Life of a Bookseller

Back in October, I started working at Barnes and Noble.

During my interview, my now-manager asked me the usual initial interview question: “Why do you want to work here?” and my eyes lit up and the corners of my mouth involuntarily curled and I answered: “This has literally been my dream since high school, even before I could drive.”

Honestly, sixteen year old Cecelia is just about dying. I think I’ve applied to work at Barnes and Noble about twice a year since I got my license.

Working at Barnes and Noble is only a part-time job for me, a way to make some extra money as I save up to move out. It’s basic retail; dealing with unhappy customers, standing on your feet all day, cleaning up the weirdest messes. But there’s the added bonus of being surrounded by books.

During a typical shift, I’m usually reshelving misplaced or abandoned books, reorganizing out of place books, helping customers find the exact books they want, or doling out recommendations to customers who don’t know what they’re looking for (yet).

Yesterday I answered the phone. It was an upbeat customer, speaking quickly but clearly out of breath. She was running late for a meeting but was needed a book, The Unquiet Mind, and was wondering if we could put it aside for her. (We place customer orders on hold literally all the time and running around the store pulling books for customers is one of my favorite things to do.) I looked it up on the computer and we had very limited quantities; I asked if I could put her on hold while I double-checked to make sure it was on the shelf.

Walking back to the phone with the book in hand, I took her off hold, thanked her for waiting, and started to continue with the process of putting the book on hold (we typically ask for their phone number and full name). I told her we would be holding it behind the register for the next three days.

“I’m actually pulling into the parking lot now,” she said. “Are you at the customer service desk?”

I wasn’t; I was all the way back in the kid’s department at the moment, but would be bringing up the book to the register. I cancelled the hold figuring I would just tell the cashier who it was for.

“Perfect!” she said. “I’ll probably meet you on the way up.”

We hung up and I briskly walked to the front of the store. In the power aisle in the center of the store, I could see straight to the doors and a woman was walking in. She saw me, gave me a thumbs up, and smiled.

Handing her the book, it was very clear she had been crying. Her eyes were red and swollen, but she smiled and spoke cheerfully.

“Thank you so much!” she said. “You don’t understand what this means.”

I laughed and informed her it was something we did all the time; it was no big deal.

“This is wonderful, thank you,” she kept saying. “My son has just been diagnosed with bipolar disorder,” she said. “His doctor recommended I read this first. You just made a terrible day a little less sucky.”

I thanked her, wished her good luck, and left her to pay. On the way back to the kid’s department I stopped to help another customer, grateful that I was able to help her save a few moments of her day but also knowing I was just doing my job.

About twenty minutes later, I was back in the kid’s department, putting out a small load of books that just arrived. My manager came back with a post-it.

“A customer just left a note for me,” she said. “It says that she was so appreciative to what you did, and gives high praise to both you and your boss.”

I answer phone calls like that all the time; someone is looking for a book for a school book report, or someone is looking to see if we have the new book that just came out, or someone wants to pick up a book tomorrow and wants to make sure there’s still one left. Generally I don’t think too much about it or judge the type of book they’re holding or who’s on the other line. It’s part of my responsibility as a bookseller but also just something I was just trained to do back in October.

I have seen the way people react to books though, and I have seen the way people react to the generosity of strangers, and I think a little extra effort and a little extra kindness goes a long way, even if the receiving person doesn’t notice all that much.

I’m lucky I’ve spent the last five months surrounded by books and (for the most part) people who adore them as much as I do. Retail life is hard; long hours, sore feet, upset customers, working weekends. But I’m glad my extra pocket money is coming from a job where I get paid to literally talk about books all afternoon long.

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