Why I Don’t Work in a Bookstore

Meg Ryan as a bookstore owner in “You’ve Got Mail.”

I don’t work in a bookstore. It is probably what I was meant to do.

“You’re a natural teacher,” my mother said.  Then why was I so tired?

Teachers were all tired.  As the only Latin teacher I had three preparations (most had two)  and taught five classes a day (most taught four). I went home and took a nap, or zoomed off to aerobics class to work out the tension.  And then I prepared. And then I got up at 5 a.m.to grade homework and quizzes.

Here I am teaching Ovid in the “Big Glasses” era.

According to Scholastic and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a study  in 2012 called Primary Sources: America’s Teachers on the Teaching Profession found that the average teacher works 53 hours a week.   That sounds about right.

Eventually I found a more creative job with flex-time.  I enjoyed it more, but I admit I worked  on my wedding day.  “I just have to finish this up…”

Why didn’t I work in a bookstore?  Wouldn’t the hours have been more reasonable?

I love books.  I sold them without meaning to.  I would go to a bookstore, chat about books, and sometimes a bookseller would come over beaming to say I’d sold a book.

I also amused myself by doing the “first sentence test.” I read a lot of first sentences.  The first sentence test isn’t too bad, really.  And other people started reading first sentences… and I sold books that way, too.

I did work at a bookstore briefly in Iowa City when I took a year off from college.  The men got to work on the floor with the books; we women had to be cashiers.   Hard to believe it was so sexist back then, but it was.  And we women all loved books:  there was one college graduate among us, one student, another woman on a gap year, and a smart head cashier.

My copy of The Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence

The good thing about working in the bookstore was that we got to borrow books. The bad thing  was that I used to buy the books.  Madness! Here is my copy of The Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence. It cost $12.50. I made $1.60 an hour.  I put my money back into the store!  And so I had to leave.

If I had been allowed to work with the books,  I would have stayed and had a different fate!

10 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Work in a Bookstore”

  1. Fascinating post. I think that if I retired from my career and still had to work a little on the side that I would love to work in a bookstore. The sexism that you encountered while working in a bookstore is absolutely awful. It is especially disturbing just how recently this stuff went on.

    1. I’ve known some happy booksellers! Yes, it is crazy to think of bookstores as male-dominated. That changed very quickly.

  2. I worked in a bookstore over the Christmas season one year. I worked on the floor and at the register. I enjoyed talking about books with other employees and with customers. My problem was, like you, I spent my paltry wages on books. If I recall correctly, employees got a 33% discount on our purchases.

  3. My daughter spent 8 months this past year working in a small indie bookstore, and mostly loved it. She also spent an awful lot of her paycheque on books! Sadly the work is not particularly well paid and when spring hit full on she hated being trapped indoors, so she moved on to other more congenial (and better paying) things, but she says she misses all of the good things about the job – it was deeply interesting and she met lots of grand people while conversing about books.

    1. Yes, most bookstores can’t afford to pay much: there’s the disadvantage! I’m sure it was an interesting eight months; alas, we all have to get paid (and get outdoors in the spring).

    1. Because you ARE a natural teacher! Some people love it; and I did, but somehow all my energy got drained. Getting any degree, let alone three, while teaching is an accomplishment. I do really admire you. Teaching is one of the most demanding jobs there is.

  4. Were you, at least, able to read between customers as a cashier? I have worked in bookstores (in two different jobs) but never found it quite as amazing as I thought I would (partly because of issues like the cashier/salesfloor thing – the politics involved) although being around the books was, of course, lovely. (The pay? Horrifyingly low.)

    1. Alas–we cashiers were expected to do our duty just standing there, except when we came out from behind them to straighten t-shirts. All female employees were cashiers and the turnover was high; the men who worked with the books stayed for years! I think one was a lifer…
      I am sure the life in the bookstore is not as much fun as I imagine, though.

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