To celebrate the release of Finding Ms. Write, the new anthology out from Ylva, I’m taking part in a “blog tour” and giveaway (check below for how to win a copy!). For my part, I thought I’d reminisce a bit.
My second job after college was in a bookstore. The first was a pet store, so whether this was a move up the ladder or merely lateral, I’m not sure. Both fed my passions: animals and books.
Everyone thinks working in a bookstore is glamorous. “You must get to read all the time!” customers would say, jealousy dripping off their words. While I firmly believe that a bookstore is the retail equivalent of nirvana, it was hardly utopia. Sure, there were the perks—the employee discount, being able to borrow hardcovers and gently read them, and if you love books, you love being around book people. Thirty years since I left the biz, my best friends are my former bookstore colleagues.
There’s a certain bonding that takes place in a bookstore. Probably in any retail environment where it’s you against the world. And if that sounds like I wasn’t cut out for retail, you’d be right. Writers tend to be introverts. I’m not only an introvert, I’m also shy. Not a good combination for sales. I left the selling to more capable hands. There’s joy to be had in watching your employee walk a customer along a wall of books, pulling off volumes while saying, “If you loved Light a Penny Candle, you’ll love this.” And it worked. I could manage it for only a few genres, mostly nonfiction, like nature writing.
Romances are and were the big sellers. Whenever the new batch of Harlequins came in, businesswomen in suits followed, vacuuming them off the racks.
I started in the stock room, like Stewie from my story, “Consignment.” It matched my personality. I got to sit alone in a room full of books. Well, boxes of books. I’d open each package, check the contents against the packing list, and put them on a cart, ready for the sales floor and shelving. Easy, until the end of summer, when the Christmas orders started coming in. There’s nothing quite like maneuvering around 200 boxes from one publisher with more arriving with each UPS delivery in what suddenly becomes a very small space.
Because I was one of the few full-time staff, I quickly rose to assistant manager. Now I got to be out on said sales floor, shelving, helping customers, manning the register.
For anyone who thinks bookworms are weaklings, try hauling a stack of Stephen King doorstops onto a table, walking the length of a wall with an armload of books that would make any high schooler cringe, and climbing said wall because retrieving the stepstool would take too long. You are on your feet for hours at a time, walking miles, squatting, stretching, bending, doing numerous bicep curls, all for the written word, something that was created by a lazy-ass writer sitting at a typewriter or computer, or, worse, at the front of your store in the café.
Ramping up for Christmas took on D-Day proportions. Cramming those 200 boxes of books from one publisher onto the shelves and into the overstock space became an Einstein-like thought experiment. Can two objects occupy the same space?
Crowd control was a skillset all its own. Keeping the shelves neat and filled at the same time people rampaged through them, pulling, flipping pages, tossing back in the wrong spot, and asking me to find yet another book with an unknown author, “but the cover is green,” that they heard about on—name your current book guru. In my day it was Phil Donoghue. Then came Oprah. These days it might be Goodreads or Instagram.
Likely the cover turned out to be blue.
All retail roads lead to Christmas. Despite the hype, the day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday, was never our biggest day. That was always the last Saturday before Christmas. But any weekend during the season could mean the checkout line snaked all the way to the back of the store.
That’s when all our skills came together. Get the books into their hands, convince them to brave the line, then move that line as fast as possible.
We had two registers. At peak, we’d squeeze four people up front. One on each register to push the buttons and handle the money and one to read off the prices (no scanners!) and bag. We’d memorized the sales tax table. If a check required a pause for verification, the bagger took the next customer while the first finished.
Perhaps my proudest moment was when a man who had to start from way back in the cookbook section declared, “I can’t believe how fast that line moved.”
We joked with the customers, we laughed, we played beautiful classical music. To this day, I love Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
We’d get in a groove, a flow, once the pressure of preparing for Christmas was over and all we had to do was sell books. That’s what we were there for. That amazing moment when someone plunked a stack of books on the counter. Books I ordered because I knew this particular neighborhood was full of people who liked this particular kind of book.
I worked at a small regional chain. While some books were ordered centrally, we got to serve our clientele. My store favored paperback customers. The one two towns away was hardcover heaven.
We met your needs, wants, and desires. With a smile, a laugh, and a thank you.
So what was it like to mine these memories for a short story?
Impossible. Things have changed, and we never had author readings. Signings, yes. But it wasn’t common for authors to do readings as well. Our biggest star was Morris the Cat. So instead I cobbled together material from a variety of sources. The setting, and only the setting, was modeled on a real store—not the one I worked at.
The people are all quite fictional. Even the celebrity author. And if you are inclined to read between the lines in search of a real-life counterpart, sorry. I took the diva aspects from people I know or have heard of outside of publishing.
