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Diary of A Former Bookstore Worker

A long, long time ago (12 years) in a land far, far away (Birmingham, Alabama) I worked at a Barnes & Noble.

This was during the glory days of the corporate bookstore, long before Amazon started dominating the market, the digital reader became popular, and half of the merchandise in bookstores became puppy calendars, board games, and Narnia figurines.

Oh, the good ole’ days.

And as a former bookstore worker, do I ever have some stories to tell. I worked part-time from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Tuesday through Saturday. From 7 to 9, before the store opened, I shelved books. From 9 to 11, I shelved books and helped customers find the latest Danielle Steele novel. God bless ’em.

Some things I learned about working at a big bookstore:

Sex books often get “misplaced.” How is it that, almost every day, I’d find a random book about the kama sutra or healthy sex for old people randomly hidden in the science fiction or historical biography section? My worse “misplaced” book experience was the morning I walked into the restroom, before the store opened, and found an indescribable sex book on the bathroom floor inside a stall—left there from the night before. What God-forsaken acts must have occurred in the bathroom that night? That right there was disgusting.

Mascot suits are hot. When the dude who’s supposed to wear the Curious George suit at Saturday story time doesn’t show up for Saturday story time, guess who gets to wear the Curious George suit? The lowly part-time shelver college student…this guy. I can’t take back that one hour of my life, disguised as 6 foot tall monkey while three-year-olds sat in my lap and poked my nose. I think I lost 5 pounds that day from sweat.

Creepy dudes hang around the sex books section. You can count on it. Once a day, at least, you’ll see a weird, scraggly-haired guy who looked like he just got up at noon and wondered over to Barnes & Noble to look at the pictures in the sex book section.

People who stand outside stores before they open are the meanest people on earth. This is science. “The sign says they open at 9 a.m. but maybe if I show up at 8:40 and knock on the door and peek through the window for 20 minutes they’ll let me in. Or maybe if I say, ‘Come on! This is ridiculous!’ really loudly as the manager walks by they will recognize my voice as a man of importance! Give me my freakin’ coffee!”

Frequent bookstore customers are cheap. I’ll admit it…I’ve done this once or twice in my life, but I never realized so many others did it until I worked for a bookstore. Those comfy chairs are made for one thing—reading. And if you’re going to put them in the middle of the store, people will read in those comfy chairs…for hours. That’s why, every day from noon to 2, you’ll see the same guy sitting in the same chair reading the same book. Over the course of the year, he probably read 15 books without paying for one. He’s embraced his cheapness and enjoyed your comfy chairs to boot. Good for that guy.

So many stories. So little time.

If you’ve ever worked at a bookstore, or noticed something strange or unique about the bookstore you often visit, do share your stories!

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32 Comments Post a comment
  1. You worked for the “dark side” as we at Borders called you. I was surprised at how many stole the Bible.

    Like

    October 19, 2012
  2. A former Borders employee here (and manager to boot), I have to ditto all these and add I had a guy spill coffee on the book he was reading, then tried to buy it at a discount because the book was damaged.

    Like

    October 19, 2012
  3. I worry about people in mascot suits. I’m glad you only had to be George for an hour.

    Like

    October 19, 2012
    • Haha. Yeah, just one hour. I never had to do it again.

      Like

      October 19, 2012
  4. Reblogged this on wiseandcanny.

    Like

    October 19, 2012
  5. Thanks for the laughs this morning. Great way to start my day.

    Like

    October 19, 2012
  6. Lucille #

    Thanks for that. I love hearing the stories of former bookstore employees!

    Before Borders and B & N I worked in a B.Dalton (1979-87) back when malls had that store or a Waldenbooks or both. We had no chairs or mascot costumes. Only things we sold were books and magazines and, for 4 months, calendars. Our customers ran the gamut from the women who came in when the new Silhouettes and Harlequins arrived for their “fix” and the guys who took the sex books and Playboy magazines and “hid” in the poetry section to read them.

    Each book had a sticker with a SKU code and I still remember the date code and the code for some categories. Credit card transactions meant filling out and running a 3-part paper form through a manual tray with the card. Anyone here remember those?.

    We thought the lookers/customers of business books the sloppiest and sci-fi readers the neatest when it came to putting a book back near to its original spot on the shelf. Strangest customer? The guy who once he picked out his purchase wouldn’t let us touch it. He held it as we rang it up and bagged it himself. Worst were the folks who came in minutes before closing on Christmas eve and wanted help finding a book for a relative who may or may not have read; they weren’t sure.

    For most of my time there I was a receiving clerk and loved that part of the job. It was like opening presents every day when the new arrivals came in. I have had several jobs in my lifetime but that was my favorite because of the wit and intelligence of my co-workers. And we had a great discount and could borrow hardcovers home to read!

    Like

    October 19, 2012
    • I remember those credit card trays. This will date me, but I worked at a Cokesbury Books in downtown Houston in 1971. I had to hand write those credit card receipts and run them through that carbon paper smashing thing, too.
      The most memorable part of the job was the incredibly boring Saturday mornings. The store was in the business district part of downtown and the streets were deserted on Saturday mornings. The store was a regular bookstore upstairs and a religious books/church supplies store downstairs. I presume we were open on Saturday mornings primarily for the church business, but I ran the upstairs and went for hours without a single customer. Needless to say, I got a lot of reading done.

      Like

      October 19, 2012
    • Great stories! Sounds like that one guy was a little OCD? Scared to get other people’s germs on his stuff?

      And I’ll occasionally run into one of those old credit card swipers every now and then–usually when a store’s computers are down.

