books, retail

Why I Work For An Independent Bookstore

If you haven’t heard of Mockingjay — or The Hunger Games, or Catching Fire — you will soon enough. There will be movies, which Hollywood hopefully won’t butcher the way it did the first two Harry Potters, or Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief, or anything Dr. Seuss ever wrote. But before the movie you will probably read articles about Suzanne Collins and her trilogy of dystopian YA novels, about a girl named Katniss who must survive a competition — to the death — between fellow teenagers. (It’s like Lord of the Flies meets The Running Man meets “Survivor” with a splash of Gladiator thrown in.) While Katniss Everdeen isn’t quite the household name that Harry Potter was, she is a suitably compelling heroine to have drawn about eighty people to the independent bookstore where I (Ben) work, for a midnight release party of Mockingjay, the final book in The Hunger Games Trilogy. There were young and old in the crowd, though more of the former than the latter. One parent sat in a chair most of the night catnapping; the other got in line at 11:30 even though there was no line and no books for another half hour. “The things we do for our kids,” he said. “Do they have school tomorrow?” I asked. “No, but I’ve got work,” he said.

Everyone who loves and discovers something — especially something or someone who makes it big — wants to believe they got there first. The Hunger Games didn’t exactly come out of nowhere — Stephen King was singing its praises well before it officially released — but it wasn’t something I would have picked up were it not for a fellow employee named Molly. Molly read it and loved it so much that she got Scholastic to send a slew of advance reader copies to our store. Pretty soon they were all gone and we had to borrow from one another. And, as these things go, we started putting the book in any customer’s hands who would give us the time of day.

Molly and Steph, who are our kids book gurus, have a knack for discovering books like The Hunger Games. Of course they were Harry Potter fans from the start. But they also knew about Twilight before everyone else did. And they put books like When You Reach Me and The Brixton Brothers in my hands before the ALA awarded the first with the Newbery award and the Pulitzer committee inexplicably passed over the second. (For shame!)

But the point isn’t that they pick the surefire winners. The point is, they can tell you all about the books everyone will be talking about — the Harry Potters and Twilights and Hunger Games — but, once you finish with those, then they can tell you about the books that will never be made into movies but are still worth your while. Yes, Amazon can tell you what Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought — and this is, in fact, often a very helpful thing to know — but that’s not the same as talking to someone about a book you love and then hearing that person say, “Well, you know, what you should really read next is…” and then putting that book in your hands.

I’m lucky to work not only with Steph and Molly, but a whole staff of people who do what they do. It’s hard to know how much of a need there’ll be for us independent bookseller types in five, ten, twenty years down the road. One can hope. James Stewart, for one, reads the tea leaves and sees an opportunity for independents in Barnes & Noble’s recent financial hardships. Despite proclaiming “I can’t say I miss physical books … my shelves are already groaning and can’t accommodate any more,” Stewart — who owns both an iPad and a Kindle — goes on to add,

I do miss the bookstore I grew up with in the Midwest and the small stores that once dotted my neighborhood. Could B&N’s decline pave the way for the return of the independent bookseller? Despite the array of suggestions tailored to my interests (or at least to my recent purchases) that appear when I open the Amazon site, I still yearn for someone intelligent who can recommend a good book. I enjoy the community of other people who love books. I like talking to someone both before buying a book and after reading it.

He would’ve enjoyed being at our store tonight (er, last night) around midnight, even if he did have to work in the morning.


3 thoughts on “Why I Work For An Independent Bookstore

  1. The people I worked with at my last bookstore were without a doubt the only thing that kept me there for at least the last year.

    Having been your peer, I know that your awareness of and appreciation for your co-workers is one of the things that makes you a great leader. It’s a brand of empathy born of respect that few at the top of any organization ever have.

  2. I adore coming to Joseph-Beth. I especially feel like since I’ve had kids, I’ve rediscovered how much I love it – so much so that I can’t tell you the last time I went to B&N to actually purchase a book (trips there to let Ava play with the train table don’t count).

    I’m so happy we have a place like this around here :-).

  3. Ben, I assumed that the answer to “Why I Work For An Independent Bookstore” was something more like “Because the strip club wasn’t hiring male dancers” or “I can’t stand the smell of McDonald’s French Fries,” but I suppose your answer is fine too.

    I spent all of one summer during graduate school working at a Border’s and–perhaps surprisingly–I found my experience to be somewhat similar, at least to the extent of having knowledgable, dedicated co-workers who read a lot and could really help customers. Most of us were college grads. I don’t know that this is common to Borders–I suspect it was just that they had a good manager doing the hiring at the time–because we borrowed a few employees from another store because we were behind on something or other, and they were fairly dim. I distinctly remember a bunch of us sitting around on a lunch break, talking about books, and this girl from the other store chimed in that she hadn’t read a book outside of school since the 4th grade. When we’d picked our jaws up off the table, we all made mental notes to let our friends know which Borders NOT to go to for help.

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