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Repost: Diary of A Former Bookstore Worker

I’m taking my annual week-long summer hiatus this week, which means this is a “Best of 101 Books” week.  I’ll return live on Monday July 8.

Today’s post originally appeared on the blog on October 19, 2012.

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!

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. I worked at a B&N for a year. I experienced all of these things! What memories!

    My favorite customer was the fellow who came up to me at the cash register and borrowed a pen. Then he came back a little later with a “marked down” book.


    July 1, 2013
  2. I worked at B&N over for the holiday season one year and I love books so it was even more fun with the craziness of holiday shoppers. Good times.


    July 1, 2013
  3. New Follower!

    BOY! Am I glad I decided to read this article – Im stuck at the most boring jb ever on a national holiday so obviously Im not only bored but incredibly lonely and can’t do anything about it; your blog post though made me shaking my head and giggling to myself like a crazy person… It was great! And I have to give props to the dude taking advantage of the comfy chairs! I get asked if I need help about 7 times in the span of 30 minutes if I sit and read at my local book store … Its a ploy to get me to buy the book out of sure annoyance 😛


    July 1, 2013
  4. I worked at A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco while getting my MFA. I have tooooooooooooooo many stories to tell. I loved it when people came in asking for “that book about [enter some generic topic], “you know, that book.” And yes, I opened and closed the bookstore at various times. You are spot on about the folks who stand outside the door, waiting for it to open.

    In SF, when the Blue Angels came to town for Fleet Week, we had quite a few vets with various forms of PTSD who would freak out when the jets flew right overhead. And our share of homeless folks who floated about in a fug so offensive other store patrons would complain. People with dogs (not of the service variety) who felt like their dogs should be allowed to browse, too. People who were upset that the store didn’t have a public restroom. People who were upset that we played music they wasn’t to their taste. People who didn’t want to leave when we closed at 11pm. People who complained about our lack of comfy chairs for the reasons stated above. We did have a few benches.

    But it was very special when people like John Waters, TC Boyle, and Stephen King came to town and browsed. The store was packed to the rafters when Brian Greene gave a slide show about string theory, packed again for a noontime “reading” by Isaac Stern the year before he died, and packed again with a line running down the block when Hilary Clinton came to sign. Lemony Snickett played the accordion and Brian Jacques filled the store with kids. So many authors.

    But ya gotta feel for the authors who show up to read and the bookstore employees end up sitting in the audience, listening and asking questions, so the audience won’t be empty.


    July 1, 2013
  5. I’m a professional character actor, so your piece about the Curious George outfit was hysterical to me. Thanks for sharing this. I just put up a piece somewhat like this to make mascot’s lives easier with simple rules to follow. I think you kinda did the same thing here. I also enjoyed your last bit about the comfy chairs. It’s so true!

    That being said … thanks for sharing!


    July 1, 2013
  6. So it seems bookstore customers are the same the world over. I worked at Exclusive Books here in South Africa and I’m relating to ALL your experiences… Except the mascot suit.

    I used to get so annoyed with people looking for obscure books and telling you, “It’s got a blue cover.”

    Well! Why didn’t you say so earlier?


    July 2, 2013
  7. We used to have a Barnes and Noble here in Ireland. I would do the two hour round trip specially to spend hours in the place. As a paying customer, I must add. Fantastic bookstore. Glad you reposted this. Love your bookstore stories, and the other comments.


    July 2, 2013
  8. Awesome……..Just Awesome Share.I love it.Looking forward for more.Alex,Thanks.


    July 2, 2013
  9. Loved it absolutely!


    July 2, 2013
  10. I’ve never worked there, but I always feel bad for the people who do. They always seem so harried and stressed. It’s one of the best spots for people watching, I think.


    July 2, 2013
  11. Great post! I’ll add this to my weekly blog post 😉


    July 4, 2013
  12. My college student years were spent working for the university library. No mascot issues or worrying about people being cheap, but otherwise this is spot on to my experience. We also got a computer lab, so the strange people off the street would come in to hang out all day long looking at pr0n and guns. Good times.


