A Case for Being Kind to Tired Booksellers

On Memorial Day weekend, masked but vaccinated, I finally reentered one of my favorite bookshops in Chicago, gleeful at the thought of glossy book jacket lined tables and shelves with those tiny handwritten reviews on bits of paper underneath different titles.

It wasn’t the first bookstore I had visited since some of the coronavirus restrictions had lifted; it wasn’t even the first one in Chicago. However, it had been the one that I frequented the most often before the world shifted on its axis. It was where I had run when the world seemed to be falling apart, the one I had dreamed of having my own book launch in, and the one where I had even made some friends at after-party events.

Bookstores are some of the few retail spaces where I genuinely feel at ease. As a plus-size woman, clothing stores are often harrowing trash heaps. The only things that fit are scarves, sunglasses, or a small section of items relegated to a rather pathetic shelf in the back. I am also someone who has only scraped my way above poverty in the past few years, so many other stores were also treacherous at best.

But bookshops — in bookshops, I had power. My first review in an honest-to-goodness magazine appeared five years ago, and long before that, a book always followed behind me. I could scan the spine for the publisher’s mark knowing many by heart. If I wandered over to the nature writing section of any store, I’d find I have probably read most of the shelf. Here, these pieces of beat-down tree, and cloth, and ink, had been a source of pleasure, of knowledge, of joy.

My elation, though, was not matched when I walked up to the counter with my book. Neither the cashier nor the bookseller on the floor smiled back at me. They seemed exhausted. Their faces resembled the one I too had made after finishing another day of work.

They did their jobs with grace and swiftness, but I am a little embarrassed to admit that I was…sad.

Like a child, I wondered why no one was happy to see me.

Still, once I got my new treasure and left, I pulled myself back together.

“Stop being so self-involved, Gretchen,” I said to myself. “They had a terrible year too.”

From lack of events to suddenly having to shift business models to a growing uncertainty that seemed to rise like thunderheads over the world, independent bookstores had a rough go during COVID-19. They were both beacons of light during the last year and a place that found itself centered in politics. Some held on by their fingernails and are still open, and others closed for good.

So not only do I think booksellers are allowed to feel their feelings as they restock books — and heck, they can even be grumpy when we ask them to find stuff — but I think we owe them patience, space, and time. We have all been through a lot, and we will be a bit weird in public for a while. Be kind to yourself, be kind to strangers, and be kind to those selling you books.

Better yet, what if being kind and understanding these people don’t owe us anything is instated as the case in general? Booksellers, grocery store clerks, wait staff at restaurants are not paid to take care of our feelings. By being friendly or smiling on cue, they are paid to do their jobs well. This year, I am going to try harder to let them do that.