My life as a bookstore manager

My life as a bookstore manager

What’s it like being a brick-and-mortar bookstore manager?

Obviously, that’s going to be very different for different people. For one thing, there are many types of bookstores.

There are some used bookstores which, it seems obvious to me, are run out of the love of it…they aren’t making a profit. They sometimes seem to just have a few employees, and you have to turn sideways and put your shirt over your mouth so you don’t breathe in the dust when you get to a section where apparently, no one has been since Ernest Hemingway was the next big thing.

Then there are those giant chainstores (although there are fewer of them now than there were before Borders closed), with more than fifty employees. Busy worker bees constantly seem to be moving things on and off the shelves, sometimes leaving a box in the aisle, and with cashiers who never come out from behind the counter, but are really good at entering a demagnetized credit card.

The best I can do is tell you what it was like for me.

I often mention having been a bookstore manager in this blog, and I love being able to say that. It seems like a badge of honor to me. I rarely mention that I worked for the National Football League, but that’s an odd story and I’ll leave it out there as an unresolved distraction, sort of like that fleeting moment when you think to yourself, “That couldn’t really have been a kangaroo going into that alley.” Oh, that doesn’t happen to you? Okay, then… 😉

I applied just to be a salesclerk (not that that isn’t noble in itself), because I thought it would be fun. I’d had books all my life, to the point where I might prioritize buying a used book higher than buying groceries. I think the ad said I would get an employee discount, which was definitely an incentive.

I was a working actor at the time, but honestly, I was getting bored with that. I don’t remember if there was something else that prompted the transition…I hadn’t done retail before that.

I guess my resume looked okay. The manager said that there was really one make or break question. That was, “Do you like the Three Stooges?” I said, “Yes,” and was told I was hired.

It didn’t take me long to move up from being a salesclerk to being a “third key” (not really a manager, but I could close the store at night), to being an Assistant Manager.

Even though this was a chainstore, it wasn’t very large. There weren’t ten employees, and some were part time (most were quite young). Nobody was working there just to make a living: we all loved books.

We had regular customers: some of them would come to the store every day. I knew a number of them by name, and I knew what they liked. I had one regular who enjoyed alternate history. When a new AH book came in, I would put a copy under the counter for that regular. When  that person came in, I’d pull out the book…it was almost always a sale, and certainly always a smile. 🙂

There were other interesting customers, too. I had one person who had Tourette Syndrome. This customer would bark or snap out obscenities uncontrollably. Outside of that, the customer was very nice, and read an interesting selection of books.

Not surprisingly, that could be disruptive for shoppers, especially those with children. We worked out a very nice system. The customer with Tourette would  first stand outside the store for a minute (there were windows right behind the counter) so I could see that that person was there. I would announce in the store what was going to happen, to give people time to finish their shopping and leave, if they wanted. There usually weren’t more than seven or eight people in the store at a time. I would just say it verbally: the place was small enough that I didn’t need electronic enhancement, and as an actor, I knew how to project. If anybody said they wanted to finish first, my customer would wait patiently outside until I gave the high sign. That worked very well.

Another customer was completely deaf. That customer would write down questions on a paper pad. I was amazed, though, at how good this person was at lip reading! I had a hard time getting my salesclerks to understand that they had to constantly look at the customer’s face when talking. It’s a natural tendency to turn to the shelves, for example, when gesturing. Again, as an actor, that wasn’t a problem for me…I always know where downstage is. 🙂

I was just talking to my adult kid, who is a linguist, about this customer last night. I had salesclerks with accents, but it didn’t seem to make any difference. I thought maybe that was because accents are mostly vowels and intonation, but my kid said, no, consonants can be quite different. For example, the “th” sound is a complicated one. However, just as a hearing person can still understand you if you say, “Zat’s interesting,” it didn’t appear to be a barrier to understanding for the lip reader.

The first very difficult thing for me was that we tore the covers off paperback books that didn’t sell, so we could send those back. That’s what we were supposed to do. A publisher guarantees you can sell the books you order, and if you don’t, you prove you didn’t sell them and get credit to buy more. Rather than sending back the whole book (which would be expensive), you tore the covers off and then you could mail a bunch of “books” back in an manila envelope.

I’d never even folded a page under, or cracked a cover (if I could avoid it, and I was quite good at it…you usually couldn’t tell a paperback had been read when I finished it). It seemed horrible to do (even though I understood the logic), but some clerks seemed to relish it so I let them do it.

We weren’t allowed to give away those coverless books or sell them. We were specifically told, though,that it was okay to take them home.

I brought home books…lots of books.

I still have many of them, and this is more than twenty years later.

I had one clerk who would tear the cover off…then rip the paperback in half from side to side, like Charles Atlas tearing a phone book. I had a hard time with that happening.

Why couldn’t we give them, say, to a retirement home?

It was all accounting stuff…we were proving we couldn’t sell them. We could, though, just identify a non-profit recipient to a publisher, and they’d send them books…and that way, the publisher got the write-off (which I think they may also have been protecting).

