reality thus far proves disappointing.

Secondly: of course I have not read all of these books. You know that anyway; you are not asking because you actually care or think I might have, but either because you are uncomfortable with silence, or because you are doing that thing some customers do, where they know you cannot be rude to them up to a certain point of unacceptable behaviour on their part, so they torment you with banalities on purpose. More on this in an episode to come.

The interesting thing about working in a bookshop is that you do not get time to read books during the day. The corollary to the above remark (and perhaps the more annoying one) is “Oh, I wish I worked here! You must just read all day!” No, actually. It’s where I work. Bookselling is a job, therefore a bookshop is also an office. Waitresses don’t eat all day; bartenders don’t drink all night (well…); doctors don’t spend their surgery hours writing themselves prescriptions, and lawyers don’t sue their own ex-spouses. Booksellers don’t read at work. We’re busy doing other things, including but not limited to: unpacking daily boxes of deliveries from wholesale distributors and publishers; having meetings with sales reps; invoicing account customers; shelving stock; processing web orders; fixing our own mistakes; ordering special titles or reordering regularly needed titles; recommending titles to customers; processing sales through the till; and, of course, answering emails, seventy-five percent of which consist of queries the answer to which is easily found by spending two minutes on our website.

When a job description says of the ideal candidate for the role that they “will have passion and enthusiasm”, it is generally utter guff. You don’t need passion or enthusiasm to do most jobs, no matter what recruitment specialists say; the most that ought to be required of you in the majority of industries is competence and being alive. In bookselling, though, those qualities are essential. What other industry relies on you being able to speak knowledgeably on a range of subjects whilst denying you the ability to do your research during work hours? If you aren’t passionate about reading—really passionate, rabidly; if you don’t like it enough to read at lunch, before bed, and/or during your commute—you won’t have enough time to do it at work, during the day. And you’ll be demonstrably less good at your job, much of which (at least in the small indie where I work) involves giving personal recommendations to walk-in customers you’ve never met before. If you haven’t got an arsenal of recent reading to choose from, you’re lost, and if you’re relying on your work hours to give you the time to “just read all day”…forget it.

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7 thoughts on “Fireside Chats With a Bookseller, III

  1. I love this (and hate it, too, because I loathe the low-level harassment that is People Asking Deliberately Stupid Questions Just To Get A Rise Out Of Professionals).
    I confess I was quite rude to my next-door-neighbour’s father the other day when he said, grinning, about my nine-month-old, “So, is she singing yet?” Which is all anyone ever asks me if they know I’m a singer.
    “Ugh,” I said, and actually rolled my eyes. “I’m SO tired of that question. Everyone asks me that. Of course she’s not singing. She’s a BABY.”
    He looked quite hurt. I didn’t care.

    • HAHAHA. Poor you. Poor man (but also, come ON.) It’s a tiny glimpse into the world of people who have to live with microaggressions all the time (“can I touch your hair?”) and it makes me so, so much more appreciative of the absolute rage that such comments provoke. GET BETTER CHAT, PEOPLE.

  2. When I do my book stalls occasionally, I get the ‘Have you read all these’ too! I sympathise. Working in a school we get the parents who always know about teaching and their child’s behaviour better than their teachers – makes me thankful that I’m a support bod rather than a frontline teacher, it can get very passive-aggressive indeed.

  3. I imagine someone *could* do your job by putting in the bare minimum of effort and forgetting books exist when they get home. HH are lucky to have someone as dedicated and enthusiastic as you, and you are lucky to have work that you can be passionate about. I’ve volunteered or worked in five bookstores, and found that generally it was much better to be a customer than an employee. Likewise, working in an academic library was not all it cracked up to be, mostly because I am not cut out for customer service and it was much more about customers (and IT) than it was ever about, you know, books. The work was so unrewarding and unskilled that I did eventually end up ‘reading all day’, whether or not I should have been doing so.

    • You know, I’m genuinely not sure—the number of people who come in and require a fairly high level of awareness of what’s just been published, and what’s been published over the last 15-20 years, is high enough at HH that it would be hard to answer questions if you didn’t do a certain level of outside work.

      I do think, though, that that’s relatively rare; from what I’ve seen, lots of Waterstones booksellers (for instance) ARE very knowledgeable about books, but wouldn’t necessarily HAVE to be. Barnes and Noble is just as bad if not worse.

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