by Brett Warner
They call it “loss prevention”- an attempt to minimize shrinkage, shoplifting, and all other sorts of profit loss. Standing behind a computer screen, fake smiles all around, the word “Information” hanging like a halo over your head… it’s easy to start thinking about things you’ve lost along the way. A soccer mom asks for the Self Help section and like a prized show dog, you walk to her through the aisles, handing her a copy of He’s Just Not That Into You with a chipper “Have a good day!” the first of hundreds you’ll give out before closing time. The truth is that you silently hate this woman, and the next customer, and the next. You hate her because you never planned on selling books for a living. And each query, each title search, each cash register transaction is a blunt reminder of what’s gone missing, of what little there is left. Management worries about lost product – a bookseller worries about losing themselves.
My chain bookstore experience began two months out of high school. A naïve wallflower with Manic Panic Fire Engine Red hair, they hired me as a part-time cashier. The GM was a short, bald fellow with even thicker framed glasses than mine. He asked for some of my favorite authors, nodding favorably when I mentioned Ellis and Eugenides. I’d worked at the public library for a couple years and knew my way around a cart of books. The sellers were nice, the customers friendly. This was going to be a great job, I thought. Three states away and five years later, I’m sitting in another manager’s office. Stern but calmly, she offers to pay me through my last day but makes it clear that my book selling days are over. Five years of heartache, drinking, dancing, singing, and selling books made a jaded, retail-weary wretch of me. And I’d do it all -or at least parts of it – over again in a second.
The first thing you need to know about booksellers is that they assume you’re an idiot. Until proven otherwise, you are just another aimless moron wandering about their turf, blindly feeling about in the fluorescent darkness for the latest Twilight or Steig Larsson bestseller. The second thing you need to know about booksellers is that they love to drink. A lot. Monday nights, Tuesday nights – any day spent shelling out mass markets and Paperchase nicknacks deserves a night at the bar. I can recall countless hangovers suffered behind a service kiosk, smuggling in McDonalds fries with my supervisors while scouring our pirated internet for concert dates and music news. One New Year’s Day, only half of the scheduled employees showed up for work – not a clear eye amongst us. Over a round of Blue Moon, we’d laugh at all the bird-brained questions, cruelly impersonating our favorite regulars while blasting The Prodigy from the jukebox. Once the lanyard nametags came off, class divisions between cashiers, booksellers, and management disappeared. Everyone liked everybody else, and we all enjoyed a can or two (or six) of PBR after an evening shift.
At any given store location, there will be at least two (sometimes as many as four) booksellers dating. I even watched a supervisor swallow a demotion over a girl. My own bookstore fling started over beer and James Bond movies and ended with a difficult phone call and months of workplace drama. A line in the sand was drawn, and all the other booksellers would have to choose sides in the Me vs. Her battle raging silently between shelf maintenance and new release nights. One seller (who we all assumed was legally insane) started a boxing match with her baby daddy on multiple floors of the building. I’m pretty sure she still works there. Speculations would abound: did you sleep with that cute cashier girl after that one night? Was so and so actually dating or just fooling around? Never have I seen more fertile grounds for soap opera than the back corner of General Reference.
Two Fridays a month, our staff would take over a nearby pub and karaoke until closing time. Arms around each other, we sang and danced our carpe diem cares away, sure to have Christian Bale Batman voices at work the next day. I loved these people, some of whom I had nothing common with other than a similar résumé credit. Nobody liked working there, but we forged a secret family, its roots digging through the concrete of corporate monotony and customer service pageantry. I’ve sold books alongside artists, musicians, journalists, teachers, military veterans, athletes, and actors, all of us setting aside our dreams and our hopes. Behind every smiling face, ready and able to pre-order the next Dan Brown blockbuster, is a crushed soul, borderline alcoholic who’s living paycheck to paycheck, tired of alphabetizing, of listening to Jack Johnson on a loop. They relish an intelligent conversation and loathe every pile of magazines left behind in the café. They punch in and out like anyone else, trying to imagine something better.
A high school English teacher of mine once suggested that everyone should spend at least two years in a thankless service job, that it would teach you humility and show you what people by large are really like. I’ve seen the cruel underbelly of humanity – and it’s a short, smelly old lady with a stack of romance novels trying to use her coupon more than once.