I probably don’t need to tell you that there are many amazing things about working at a bookstore. I think most book lovers will immediately see the appeal. And in terms of retail jobs, I believe that being a bookseller is pretty much as good as it gets: funny and clever coworkers, interesting and usually pretty relaxed customers, and–of course–getting to be surrounded by books at all times.
Like all jobs, though, there are also some downsides. For one thing, they never let you just plunk down and read that fascinating book that just came in. The nerve! And no one ever tells you about the alarming frequency of books somehow falling onto your head or toes while shelving. Even with these flaws, it’s still the best job around, but it’s time to pull back the curtain and show you what’s it’s really like working at a bookstore. Here are the elements of bookseller life that are The Worst.
It’s inevitable. You start working at a bookstore, you perhaps acquire that sweet, sweet employee discount, and suddenly you realize that you’re working for books. It’s pretty likely that you already spent more money than you meant to on books, but now you’re surrounded with them all the time. And new ones are constantly coming in! Sometimes, you can find yourself buying books you don’t especially like just because the store got in a really cool/rare edition of a book, and it isn’t until you’ve brought it home that you realize you’ve been dazzled by the edition and have no desire to actually read it. It takes years, in my experience, to build up the tolerance to not spend a significant portion of your paycheck in your own store.
Even if you somehow restrain yourself from spending too much money on books, you can’t help but encounter books you want to read. Maybe you switch to keeping a list of what you want to read, or borrowing titles from the library. This just creates a different problem, though: you have way too many books you want to read. Between customer and coworker recommendations and the books you stumble on while working, there’s no chance you’ll ever be able to catch up. (And that’s not even counting if your store gets ARCs in!)
The joy of exploring a new bookstore is definitely diminished when you work in one. For one thing, it’s really hard to actually buy books in other stores when you are used to getting a generous employee discount. But if even if you do intend to buy books there, it can be hard to navigate a different bookstore, because you’re so used to your own store’s shelving practices that it doesn’t occur to you that the title you’re looking for might be shelved a different way. (“You keep James Patterson in what section?”) And, of course, you can’t help but compare every bookstore to your own. It’s easy to judge stores for where they differ, but it is just as distracting to encounter something you think they do better and find yourself taking mental notes.
I’m definitely biased here, because I work at a bookstore with three floors and no elevator, which means hauling 40 pound tubs of books up stairs every week. We also have bookshelves that go all the way to the (raised) ceilings, which means going up ladders with stacks of books. Even in a smaller bookstore, though, shelving is a more physical activity than you might expect. Carrying stacks of books around, crouching to reach the bottom shelves and climbing stepladders (or actual ladders) to reach the top shelves over and over for eight hours can be taxing. (That is, of course, why all bookstore employees are secretly ripped.)
Now, bookstore customers are usually lovely people. But as with all retail jobs, you will occasionally encounter some rude people. Unfortunately, sometimes that can ruin a book or author for you. If someone comes in asking for a certain author ends up being condescending and demanding, it’s easy to start associating that author’s name with that feeling. And if it happens multiple times with the same book, it doesn’t matter how great the book is, it’s unlikely you’ll ever pick it up.
This a used bookstore problem in particular, but there’s a particular pain in waiting years for a certain hard-to-find title to come in, only to find that a customer has been put on the request list for it and they come in and buy it before you have a chance. I’m sure this varies by bookstore, but ours has a customers-first policy (you’re welcome), which makes this tragedy a not uncommon occurrence. Another variation on this is when you encounter an amazing book for the first time… as you’re ringing through a customer with it. You say that it looks interesting, they rave about how amazing and hard-to-find it is, and then they leave with the only copy of it. Alas!
Of course not every customer is going to share your reading taste, and that’s perfectly fine. I’m not judging anyone for enjoying an author or genre that I don’t, and I’ll even happily give recommendations for readalikes. I’ll even look for books on drinking your own urine (yes, there are multiple books on that topic) for you without any fuss (though I’ll probably talk about it at lunch in the staff room).
No, in all honesty, the actual Worst Thing about working at a bookstore is having to help people find books you find morally reprehensible. Books supporting nazism, books that are about manipulating women into sleeping with you, books that are packed full of dangerous misinformation: books that are anti-vaccines or about how climate change is a hoax. When the customer starts talking to you about how great the books are, or about their own hateful beliefs, it only gets worse. Every store and employee will have their own thresholds on how to deal with this, but in any case, it’s an awful position to be in, especially when retail employees are expected to be cheerful and agreeable with all customers at all times. I’ve kept this list pretty silly and light up to this point, but this element is the only part that’s genuinely unpleasant.
While the above is definitely The Worst thing about being a bookseller, this is the worst in a less material, more existential way. When you work with books all the time, you start to worry that they’ll lose their magic. That they’ll be distilled to just widgets to be bought and sold, and not gateways into stories.
I think it can be especially true of working at a used bookstore that you start seeing books out in the wild through the store’s eyes instead of your own. I go a library booksale and immediately think “Oooh, get that!” and “No, that’s junk” based entirely off what sells in the store, forgetting my own taste. It becomes almost almost impossible to switch off the bookstore lens (which evaluates based on condition, rarity, the amount it gets asked for, the amount we already have in the store) and just look for my own pleasure.
As difficult as it is to switch that part of my brain off when I’m looking at a book sale or little free library or any other opportunity to acquire books, the books themselves have never lost their magic for me. I’ve worked for bookstores for about 10 years now, and I’ve been book blogging in my spare time for nearly as long. My life has been books for years, and though I still sell and blog about books more than I actually read them, there’s nothing like curling up with a novel, especially, nowadays, a book I’ve never been asked for and never read anything about online.
So those are the worst things about working at a bookstore! If you’ve ever worked a bookstore, let me know your favourite (and least favourite) parts about the job. I’m sure you’ve got your own horror and success stories to share!