This Again (In Defence of the Humble Worker)

So often on book blogs, and book news sites, I see people complain about the chain bookstore employee. About how dull and stupid they are, what a crime it is they can't spell "Ondaatje," how tragic that the bookstore employee encountered can't read minds/hasn't read what you're looking for/doesn't know your favourite author. Whenever I see it, I'm not shy about yelling at the author of such comments.

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.

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*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.


Ben said...

While I've never worked at Chapters, for the past four years my job has been pretty much a "service" position, and I have encountered some weird and occasionally irate people. I always try to be courteous to service people in any line of work. And I'd like to say it's because I empathize or because "they have it hard enough," but no. It's simpler than that. I'm courteous because it's the right thing to do. I belong to the bizarre subset of the species that believes everyone should be treated with respect. It's heartwarming to see that there are others of my subspecies hanging out around closed bookstores.

The employees at the Chapters here in Thunder Bay have always been helpful to me. For some reason, I tend to choose books that have been misplaced or mis-shelved—when I went to go find Cory Doctorow's Makers, I looked everywhere in the SF section, because that's where the computer told me to look. So an employee and I had a merry little safari through the store, hunting around display racks, and she eventually looked in the back, to no avail. Turns out the copies were all shelved in the "General" section, where I had never bothered to look.

The way your manager expressed that point about not being able to be familiar with every book, every author, is great. As someone who reads considerably more than 52 books a year, I'm still overwhelmed by the number of books out there. It is simultaneously exciting and exhausting, because I know no matter how much I read, I'll always be missing something. So I just try to love what I do get to read.

Blah, blah, blah said...

As a current employee at Indigo, I agree with this post 100%. From my interview onwards, I've been surrounded by people who love books and literature.

When I think back on my two interviews I had with Indigo, both times, the first question asked was, "What are you reading right now?" And while the question is meant as a bit of warm up question to help you relax and get into it, at the same time, it's a pretty important question. They aren't gonna hire people who don't know anything about the product they're working with.

Frankly, working at Indigo has probably been my most enjoybale job. Every shift I have, I usually end up spending most of the time talking books with people who love books. Frankly, if I could make my feet feel a ton better, this job would be perfect!

Also, I'm printing this blog post off and putting it up in the staff room. I suspect a few people might appreciate it.

Panic said...

Thanks, Blah!

They asked me that at my interview too. I totally forgot about that 'till now.