    July 6, 2013
  13. Julee J. Adams #

    Been there, done that, got the T-shirt, suffered the PTSD from 10 years as a B. Dalton Bookstore (B&N) manager and recovered.I’m there with you, brother. I was horrified when an author had an article on autographing published in a Writer’s Digest Yearbook about her experience in our store, because she kept talking about how four people asked how much the desk was we had borrowed for her to sit at, rather than the usual table.
    Yes, we did find the sex ed books everywhere, but I am responsible for a re-lay of the entire chain. The sex ed books were originally by the religious section (insert snarky comment here) and a local minister was offended that we carried Joy of Lesbian Sex. When she asked, “How can you sell this book?” I replied that it came in a box, we put it on the shelf and when a customer brought it up to the cash register, we collected the payment. It ended up with the creation of The Citizens for Decency, the county assistant prosecutor (we later sold his book) coming in asking if I had my bail money ready and a lawsuit against the chain. Never mind the Joy of Gay Sex was right next to it and she wasn’t offended by that. I had the Gay & Lesbian Alliance offering me free advertising in their newsletter and offering to counter picket. I was quoted as saying, “I have something to offend everybody in this store.” It was a proud, but trying moment.
    I remember the telegram that “We are not soldiers in the B. Dalton army” when we were told to send back copies of The Satanic Verses after a bomb was found in the Denver store. We put it on the national bestseller list that next week. I remember a mall walker yelling, “Stay out of the way” when I tried to unlock the door in the morning. I remember confronting the guy in the Cafe Court who always stole a Sunday paper from where they were delivered out back (the inserts came early, so I knew it was him). I remember putting a local history book at number thirteen on the national bestseller list. I remember wanting to shoot out the closest speaker that blared that $#%@ing Christmas song tape for the dozenth time that day and it was only December 5th. I remember getting the ARC of Silence of the Lambs and wanting to hand sell it to everyone.
    More importantly, I remember meeting so many great people and terrific friends.And the discount. Loved the discount. Thanks for the chance to share the memories–we are certainly becoming a dying breed, aren’t we?


    July 9, 2013
  14. Well, I worked at a book store for 3 years as a teenager. Along with the shop, we also had tables set up in the middle of the shopping centre covered in mountains of books. One morning, it was turn to open the ‘mall.’ And when I pulled the tarps off of the tables (ingenious anti-theft devices. NOT) I noticed one of them seemed to be somewhat…gooey.
    Then I looked at the uncovered tables and realised that someone had clearly dropped a bunch of eggs from the second level of the centre onto the poor, defenceless table of books.
    So, that was pretty disgusting. Cleaning it up was one of the most non-fun tasks I ever had to complete in that job. Other non-fun tasks include:
    -Wearing a witch hat the day the last Harry Potter was released.
    -Watching kids pick up the last Harry Potter, flip to the end and loudly spoil the ending. (I was a big Harry Potter fan at the time. It was pretty much my worst nightmare.)
    -Having my store manager leave in the middle of the day never to return. Ever. The reason? She had a really sore foot.
    -Creepy co-workers for brief period of time.
    -Co-workers that weren’t that into reading. Really? Really?!
    -Sex books in non-sex sections (Deliberate)
    -Religion books in Fiction sections (Deliberate)
    -Accusations from an elderly couple that I was trying to get them to join a cult because I had the audacity to ask them if they wanted to join the free Book Club and receive discounts.

    I can’t believe I almost forgot this: My former manager was tidying the books when she discovered some poo behind some kids books. Come to think of it, that could have had something to do with her abrupt quitting.


    July 14, 2013
  15. My husband Albert Schwartz recently wrote a new book on submarine warfare:”Secret War”that has been published in the United States.He was the captain of the US nuclear submarines Haddock and Michigan before.


    July 26, 2015

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