Monday, January 29, 2018

The last time I worked at a bookstore

I shelved the books in the Romance section, which was the easiest section to maintain because there was only one way to organize those books-- alphabetically by author -- and I was a part-time bookstore worker. They were never going to give me one of the big, complex, multiply-segmented sections like History or Religion

or even Poetry, even though I was working on my MFA in poetry at the time. Everyone at that bookstore was an expert in something, and people all over the city would call our Information Desk line to ask questions about Whatever. What movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1936 or How many years did the Mexican American War last, and one of us would know the answer or we'd know where to find it.

We were basically the Siri of the early 1990's, when there was no such thing as the internet or Google and cellphones were as big as your forearm and only really wealthy and/or obnoxious people carried them around.

I wasn't always the best bookstore worker. I snootily looked down on the Romance novels I shelved and I secretly rolled my eyes at the people who came in looking for a book but couldn't remember the title or the author or really anything about it, except that it had a white and black cover.

(for the record, they wanted Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein)

Something people are often surprised to learn about bookstore clerks is that we were not allowed to read the books-- at least while we were on the clock.

I wanted to read everything.

But once I got over that rule, I loved working at the bookstore. I loved unpacking the new arrivals. I loved the smell of the storeroom, the wooden shelves, the rows and rows of backstock. I loved reorganizing books in the bookcases. I loved talking to people about books and asking them what they were reading and learning what was new in the book world and getting to meet authors at book-signings and fulfilling my mission

which was always to put a book into the customer's hands.

Turns out that nearly thirty years later I still love doing all of these things. The bookstore where I have been working for the past few weeks is called Cover to Cover.  It's the reconfiguration of the original Cover to Cover (my favorite bookstore of all time, which closed a few months ago when the darling owner Sally Oddi retired), now reopened in a new space by the lovely Melia Wolf, a former art teacher, which is very apparent the moment you walk through the door. 

(LOOK!! a teeny mouse nook under the counter, designed by
artist Sharon Dorsey of Open Door Studio)

(The original Cover to Cover had a wall of visiting author
and illustrator signatures. The wall went with Sally but Melia
took photos and recreated it as tissue paper!)

I am having a blast unpacking boxes and moving the books around on the shelves. Struggling, a little, to learn the ordering and computer cash register system (yes, THIS has changed mightily over the last thirty years), but the smell of the books is the same, and I will never tire of talking about books with people.

(One of my first customers, Sally! at the grand opening.)

And my new favorite thing?

Kneeling down to put a book into a child's hands.


  1. So glad this treasure has been kept alive!

  2. Such an enjoyable read. Thanks for sharing!

  3. So, just wondering, did people never think to ask the public library those questions? Seeing as how the public libraries have entire departments devoted to answering questions like who won the Academy Award in 1936 and how long the Mexican War lasted? Grrr. That said, my next job might be a bookstore job ....

    1. Good question, Mary! Yes, people did call the library for questions. This was in Memphis in the early 1990's and they had something called the Library Link line. When we, at the bookstore, got questions we couldn't answer, we always shared the link line number with the customer. The funny thing is THEY sent people over to us when they were stumped!