      Like

      October 19, 2012
      • Lucille #

        One more thing: There are the customers who heard an author interview on a TV show and wanted to buy the book. But they couldn’t remember the title or the author’s name. We were expected to know the book. One author spent many months going from show to show, publicizing a book (Life Extension Diet) that had not been published yet. We took about 100 reservations and by the time the books came in, customers had forgotten they ordered it.

        Like

        October 19, 2012
  7. I always wanted to work at Barnes and Noble but they never hired me.

    Like

    October 19, 2012
  8. Working in a bookstore would have been my dream job… alas when life gives you lemons… you become an unemployed veterinarian..

    Like

    October 19, 2012
  9. I once thought that working in a bookstore would be amazing. …no longer

    Like

    October 19, 2012
    • I still look back on it with mostly fondness. I think any retail setting will have its quirks.

      Like

      October 19, 2012
  10. K #

    I work at a small bookstore and one of the strangest, yet most frequent customer greetings is this one: “Hello, I want to buy a book…” Well, what else? You didn’t come to buy a tootbrush here, did you? 😉

    Like

    October 19, 2012
  11. Reblogged this on On My Stereo.

    Like

    October 19, 2012
  12. I owned a small bookstore once–it ruined one of my past-times which was to visit bookstores–I love books, I do not like selling.

    Like

    October 19, 2012
  13. caallenblog #

    I always wondered what it would be like to work at a bookstore. (I work as a barista now) Thanks for the peek at your former day-to-day adventures. I feel like any customer-service oriented job has you coming away understanding a whole new level of weird that exists among human beings, : P

    Like

    October 19, 2012
  14. Hello Robert – I am so glad you posted about this. I too was a Barnes & Noble employee for several years (not too far from you, actually — I was in Gulfport, MS) and I have many war stories to share. Several years ago I wrote a list of the different B&N customer types. It’s too long to post here in the comments, but you can find it at: http://adaywithj.wordpress.com/2012/10/20/barnes-noble-know-your-customers/ I hope you’ll read over it when you have a chance.

    Thanks as always for a great blog.

    J.

    Like

    October 20, 2012
  15. ati_minmiin #

    I worked in a bookstore before…way back in 2001 and to me, my worst nightmare while working in that bookstore are not entirely the customers but also among the co-workers..especially when you are fresh out of high school because they will bully you like nobody’s business. But because I love books so much it didn’t bother me that much although I did quit the job in the end..haha..

    Like

    October 20, 2012
  16. “I’ve been recommended this book…”
    “I see. What was it called?”
    “I’m not sure.”
    “Do you know who it was by?”
    “No… it had a blue cover.”
    “I see” [there are three floors of books] “Do you know which genre?”
    “No.” … Oh good.

    Like

    October 21, 2012
    • I’ve had this customer before!!! All she could remember was the picture that was on the cover. Nothing else. No genre, author, title, word in the title. Just a rough idea of the picture on the cover. I actually think we ended up finding it. Working at a bookstore demands some expert detective skills!

      Like

      July 1, 2013
  17. As a former Barnes worker myself, one of my favorites is the customer who swears up and down that he wants “Mumbo Jumbo Random Title” by “John Johnson” and he knows we have it because he’s seen it before! Why can’t we find it?! “Sir, are you sure that’s the title? Are you sure that’s the author?” Are we implying that he’s stupid? Of course he’s sure. After fifteen minutes on the computer, we discover that he ACTUALLY wants “Bloop Bloop Random Book” by “Jason Jefferson.”

    “That’s what I said!!”

    *facepalm*

    Like

    October 21, 2012
  18. I see this post has prompted a lot of responses. I myself worked at both Barnes & Noble and Borders. I think I have blocked out most of the weird stories, but I do remember a day when I was filling in at the cafe, and a guy came up to me to announce, “I am a terrorist!” I found myself wondering what book a terrorist might want to read, and felt like suggesting a book about the hereafter.

    Like

    October 21, 2012
  19. I have not worked for a book store, but after reading this post (most of it aloud) with my husband and visiting parents, we all agree that Barnes and Noble had less chairs now for people to sit and be “cheap” in (which I can totally see). Also, B&N promotes it now with their 1 hour free of reading on the Nook! How many of those people buy coffee though while they are sitting? Just curious! 🙂

    Like

    October 21, 2012
  20. All of those things are so true, especially the mean people in the morning (who can also be the cheap people who don’t do ANYTHING else all day)! I worked at BN for a year and, honestly, I loved it and hated it at the same time. It was fun to be around books all the time and to work with people who loved to read, but I hated the people who clearly never read books, because they were looking for some obscure plumbing manual and expected us to have it on hand.

    I worked the closing shift a lot, so I will add the creeps who hang out in the sex section also do so at 10:30 at night. And all the weirdos come out at night, I promise.

    Like

    October 23, 2012
  21. One more trick of Barnes & Noble does is significantly limit the amount of outlets to plug in computers.

    On another note, if and when I publish my novel, I’m hoping to list my bookstore experience as part of my author profile.

    Like

    October 24, 2012
  22. I worked at a Chapters for about 5 months while I was in university, and I always felt that working at the cash and looking at the types of books people bought gave me a certain insight into who they were. It often felt like an invasion of privacy on my part. There were a lot of young parents who came to the store, and I always found it interesting to carefully watch the expression on the young man’s face when his young girlfriend purchased “What to expect when you’re expecting” – this was probably one of our most popular purchases.

    Also, those bookstore frequenters – I also noticed that some would hide the book they were reading in an obscure part of the store just to ensure that no one purchased it while they were away. Cheapness to the extreme.

    Like

    July 1, 2013

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  1. Repost: Diary of A Former Bookstore Worker | 101 Books
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