Some years ago, I worked for nearly 4 years as a part-time assistant in a bookshop. I left it to work in public libraries and now, sad to say, the bookshop chain I worked for has ceased to exist.
During my time at the bookshop, I wrote an account of the job as I experienced it and I present it here for your interest. Time has passed since I left the bookshop and both the trade and the world have changed but anyone who works or has worked in a bookshop will probably still find it very familiar, while other readers may find it revealing.
When I say that I work in a bookshop, people almost invariably reply with a phrase such as “Oh, how wonderful that must be! Everyone’s dream job!” So I thought I would say a few words about what it’s really like to work in a bookshop!
The firm I work for is called Books etc (yes, a small ‘e’) and has over a dozen shops in the London area. The trade in books is booming and several of the shops remain open long hours, necessitating the recruitment of part-time staff to cover unsocial hours or increase staff numbers at busy times. Though attached to one particular shop, we part-timers may be sent to others on cover and there are lots of opportunities for extra work owing to staff holidays and public holidays.
I tend to work only my shifts and not to take on extra work. No one minds this, because my colleagues are mostly impecunious students and struggling artists who are happy to get a chance to earn more money. I work literally every other day (Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday one week, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday the next). I suppose an optimist would say that I have every other day off!
On weekdays, my hours are 6.15 to 10 p.m. Saturday is the long day: 1 to 10 p.m. (with an unpaid hour off for lunch), while Sunday occupies us from 12 noon to 6.30 p.m. This means that on most working days, I return home on the Tube between 10 and 11 p.m., not the most enjoyable thing to be doing at that time of night.
I suppose the image that most people have of booksellers is that they sit at the counter or the till, reading edifying books, between handling money and engaging in witty and intelligent conversation with customers. If only it were so…!
In the first place, to be caught reading on duty is a sacking offence (this astonishes many people), though I don’t know of anyone actually being sacked. Personally, I quite enjoy being on the till. My favourite is the “floral till”, which gets its picturesque name from the fact that it is near the door leading out into Floral Street. I like this till because nothing much happens there and I can indulge my hobby of sitting staring into space and thinking my own thoughts. Unfortunately, the lift from the packing room also surfaces beside this till and I may have to unload this, placing the cargo of books on trolleys or heaping them on the floor. There will be other tasks for me there, too, such as putting books on the shelves, tidying, dusting and polishing, wrapping books in transparent film. Customers are an untidy lot and leave the place like a pigsty. You can spend all day clearing up after them.
My next favourite post is on “top till”. This is the main till and is usually continuously busy so I am free from secondary jobs but don’t have so much time for staring into space and thinking. When it is really busy, we work in pairs here: one manages the till while the other works the credit card machine.
My least favourite occupation is being on the information desk which doubles as “customer service”. In other words, as well as answering the phone, finding out whether books are available, placing orders and answering all kinds of peculiar questions, I have to do gift wrapping. Fortunately, some of my colleagues like being on info and so I can often do a swap.
My next least favourite position is being in the fiction section. It is very large and the lift continually disgorges books that have to be shelved or put in the “overstocks”. These are cupboards above the bookshelves where we put books that won’t fit onto the shelves. This means using a ladder, no easy task in a busy bookshop with narrow aisles. Fiction is hard work!
Being in other parts of the shop isn’t too bad. There are usually books to put out and no room to put them but after a while you learn all kinds of sneaky tricks to get over this. What? No, I am not going to tell you my secrets!
Because we part-timers don’t do some of the more expert tasks such as ordering books and arranging layouts, we tend to be worked hard at the menial tasks. We get a lot of fetching and carrying to do, a lot of dusting and polishing, a lot of tidying of shelves. I go home of an evening tired and sometimes dirty from the evening’s (or day’s) labours.
So what about the genial customers with whom we enjoy witty and intelligent conversation? Well, there are a few like that. There are also a lot who are impatient, surly and even downright rude, who obviously think that shop assistants are some sort of subhuman species. One needs a certain resilience and a good sense of humour to deal with them.
The opposite sort are those who assume that you know everything about books and can supply title and author in exchange for the vaguest description of a book’s contents. “Is this book any good?” “Which of these two is better for a 13-year-old girl who is learning English?” “Is this the book they based that opera on. You know, the one about the girl who dies in the middle?” “I can’t remember the title of the book, or the author, but it’s very famous. Do you know the one I mean?” “You can’t tell me of a good restaurant near here? I’d’ve thought you’d know that in a bookshop.”
Many of our customers are foreign visitors, in London on holiday or on business. Some of them speak excellent English and spend large sums of money on books for themselves, for friends and colleagues or to use in their teaching. Others cannot speak a word of our beloved idiom. Why are they in an English bookshop? Good question. Quite often it is to buy travel guides to London or the rest of the country. We keep London guides in English, French, Spanish, German, Italian and Japanese.
Colleagues usually point the French speakers in my direction. That’s fine, and enjoyable for me. One evening, I had a long conversation with a French lady who came in with her daughter who is living in London. The mother was on holiday here and, knowing no English, hadn’t been able to talk to anyone but her daughter since she arrived. Discovering that like her I had been a teacher, she seized her opportunity to have a good chat about teaching, books and a few other matters.
I also have the occasion to speak Spanish, though I have to admit to being a bit rusty. Yesterday evening, a party of 7 or 8 came in and on receiving a reluctant positive answer to the question “¿Habla usted español?”, proceeded to talk to me all at once.
One lady was very desirous of obtaining a book on “las joyas de la reina” (the Crown Jewels). Of course, she wanted it in Spanish and on being told we didn’t have such a book was unwilling to let go of me until I came up with the name and address of an establishment where such a volume could be found. Muttering the Spanish equivalent of “I haven’t the foggiest” didn’t help. At last the other members of the group took pity on me and levered her away.
Finally, I should not fail to mention those hardy souls who attempt to remove books from the shop without the ritual exchange of coinage of the realm. Considerable quantities of books are lost in this way. Store detectives circulate unnoticed among customers and several times a week “nick” someone who has left the shop with goods not paid for. Like the young man who tried to “lift” the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, a large pair of volumes that were unlikely to escape notice as their bearer lugged them through the exit. Or the drunken gentleman who refused to co-operate with the constabulary and left the premises sporting handcuffs. Or the young drug addict who told the security man “Do what you like to me, I don’t care, I’ll be dead in a few months anyway.” Or the Odd Couple, one white, one black, who work as a team. The white chap comes in first, selects the books to be stolen, places them on a shelf and leaves. A while later his black colleague arrives, so large and tough-looking as to elicit from booksellers who have seen him the comment “I didn’t fancy tackling him”. He scoops the chosen volumes into a holdall and departs. I hear that book thieves do not steal at random but go to work with a “shopping list” of titles required.
Working for Books etc has changed my attitude to bookshops. There was a time when I looked on them as sacrosanct repositories of learning. Nowadays I know their little secrets and the pointed questions to ask that could possibly embarrass their staff. On the other hand, I tend to put my hands in my pockets when I go into a shop lest I absent-mindedly start tidying the shelves or moving out-of-place books about!