When you are a used bookstore clerk for more than four years, you pick up a few skills and insider info. Here is a list of the things I’ve learned working at Rags of Time, a used bookstore that operated in the 2000s and closed in 2011 in Moncton, New Brunswick.
10) Keeping track
As ours was a tiny bookstore, we used to keep tabs on what our customers bought, to know what kinds of books we needed to hunt down. Every day, we’d write pages upon pages of stuff that looked like this:
Woman, 40s. Browsing popular fiction/romance. Seemed interested by Maeve Binchy.
This lead me to become something of a psychic; in your 20s, sporting a messenger bag? Probably going to the “Literature” section. Dude with long hair? “Sci fi & Fantasy.” High ponytail and yoga pants? “Psychology”. Weather-worn ball cap, and possibly an old vest? “Outdoor sports”. I was right 80% of the time.
9) Popular fiction as our life blood
As much as you want your store filled with Dostoyevsky novels, the stuff that really flies off the shelves is Nora Roberts, Danielle Steel and Dean Koontz. The owner used to tell me that it was the price to pay to keep the store open, and he was right; when the bus station next door closed, the purveyor of most of our pop fiction clientele, our sales dropped. We closed down soon after.
8) The most common sentence heard
“Do you have ‘On the Road’?”
Usually spoken by a white male with a backpack, staying at the nearby hostel. Close second, accompanied by a lean against the counter and a long stare, is:
“I’m looking for some Vonnegut.”
Unfortunately for them (and me, as I had to suffer through their long questioning about our “lack of culture”, barf), I had to say “no” nine times out of ten. People don’t get rid of those underground favorites; they show them off on their personal bookshelves.
7) Bookstore owners love to have fun at their customers’ expense
I’m here to tell you that the enduring stereotype of quirky, odd bookstore owners is, in my experience, mostly true. What the stereotype doesn’t tell you is that they are also **awesome** when you’re on the inside of their closed-off world.
LF, my bookstore’s owner, set up the “Christian” section right next to the “LGBTQ studies” section. He loved to watch the reaction of the older folks that came in after church when they spotted the section right next to their Christian self-help books. Such a jokester.
6) Meeting people
As the store was tiny, I worked alone for up to eight hours at a time. That put me in a pretty vulnerable position, because if someone starts chatting you up, you can’t really escape them. Fortunately, most people interacting with me turned out to be interesting, well-read individuals. One guy asking me about Douglas Coupland novels is still one of my best friends, even if he was only in Moncton for a few days. I’ve met retired professors, budding authors, moms looking for an escape, broke students, and filmmakers doing some location scouting. I felt like I was in the very nexus of culture, and relished it. However…
5) Dealing with creeps
I’ve also come across public masturbators, criminals hiding from the police, and really angry individuals. My weapon of choice was to call LF and whisper-scream “WHATDOIDO,” but another thing keeping me safe was a metal pipe we used to keep behind the counter. An ex-employee had told me “you never know”, giving me a meaningful side-eye and pointing out the pipe under my chair. I never had to use it, as usually the offending individual would leave when I asked them to. I threatened to call the police sometimes, and that was usually enough to make them flee.
4) Getting comfortable calling people
Working at a used bookstore, I had to call MANY people. Some to remind them that they had books on hold, others that their requested books had come in, most to let them know how much credit we determined their books were worth. I credit this job for helping me getting comfortable talking to strangers. However, this part of the job had its downside. Twice, I’ve called people to tell them that their books had been on hold for a long time and that they had to come in the next few days, to be told that they had passed away. Such a bummer, especially since they were regular customers.
3) Trade paperbacks are the best format and don’t tell me otherwise
“But hardcovers are so pretty!”, I hear you say. Okay, maybe they’re pretty. Do you know what else they are?
2) First dibs on everything
When customers bring books in for credit, when donations come in from an estate or because somebody just has too many books, when we raid local yard sales… Employees have first dibs. Wonder where all the Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett and “insert trendy author name here” goes? In our bookshelves, that’s where.
It broke my heart to leave this job for a better paying one, because it provided me so much happiness throughout my bachelor’s degree. Where else could you do homework or watch TV on the job? Where else could you learn the names and works of all the important English and French literature authors? I became the “bookstore lady” to my friends, and that’s a title I wore with pride.
But what broke my heart most of all was the news that LF, the Rags of Time owner, had died. It broke in a million pieces, pieces that I’m still sweeping up to this day.
Through love and loss, being a used bookstore clerk defined me. This insider info is only a fraction of what I picked up along the way. As for the rest, ask your friendly neighborhood used bookstore clerk; you’ll be surprised at what you learn.
Art by Laura C.