You see, my dears, divas are everywhere.
Here’s a quick peek:
Patricia scanned the images from the various security cameras, keeping an eye out for shoplifters. A woman sat by the window in the café, nursing a cup of coffee and typing on her laptop. Again. She spent hours every day in the store, with her one cup, pretending she wasn’t there just for the free Wi-Fi. But from the outside, she made the place look busy, so that was good. Patricia moved on to the next screen. A couple of women read to their toddlers in the kids’ section. At the new-releases table, Jean chatted with Sally while they unpacked books and stacked them carefully.
Done procrastinating, Patricia turned to her computer and called up the distributor’s online order site. When did bookselling become so tedious? Twenty-five years ago, she reminded herself, when she bought the place. Seemed like a good idea at the time, right? Her only competitors were chain stores she could outmaneuver with good customer service. Then came the World Wide Web. And Amazon. But she was surviving. Putting in the café a decade ago helped. Now if she could just find the time to take a vacation. Maybe meet someone. She couldn’t remember the last time she had a date.
An incoming e-mail pinged. Patricia switched programs. She stared at the new message in disbelief. She read it again. Three times. Rhonda Fernly would come to her store for a book signing. The Rhonda Fernly. Patricia gasped. Rhonda Fernly was the hottest lesbian romance writer…ever. Hot both in looks and in popularity. Even straight women wanted her books. Wanted her. Rhonda almost never went on book tours. Patricia had been trying for years to get her to come. It wasn’t as if The Bookmark was a tiny shop in the middle of nowhere. This was trendy, hip Cambridge, Massachusetts. Okay, so the shop was in a strip mall on Mass. Ave., almost in Arlington. Not in the Square, any square. Not Harvard, Central, or even nerdy Kendall Square. Still.
Patricia focused on the details. Next month. Thursday, the fifteenth. Good. Plenty of time to prepare. Maybe the Globe would list it in “Bookings.” Plan. Come up with a plan. She raced out of the back room to tell her staff. Everyone squealed appropriately. The woman at the window looked up, furrowed her brow, and then went back to typing.
Midweek, Patricia sat alone at the cash register while Sally ate lunch. That woman, the Wi-Fi freeloader, stepped up to the counter holding a book. “Could I speak to the manager, please?” she asked.
Patricia eyed her. She wasn’t as young as she had appeared, sitting by the window. About Patricia’s age, maybe forties. She didn’t recognize the book. “I’m the owner. Will that do?”
The woman’s eyes widened, and she inhaled audibly. “I’m sorry. I mean, yes, of course.” She wouldn’t make eye contact. “I was wondering… I didn’t see this on the shelf… Would you ever consider…?” Her blush deepened with each stammer.
Patricia waited. It wasn’t as if there was a line forming.
The woman cleared her throat, made eye contact, and took a deep breath. “I wrote this book. A novel. Could… Would you consider carrying it on consignment?”
Ylva is giving away five e-book copies. All you have to do to enter is drop a comment on any of the posts along the way. Winners will be announced at the end of the tour, June 26. Good luck!
Here’s the full schedule:
Wednesday, June 15 – Jove Belle
Thursday, June 16 – Anastasia Vitsky
Friday, June 17 – A.L. Brooks (blogging at Jae’s site)
Sunday, June 19 – Lea Daley (blogging at Jove’s site)
Monday, June 20 – Melissa Grace
Tuesday, June 21 – Hazel Yeats (blogging at Jae’s site)
Wednesday, June 22 – Kathy Brodland (blogging at Jove’s site)
Thursday, June 23 – Cori Kane
Friday, June 24 – Chris Zett
Saturday, June 25 – Jae
Here’s more about Finding Ms. Write from Ylva
[…] Elaine Burnes […]
[…] June 18 – Elaine Burnes […]
I really enjoyed your description of working at a bookstore. I work at a small bookstore and I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve been told, “You must read all the time!” I do read a ton but it’s at home, I actually have to work at work! Lol! How else would I know what books I have in stock and where exactly they are (if a customer put them back correctly!)
I can’t wait to read your story! Have a wonderful day, Elaine! 🙂
Thanks for stopping by, Lindsay. Good to hear from a current denizen. I don’t think the business has changed all that much, other than the technology. Maybe fewer stores. 😦
Oh I remember your story Elaine! I thought it was quite charming
Thanks, Kathy. (I confess I’m waiting for a hard copy to read the other stories!)
This bookstore sounds a lot like the two college-town stores I used to own, even though I could only give a fairly small space to books. Ah, nostalgia. I MUST read your story, so I’ll definitely get the book, one way or another.
Thanks for stopping by, Sacchi. I’m sad I’ll never get to visit your store under your ownership. I bet any local retailer has similar stories.