Monday, May 9, 2011

Memories of the Bookstore

After I had taught for five years at my first job, the school RIFFed ten teachers due to budget problems; since I was twenty-seven and at the bottom of the totem pole, I was among those who had to go.

Finding another teaching job proved to be difficult, so I started scanning the want ads. I was thrilled to see that a giant Barnes and Noble was opening near me, and they were hiring! I called and arranged an interview. When I met with the two managers who were hiring, I said that I preferred a managerial position, preferably in fiction. They asked what my credentials were. I told them that I had a B.A. in English and was an avid reader. I produced a typed sheet of every mystery novel I'd ever read, who wrote it, and a brief description of why I loved it. I got the job--manager of fiction.

It was a nice job. I soon learned how to use the register, how to stock shelves in the stockroom, and how to work the floor. Soon enough the managers of other sections knew to send people with questions to me, especially if they were questions about mysteries. "You'd have to ask Julia," they would say, "because mystery is not my area."

I loved helping people find books--either because they were hunting for something but couldn't remember the name of the series, or because they wanted to discover something new--maybe, for example, they just knew they wanted "something funny." So I'd introduce them to Joan Hess or Sparkle Hayter or Dorothy Cannell, and they'd come back and say they loved the book and would proceed to buy the whole series.

There were down sides to the job, of course: we were open until 11 at night, and the truly creepy people seemed to wander in at about 10:45. One man, in a chilling moment that is far creepier in retrospect, asked me if we had books about live burial. I was so naive that I didn't know what he meant. I said I didn't think so. Then he asked for books about women's make-up. Twenty years later I'm still haunted by the idea that he was somehow planning to bury a person alive. My husband tells me I've read too many suspense novels.

The other problem with the job was that I was exposed daily to beautiful, glossy books, with new titles coming in every week, and all I wanted to do was find a quiet corner and read one. That, of course, was against the rules. Also, with my 15% discount, I spent far too much on book every week. Over the seven months that I was there, my husband and I spent well over a thousand dollars "saving" money on books. :)

So finally I realized that I'd have to go; I found a good job at a boys' school in Chicago and felt that I was ready to get back into the classroom, a place where I got paid to talk at length about books. There really is no better environment than that for a bibliophile.

My beautiful Barnes and Noble is now empty, and the huge parking lot that was once jammed full of cars is an empty expanse of concrete. It's a lonely place that seems to invite some tumbling tumbleweed. When I pass it I see it as a metaphor for the book industry, and the way we're moving out of giant buildings and into our own laptops, either out of laziness or a sort of widespread agoraphobia that suggests we no longer prefer to meet people in person. I can't complain, though, because I'm sitting here on my laptop and "chatting" with people online, and later I'll probably make a purchase online because it will be so much more efficient than running a physical errand.

So the trend is insular--we stay in our houses--except that the pendulum may well swing back again. We'll get tired of virtual everything and demand a Renaissance of palpable things and human interaction.

Only time will tell.


Sandra Parshall said...

Every time I go into a bookstore, I discover all over again what wonderful places they are. But like many people, I don't visit brick-and-mortar stores as often as I used to. Today I received three items I ordered online -- two books and a music CD. Three purchases I didn't make at local businesses. When I deplore the closing of bookstores and the failures of local businesses, I only have to look in the mirror to see the cause.

Julia Buckley said...

As I said, none of us are immune from judgment--we all cause the trends.

But yes, it is a delight to go to a bookstore. Our downfall, if it comes, will be our laziness. And I count myself among the most lazy. Maybe I can find a self-improvement course ONLINE. :)