Speaking of publishers, I had some publishers’ reps that I really liked! They would come into your store, pull out stock they thought was old, recommend new titles, and so on. One person was a Jeopardy champion…I’m happy to say I could beat that person in trivia sometimes in the store. 🙂

The other hard thing was the theft…both shoplifiting and employee theft.

Shoplifting often wasn’t very clever, it could be scary, and there wasn’t much you could really do about it.

Unless the person left the store, or brought something into the store to use to hide the books (in which case it was burglary, not shoplifting…bringing in an empty bag changed the whole equation), they hadn’t yet committed the crime. If we caught someone with books under their clothes, all we could do was tell them to put it back or pay for it, and then leave. We could tell them they weren’t welcome in the store again, and if they showed up, call the police because the person was trespassing. That almost never happened, though…how would you identify that person to other clerks?

One thing we would find were what I called “poacher piles”. Shoplifters would stack up maybe ten expensive books on a shelf. They were waiting for a moment when the front door was ungaurded, so they could take those books and exit quickly. That’s one way we knew there was a shoplifter in the store.

I remember one time in particular when we had a pair working the store. I knew what was going on right away, but it was clear to see how it could be an effective strategy.

One person came into the store who was very scruffy, you would assume homeless. That person was asking to be shown expensive books…art books, that kind of thing. It was very easy for a clerk to focus completely on that person (we might have two or three employees in the store at a time, although at night, it was often just one person).

Another person in a three piece suit was in the store…the nicely dressed person was the shoplifter, the other one was a decoy.

Employee theft was the worst…liking being robbed by your family. It happened, and you just have to count on it as a retailer.

I really pushed for good customer service. I think the best thing I did was recommend that my clerks (who might be making minimum wage, by the way) read a book in every section in the store. I had them ask a regular for a recommendation. I did that myself, and discovered some great things which I would otherwise have not read. One example was The Survivalist series by Jerry Ahern. It was in what was labeled the “Men’s Adventure” section, and that’s not the first place I’d go. It had some terrific plotting, though…one of the books had one of the best twists I’ve ever read. I’d say a parallel nowadays might be The Walking Dead TV series. Lots of people who didn’t think they would ever watch a zombie show watch that, because of the plotting and characters.

As you can tell, I loved working in that store (two of them, really…within the same chain,I moved from one store to a different one at one point).

Why did I stop?

I got into a relationship (with my Significant Other…we’ve been together more than 25 years).

As a manager (I eventually moved to other stores as well), I worked three evenings and both weekend days, usually. At the holidays, it could be a lot more than that…weeks without really having time off. I figured out at one point (when I was managing a different store), that I was spending 120 hours a week in the store at the big holiday crush.

That just didn’t work for me, with someone else in my life.

What did I do?

I became a banker. Exact same skill set (with perhaps a bit more math), but better hours, better pay, and at the time, more respect (I’m not sure that’s still true).

I love what I do now. Of course, my SO has pointed out that I tend to love whatever I am doing, and usually think I am working for the best in the industry. 🙂 My “day job” of training medical folks involves performance, intellectual challenge, and a sense that you are helping make the world a better place. My writing means that I am still involved with books and helping people there, which is really what the core of running the bookstore was.

I always wake up and say, “Oh boy, I get to go to work today.” 🙂 Do I wish that work was still at a bookstore? I loved the bookstore, but I can’t say I have regrets about not being there. I like where I am now…and I thank you, readers, for being part of what allows that to happen.

What about you? Do you have great bookstore stories, as an employee or a customer? Feel free to share them by commenting on this post.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.


5 Responses to “My life as a bookstore manager”

  1. Zebras Says:


    What a varied career you have! I have been in a few different industries myself, the common thread, was starting out as a secretary/administrative assistant, and learning as much as I could from those around me and then getting promoted. I understand what you mean about the hours, and having a relationship. I didn’t start having significant relationships, until I left I high stress high hours job in NYC, and started temping locally. Here I am in the same company, now a buyer and not an assistant, and married 8 1/2 years!

    Pre-Kindle I’ve always had lovely B&N employees see me struggle with a stack of books, and bring me one of those baskets, and I’d always decline, as I would not allow myself to buy more books than I could carry in my arms.

    My B&N also does nice tie-ins with current movies, usually a whole table full of related material. When the move Kingdom of Heaven came out, I picked up a book about the Knights Templar and couldn’t put it down.

  2. Brian Says:

    This is why I subscribe.

    Thanks Bufo.

  3. Pam Says:

    Loved reading about your job history! I’ve always enjoyed wandering through book stores when I had the time and thought it would be an interesting place to work. I managed a credit union for about 10 yrs and enjoyed that but onward and upward, you know! Now I’m retired from the business world and am caregiver to two mentally handicapped men in my home. I’ve got you beat in the SO timeframe! I’ve been with mine for 32 yrs! LOL!

  4. Karin Bird Says:

    I worked at a great bookstore in PA, independently owned for about 8 years. I loved that job so much that they didn’t have to pay me. It sue didn’t feel like working. My favorite requests were from customers that hadn’t read in years, wanted to start again, and needed suggestions.

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