After leaving teaching, I went to work for a well-know bookshop chain. I was a humble “bookselling assistant” and never progressed beyond that because I did not want to. I had already had a career and didn’t want another one. When I went home, I could forget about work and bookshops until the next shift.
Working in the bookshop was fun, if you discount the fact that I had to come home from Central London at 10 p.m. If you think public transport is bad during the day, try it in the evening when tube trains are often few and far between and quite often change their destination in mid-journey for no apparent reason. That’s without mentioning the drunken merrymakers and various other undesirables all happy to share the train – and your carriage – with you.
The work of a bookselling assistant is more varied than you might think but without ceasing to be boring for all that. The part I enjoyed most was serving customers but I also had to shelve books, dust and polish the shelving, answer enquiries, pack up the rubbish, tape it into batches and put it out in the street, clean the staffroom and do the washing up, gift-wrap books, find non-selling books and take them off the shelves and “de-jacket” unsold paperbacks*. On Sundays, we had to go through the review sections of the newspapers and note the details of any book with a favourable review, as we knew that customers would soon be asking for these.
Dealing with the public was good apart from the occasional upset caused by unreasonable people. You meet these wherever the public have access, of course, people who are such unpleasant dolts that you wonder how they can live with themselves. Aggressive customers are aggressive because 9 times out of 10 it gets them extra privileges. There is always satisfaction in knowing that with you their tactic failed.
Customers were mostly polite and some a genuine pleasure to deal with. Sited in a busy tourist area, the shop attracted a lot of foreign visitors. I happen to be fluent in French and this came in useful on a number of occasions. Observing the dress and manners of different nationalities was an education in itself. I particularly remember a gracious American gentleman and three young women who spoke Welsh among themselves and addressed me in a charmingly lilting English.
There is nothing wrong with the bookselling business and, in fact, it provides a valuable service. It is there to make money, a perfectly legitimate goal, but as an ex-teacher I began to yearn for a job with more emphasis on public service than on raking money across the counter.
Accordingly, I decided to look for a job in the public library service in my home borough. My first attempt was unsuccessful but they at least urged me to apply again another time. I waited two years before trying again but this time I was successful. I bade goodbye to the bookshop without too much regret though with some happy and some amusing memories.
After I left, the bookshop chain was bought out by a well known American company. I thought this a great pity, as it was one of the better companies, but I am glad to see it still thriving under its new name.
*If hardbacks don’t sell, they are sent back to the publisher but paperbacks are binned, only the jackets being returned.