The pleasures and sorrows of bookselling

reading bookFor a lifelong bookworm, there can be few better day jobs than working in a bookshop. Yet of all the jobs I have ever done, there have been none which I have found to present such a unique set of customer service challenges. So aside from the obvious questions which dog all customer-facing folk – (‘Do you work here?’ – ‘No, I’m only wearing this Staff badge because I love the way the lanyard tries to throttle me on a regular basis.’) – here are a few of the bugbears that are the lot of the humble independent bookseller. I have personally experienced every single one of these.

‘Do you have the book I’m looking for?’…. long silence.
To hand, I have approximately 100,000 books. Upwards of 5 million more are available to order for you. WHICH ONE? And don’t just tell me the colour of it. ‘It’s green’ does not help me.

‘It’s all a conspiracy.’
‘The spy satellites are watching us.’
‘The government agents come in the night and steal our memories.’
There are countless variations on this theme. Some are benign, others less so. Bookshops (and libraries) do seem to attract a certain type of intelligent lunatic. Perhaps it’s because we talk to them, because unlike in, say, supermarkets, talking to customers is what we do.

‘Will you go out with me?’ (Or, ‘Will your colleague (name) go out with me, if I asked her?’)
Again, perhaps it’s because we talk to the customers. Perhaps some other reason. But I have never worked anywhere where the staff are as likely to attract admirers/stalkers as a bookshop.

‘I bet you have a really great time here. You’ve got nothing to do all day but read the books!’
I don’t even. I can’t even. Response. Articulate.

‘Books are so expensive. Look at this! Eight quid! It’s nothing but paper.’
Tell you what, mate. We sell reams of printer paper for a fiver. Buy one of them and go write War and Peace yourself. Save yourself three quid, you will.

‘You must get paid so much. I mean, you buy the books in for what? Fifty pence? And sell them on for this much. You must be rolling in it.’
Get out of my shop. Now.

But it’s not all like this. If it were, there would be no booksellers left – it’s certainly not a job that you do for the money, no matter what some people think. Because there are precious moments, too.
The elderly lady who regularly buys up half of our social work books and gushes while she pays about how wonderful the shop is and how wonderful all of the staff are and how wonderful young people are these days, they work so hard and have such a wonderful future ahead of them and did she mention how wonderful the shop is?
The customers who leave the shop promptly at closing time when we have buses to catch.
The middle-aged man who broke down in tears of happiness at the desk because I managed to track down and order a book from his childhood that he was longing to read again.
The motorbiking enthusiast who comes in to regale me with stories of his trips around Europe, and proudly show me photos of his brand new Vespa.
The customers who bring us chocolates (and sometimes brandy) at Christmas.
The hypnotherapist who offered me a free session when I got a book to him same-day delivery.
The moment when a customer comes in and says ‘You know that book you recommended? It was brilliant.’
The customers who, day in, day out, treat us like human beings with thoughts and feelings of our own, not mindless till-monkeys.
To you, thank you. And if you are one of these people to your local bookseller, thank you too. You wipe away the frustration of the day, and let us leave work with smiles on our faces.

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