January 15, 2018

Hey, I wrote an article!

I had the good luck to work at Powell's Books for the holidays, and I wrote an article about it for the Oregonian. (I've also included the full text of the article below.)

The things I learned when I became a bookseller

The boy was nose-deep in a book about a narwhal, and he wasn’t about to hand it over.

“You need to put that on the counter so I can buy it, Jack,” said his mother.

Jack’s knuckles whitened as he shot us a distrustful look. “But then I’ll lose my place.”

Cue the Western music. It was a standoff.

I was temping at Powell’s Books for the holidays after a friend suggested that every writer should experience working in a bookstore. Now, confronted with the dilemma of Jack and the narwhal, I reviewed some observations from my short time on the job to see if any might be of use.

1. The world comes to you
I had wondered how long it would take to see someone I knew at the bookstore.

The answer: 30 minutes. That’s how much time elapsed my first day before someone called out, “Hey, Bart!” It was Lisa, a neighbor whose house I could easily hit with a water balloon from our backyard. (Could. But haven’t.)

In the following days, I’d see friends, colleagues, former students, writers, fellow heavy-metal devotees and the first principal I worked for after moving to Portland in 1995. Because Powell’s is a tourist attraction for readers worldwide, I also met people from South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and New Jersey. And I sincerely enjoyed a conversation about druids with an Australian gentleman who had an oak tree tattooed across his face.

2. The children’s section is life-affirming
If current events ever get you down, visit the kids’ section at your local bookstore. Just make sure your dental plan is current because youngsters reading aloud to each other (or to stuffed animals) are so sweet, you’ll be at risk for cavities.

Lots of cavities.

3. Unconditional positive regard
“You’re doing great work.”

“Thank you for being here today!”

“Yes, that’s a very nice shirt.”

These are just some of the unsolicited compliments I got from customers. (Okay, that last comment was solicited.) It wasn’t that I was doing anything special. People were just in a good mood. Even as the crowds swelled and the checkout line lengthened, sunny dispositions prevailed.

Maybe people who read books are more likely to be friendly and polite. Or perhaps it was simply a contagion of holiday cheer. Either way, I felt good about my shirt.

4. Executive privilege
Both the 44th and 45th presidents had a major impact on book sales this season. First, Pete Souza’s coffee-table book, Obama: An Intimate Portrait sold out in December. The following month, customers waited in line outside for two hours to buy the first copies of Michael Wolff’s profile of the Trump White House, Fire and Fury

5. People are funny
One afternoon, a customer accosted me with a complaint.

Man: I can’t believe this store has only two Harper Lee titles!
Me: …
Man (expectantly): …
Me: It’d be a nice trick if we had three, wouldn’t it?
Man (grinning): It would!

6. Counter espionage
This scenario played out a number of times:

A customer pushes her purchases across the counter, furtively glancing around and whispering, “Oh-god-I-think-I-lost-them-but-they’ll-be-back-soon-hurry-hide-it-here-they-come.”

This is what happens when you shop for the people you’re shopping with. Fortunately, my natural talent for skulduggery is a professional strength in situations like this. 

Speaking of skulduggery, let’s get back to my standoff with Jack. How could I induce him to relinquish his narwhal book? By offering him a sticker? A bookmark? Free shipping?

But before I could act, Jack simply handed me the book. “It’s okay,” he said. “I know my place.”

I glanced around at the brightly lit stacks of books surrounding us.

“Me, too,” I said.

1 comment:

Bart King said...

I just realized that this subject's "origin story" is a little more complex. Now, here, in the world's longest blog comment, is that fascinating backdrop:

So, there I was, taking Augie for a walk and contemplating matters such as story structure, narrative voice, and — what in the world did Augie just gulp down off the sidewalk?

And it was on that walk that I crossed paths with a fellow writer who shall remain nameless. Oh fine, it was Mark Remy. The two of us regarded each other warily. After all, writers are rugged individualists who need time alone with their thoughts.

In other words, we were starved for human interaction.

So before Mark could speak, I launched into a lengthy rehash of everything I’d done that day. (He loves this.) And after I finally came up for air, Mark spoke:

“Y’know, I’ve been thinking I need some more structure in my days. I was just at New Seasons [a Portland grocery store], and I thought it might be the perfect place to work part-time. It’s close by and I wouldn’t have to worry about taking my work home with me.”

“Good idea!” I agreed just to be polite. But after we bid farewell, Mark’s words grew on me. Of course, that raised the question of what kind of work would be appealing? Or to put it another way, what job could I do that wouldn’t make me want to put a bullet in my head?

So I applied to Powell’s, and you know that part of the story. To it, I'll just add that I'd thought I would like selling books, but I didn’t know I would love it.

Anyway, on my third day at the bookstore, you’ll never guess who wandered in. Mark!

Upon seeing me, he staggered backwards, nearly dropping his hot chocolate and New York Times.

“Wow,” Mark said. “Just wow.”

“Hey, what can I say?” I asked. “You convinced me. How about you? Did you apply?”

Mark shook his head disbelievingly, and from his expression, I saw that HE NEVER MEANT TO. In short, he had tricked me into taking my job!