Thursday, May 6, 2010

Guest Post: The Secret Lives of Bookstore Clerks

Ahoy readers! This morning, INTERN was so groggy she reached into the fridge and accidentally poured Hippie Roommate's chicken broth into her coffee instead of soymilk (the Tetra Paks are the same size...) So she is clearly not at blogging level today and is instead turning things over to Fresh and Delightful Guest Poster Megan Burke.

Working is a bookstore is dying a long, slow, painful death. That's how all us weekend girls described it, anyway. At a sleepy chain bookstore in a shopping centre, we spent most of our time reading the books and dancing up and down the aisles to music.

We had our regular customers: the Italian woman with a surname so long and complicated no one could pronounce or spell it - she read romance. And a lot of it – I’m talking over $60 a week. Then there was the old man who read war history, who no one wanted to serve because he talked, and talked, and talked, and talked—talked so much, in fact, that you never got any work done. There were the two teenage girls who read anything young adult. The hippy man that we suspected had a lot of pregnant teenage brides, due to the fact that each time he came, he was dragging along a similarly dirty-feet and smelly pregnant teen girl.

And my personal faves: the couple in backpacks and bum bags who came in every Sunday morning and paid $5 off their lay-bys. We became such good friends that when I left to go inter-state they took me out to breakfast and gave me a present. We've kept in contact, and I've housesat for them heaps of times. I even invited them to my 21st birthday, and they came, bearing champagne and a Hannah Montana card (I love Hannah Montana!).

From my five years there, here are a few more things that stand out:

· The pre-pubescent teenage boy attempting to buy erotic fiction. My manager told him to get his parents to come back and buy it for him.

· The woman who was so friendly and chatty to both my co-worker and I one late night, neither of us noticed when she walked out without paying. I chased her half way across the shopping centre. She came back to pay with me, all bright-red and apologetic.

· All the customers who buy the Karma Sutra and tell us it's for a "friend". Yeah. Right.

· The mother who let her child piss on the floor, and then walked out without telling us. Thanks for that.

· The husband and wife who came in about one minute until close, and stayed twenty-five minutes after closing, looking at baby books. Every minute (as we stood at the front, sighing loudly and tapping our feet) they said, “We should really go, these girls want to go home” and yet for twenty five minutes, they didn’t. And then they didn’t buy anything!

· Recognising authors when they came in (and getting them to sign all their books, and pose for photos), and feeling horribly embarrassed when you didn’t recognise an author (“Do you have my books in stock?” “Ugh, maybe… What are the titles again?!”)

The books. Oh the books! At any one time I had about ten books on order, and another one hundred in the staff section. At one point my boss banned me from buying books, saying he felt I should spent my money on something else.

A nice perk was getting all the free ARC’s (advanced reader copies) and all the damaged books that didn’t go back to the publishers – gimme gimme gimme!

I think the bottom line is working in a bookstore is as awesome and fantastic as it looks. You should be jealous of us bookstore assistants!

After five years of working in a bookstore, Megan went back to school to study writing and editing. Now in her second year, she is looking forward to starting her Creative Writing degree next year. Megan reads and writes mainly Young Adult fiction, and although she misses working in a bookstore, she loves having the time to write during the day. Megan blogs daily at Literary Life and her website is


  1. This is too cool! I've always wanted to know 'the other side.' Thanks so much :)

  2. so interesting :) what a neat concept!

  3. Ha! Good times. Good times.

    I know these people. Except my old war story guy was a young woman obsessed with Freddie Mercury. I held the good fortune of managing a department at the front of the store so I always saw her first, meaning I safely ensconced myself in the stockroom before she chimed the bells on the door.

  4. I wish I had worked at your bookstore. Although there have been good times working at a bookstore, I always inform people that only desperate people and those who are obsessed with books work at a bookstore. I worked on and off at a bookstore for ten years. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone.

    My favorite moments: Helping officers arrest a woman who was shooting up in the bathroom. Making such good friends with one of my customers that we went on a camping trip together for Easter.

  5. Yay! INTERN has a friend Down Under. Way before I got to the .au suffix on Megan's website address, I knew she was an Aussie: "bum bags" was a dead giveaway. Way to go international, INTERN.

  6. What I wouldn't give to work in a bookstore. It sounds so relaxing- compared to my only stint in retail, selling shoes. Why can't women just tell you their real size, instead of making me bring 8's when they know thy're 10's? :(

  7. Hahahaha, ahh yes, "fanny packs" in America!

    I do love INTERN and was so flattered she posted my guest post! :D

  8. While I worked at a college bookstore, I had dreams where I stacked a hundred copies of the same textbooks up to the ceiling, all night long. It was a little nightmarish.

    And the other drawback: you spend half your pay check on--guess what--books. Hard to save money for the next semester when you keep spending it on textbooks you don't even need.

  9. Yeah, I picked you as an Aussie too, Megan!

    And, I know some of those customers from my years in retail (sadly not in a bookstore). Especially the baby book couple. I believe it is a scientific fact that people who force you to wait behind after closing will never, EVER buy anything.

  10. Sharen & Megan, it's "bum bag" in the UK too. And if you try to say "fanny pack" there, you are likely to be horribly misconstrued! Oh, the pitfalls of a common language.

  11. "The pre-pubescent teenage boy attempting to buy erotic fiction. My manager told him to get his parents to come back and buy it for him."

    Are there laws that prevent you from selling certain books to youths in Australia? I know that your censorship and obscenity laws differ in marked ways from many other countries.

  12. I have a little something-something for you on my blog, my dear.

  13. I'm pretty sure that you have to be 18. I know, for example, that 'Psycho' is R18+ rating and you need ID.

    I never sold erotica or similar to anyone under 18 and nor did anyone else in my bookstore.

    However, in this instance (as well as implementing the age rule), my manager was just trying to embarrass the boy - as she often did :P

  14. Yeah. This doesn't sound at all like my (three years including current) experience working in a bookstore. Managers, on behalf of corporate, crack down with equal vehemence on working on the clock and taking home publisher returns. That being said, the customers are definitely the best and the worst part of the job.