Friday, January 05, 2007

"The snow goose need not bathe to make itself white. Neither need you do anything but be yourself." - Lao-Tzu

One in an occasional series [5/23.]

A few months after I got married, I quit my (fairly lucrative) job as a scenic artist to go work in a bookstore. I had had it with the painting world – the lousy hours, the terrible working conditions, the chemicals and toxic materials with which we worked as a matter of course, the hard manual labor much of the job required.

To apply for work at Borders back then you had to take a little test along with filling in your job application; I am almost certain they are not even permitted to do this now. You had to provide authors for a list of book titles; you had to provide a title for a list of authors; you had to assign to the proper section a list of book titles. It wasn’t easy, but for a voracious reader it was simple enough, made even simpler by the fact that I pay attention to politics and world events as well.

I worked 37 hours a week and was paid a pittance, but got full health bennies, five days of paid vacation, a 20% employee discount, free coffee at the café, and a $35 book allowance each month. Also, a little known fact: we were permitted to borrow new books, even while they were awaiting their sale date, and read them, as long as they were brought back in pristine condition. I was in heaven.

I would say, as a general rule, bookstore staff are generally the most overqualified people you are likely to encounter. All of us had at least a bachelor’s degree; a revolting number had master’s degrees or were working on them; two of the clerks had Ph.D.s. We all shared a healthy disdain for professional sports, Oprah books, and the entire Dummies series. We debated whether it was better for a child to not read at all rather than read R.L. Stine’s execrable but wildly popular Goosebumps books; we looked down our noses at the grungy music store staff; and we laughed at people who bought Danielle Steele novels, John Gray self-help books, or any of the Star Wars novelizations. (No one said we were MATURE.)

I eventually wormed my way into the good graces of the special orders clerk, a strange little man with multiple neuroses, who came from a wildly rich but incredibly dysfunctional (think television-miniseries-dysfunctional) family, but who for some reason liked me very much. He taught me how to process special orders, how to unpack and confirm and sort and organize the boxes and boxes of books that came in each day, and how to track down, log, and route store requests (those books that another Borders was asking us for, rather than the distributor). He was definitely preparing me to take over his position at some point, perhaps when he was made an assistant manager, as he hoped to be.

Our current assistant managers were a diverse group: Mac was a big, goofy, shambling bear of a guy who didn’t really seem all that smart, and probably wasn’t; Carole was crafty and comfy and warm, always ready with a smile, a sympathetic ear, or a scone (she ran the café); Lew was quiet and sarcastic, and I had such a crush on him I couldn’t even speak around him - so of course he was the on-duty manager any time I fucked up my register count; and Maria was a frighteningly ambitious Latina lesbian who scared everyone else to death, but she never bothered me. (I think she liked me because I wound up becoming very good friends with her girlfriend, whom I adored; I’d have gone after Danielle myself if I were permanently inclined that way.)

There were a couple of people whom it was understood were being groomed for promotion: Craig, the periodicals guy - who left to go to grad school in Boston; Liz, the trainer - who got married, had a baby, and transferred to a New England Borders; Ryan, who had been in seminary before working at the bookstore and is now a local manager of a different branch; and Debbie, who was funny and smart and took no shit from anyone, who runs one of the college bookstores here in town now.

Our special events coordinator was a weaselly little man with a downtrodden-looking wife he’d married under duress (she was pregnant). He was fired after, on some insane impulse, he BOUGHT rather than rented a piano for an in-store event, spending his entire budget for the year - in February.

Virginia took over for him; Virginia was a petite and beautiful Quebecoise who had moved to Pittsburgh with her doctor-husband and their two children. Once the kids were old enough to be in school all day, she was bored with the obligatory Junior League and Ladies Auxiliary events so she got a job in the bookstore. She had a ton of useful social contacts, and the poise, tact, and grace of a diplomat; she was the perfect fit for the special-events coordinator position. She is also sweet and funny and a dear person, whom I have remained friends with and who spoils my children shamefully.

I had a blast working at Borders; I worked there for a little over a year. But I was getting tired of living on my barely-over-minimum-wage paychecks; I was getting tired of the increasingly politicized atmosphere of the corporation; and I hated that we each no longer worked in our own sections which capitalized on our specialized knowledge, but were expected to do everything from shelving books to sweeping floors in the café. I was lured back into the world of scene painting by a generous job and salary offer that would permit me and H to travel as much as we wanted, with few money concerns. (We managed to hit Paris, London, and New Orleans before I got knocked up with Primo.)

I kept in touch with only a few people after I left; I stopped going back to the store to visit because it’s hard to have a relaxing knockaround a bookstore when you are stopping every two minutes to talk to people you like - and people you don’t.

Jono, the special orders guy, and I still email each other; he is the manager of a college bookstore somewhere in midstate NY. But when he comes to Pittsburgh every Christmas (his girlfriend lives here), we get a group of select ex-Borders employees together for a long, luxurious, boozy lunch at either Virginia’s or Jono’s club.

Generally the group is comprised of me, Jono, Jono’s girlfriend Mamie, Virginia, Lew (who no longer intimidates me at all), Craig, and Debbie. Last year Debbie brought her sister who lives and works in China; the two of them had just returned from China two days before.

Debbie brought us presents: little enameled boxes, each with a carefully chosen motif. Terzo was three months old, so mine had a baby on the top, a little Chinese baby with a spitcurl...

and a penny inside, for good luck in the new year.


Kathy said...

I'd love to go to a bookstore where the people actually knew something about books.

Anonymous said...

A job where you're surrounded by books and you get free coffee. Hmmm.

Joke said...

If they had an open bar for employees, I'd switch careers now.


lazy cow said...

I was in heaven when the Borders guy had read the book I was buying the other day. That *never* happens to me. Great story. One day I do want to work in a bookstore...

Sarah Louise said...

I have a post like this on the docket at the moment, but it needs some more "crafting." Are we channelling one another?

I loved my 7 years with B&N, though it took me 6 years to figure that out...

(Although we didn't get a $35 stipend or free coffee. But our discount was 30%.)

Oh, and the day I went to take the test at Borders would be a post in and of itself...but as I was leaving one of the managers was flip and shouted out who wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and I shouted back Ian Fleming, which impressed him to no end.

Great post. I love hearing about your boxes, BB.

Unknown said...

I thought about working at B&N at one point, before I went back to school for my MLS.

Loved this post.

MsCellania said...

I love these posts of yours.