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!
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.