During a morning meeting at Chapters, near the beginning of my time there, one of my managers said "Even if you read a book a week, that's only 52 books a year. Look around you. There's no possible way you will ever read even a tiny percentage of the books here in your lifetime. So when customers are frustrated that you don't know exactly which book they're vaguely talking about — and they will be — it's not your fault." We'd do the best we could to help customers. Most times we didn't have to work too hard to get it right; people are generally looking for popular books and showing them the best-seller shelf usually did the trick.
Chain or not, bookstore employees are usually readers. Maybe we weren't all chomping down on Dostoevsky, but we read. A lot of folks I worked with had post-secondary degrees (as do I), of the sort that don't have real practical applications. Yet there's an inherent classism that happens when some people enter a chain bookstore. The retail grunts can't possibly be human, right? "They don't really care about books, I mean, look at all these candles... oooooh lavendar!"* Fact is, your local Chapters/Indigo employee is probably pretty passionate about books, and reading. Sure, there's the odd person who's doing it solely for the paycheque (and that's totally fair too), but for readers who work retail, there's no better place to do it.
I worked at the Chapters location mentioned in the recent Eye Weekly article "In defence of Chapters." Unfortunatley, the piece does suffer from the same prejudice I mention above. Sarah Nicole Prickett writes "They make no suggestions, having nothing to prove; they work at Chapters." The implicit message is that they couldn't possibly care about literature, they work in a big box. She goes on to say that while spending time at Chapters "[t]he only risk is running into someone with a normal job, like in corporate PR or helping children[.]" Because, you know, people who work retail aren't really "normal" or "people" or any of that. Maybe I'm taking this a bit on the chin, but Prickett isn't defending anything here, other than her need to go to Chapters and casually rip up magazines (and actually, yes, they do mind when you do that, that's called "loss" and stores don't like it).
Given all this, it was nice to see that chain bookstores really can mean something. When the Barnes & Noble in Lincoln Sqaure closed, the employees left a heartfelt note in the window. Patrons, who had come to treasure this big store, and the people it employed, wrote back.
*The number of people who would complain to frontline employees about the selection of non-book items in Chapters/Indigo was pretty hilarious. You think those folks have anything to do with the decision making? Or that they have a direct line to Reisman/Silver (is Silver still around)? Please. Fact is, the margins are better on that stuff, and it's what keeps the stores in business.