6 Strange Things I Learned Working in a Bookstore

My idea of Heaven.
My idea of Heaven.

I love books. I always have and always will. I have, at last count, something in the neighborhood of 7,000 of them, and a whole room in my house set aside for them. So when I got a job at a large chain bookstore several years ago, I thought I was in heaven. The pay was almost embarrassingly low, but at least I would be around books and the types of people who enjoy reading, I told myself. It'd be fun!

But as with every retail job I've ever had, I learned quite a few things working at that place. Some fairly surprising stuff, too.

6. People Steal a Lot of Books.

I was initially put in the Receiving Room, which, at that store, was the area where trucks delivered merchandise, and those items were sorted and stored until they could be put out on the store shelves. It was my duty to do all of that sorting and storing, as well as a few other things, and one of my jobs was to randomly place little magnetic anti-theft tags into some books. This policy was in place for a good reason. Something like 15 percent of the books that came into the store would eventually be stolen. With such a shocking amount of "shrink," it's no wonder that the store had me putting little alarm tags in every tenth book that I sorted. It also made me start looking at customers with a slightly cynical "Is he a book thief?" level of scrutiny.

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5. People Steal a Lot of the Same Kinds of Books. There were a few guidelines on which books got the anti-theft tags. Anything over $50 got one, for the most part, but I was also told to distribute them more liberally in certain kinds of books.

The most often stolen books were in the religious section, something I found sadly hilarious. Bibles and religious books of all types were the most heavily pilfered items in the store, and not just that store, but chain-wide.

Following that category were travel guides. Turns out a lot of people don't plan on using them more than once and don't really want to pay for them. Or maybe they funded their world travel by stealing books, I don't know. Next were college prep materials and reference books. More on college kids shortly.

And then there were the pricey art books, followed by erotica, both of which were stolen frequently. I assume that most of the thieves stole books to get reading material without paying, but occasionally another store would call us to warn us that a small group of thieves had just left their store, and usually that same group would make their way to us later in the day. They'd basically fill up backpacks, so maybe there's more money in reselling them than I previously thought.  

Shakespeare & Company in Paris really is Heaven on earth for a book nerd.
Shakespeare & Company in Paris really is Heaven on earth for a book nerd.

4. Bookstores Are Social Scenes Where People Hang Out Forever.

Look around the next time you're in a big bookstore and what will you see? Usually there's a cafe with Internet access, and comfy-looking easy chairs and little areas for people to sit scattered around the place. It's almost like the store is set up to be comfortable for customers to hang around for hours on end. Well, yeah, and they do. A lot of them never buy a single item, although they sure as heck read enough stuff while at bookstores. At the end of the night, we'd find huge stacks of books that some person hanging out for hours had left behind. It's part of the business plan and expected.

And college kids use big bookstores as their personal study hall and library. They tended to get on my nerves because a lot of them would mark up books they were using as reference material for whatever paper they had that week, and they'd also sit around areas of the store, in the way of other customers. Some would even complain when there weren't enough electrical outlets to accommodate their laptops. In any case, most major chains seem to cultivate a strange hangout atmosphere, hoping to sell some books somewhere along the way. Even if they don't, the cafe probably does well.

3. Working Retail Will Teach You That Some People Are Just Gross.

After years of working various retail jobs, I came to realize that a certain percentage of all people are just repulsive human beings with disgusting personal habits. It was routine to find half-eaten food discarded throughout the store by the time we closed, from some customer eating his snack or downing a coffee and then just leaving the remaining portion hidden away somewhere in the store, rather than taking it to a garbage can. But that was nothing compared to the horrors we'd find in the bathrooms. Suffice it to say, some people leave an almost inexplicably horrible mess behind, but again that was not the worst we faced. At least those disasters were usually somewhat contained.

One day I was in the staff office area when one of the other employees walked in and addressed the store manager, a guy named Charles. The employer was pals with Charles, and quickly told him:

"Charles, someone just took a dump over in the language section."

Charles barely looked up and said:

"Oh, again?"

I looked at the other employee, and could tell he'd been joking, but then Charles launched into a long monologue chronicling how often he'd had to clean up after some nasty person had relieved himself somewhere unthinkable inside the store. The longer I worked there, the more stories I heard. Pretty awful. 

2. Some Bookstore Customers Are Unreasonable and Rude. I get it, I'm an avid reader, and it's disappointing when I can't find a book I'm looking for. But certain types of readers take things a little far when they're unable to get what they want. For instance, I discovered that certain types of romance fiction have a devoted fan base, and the books in certain series are churned out very regularly, almost like periodicals.

There was a regular customer who came into the store I worked at who was famous among the employees. She read vampire romance novels and had a "difficult" personality. Nearly everyone who worked there had been treated poorly by her at one point, and they mostly tried to avoid her. As it happened, I didn't know that, and tried to help her one day. From that point onward, I was the only employee she would deal with when she came in for her weekly visits. She would get extremely irate when we didn't have the newest vampire sex novel she was seeking, and would throw fits in the store. She wasn't the only regular customer who acted that way, but probably the most notable.

Then there were the angry parents. In some cases, their little darlings had wandered over to the art book section and saw someone's naked chest after peeling off the shrink wrap covering that book, and in other cases a teacher at their kid's school had required they read a certain story for a report, and we were out. Most of the time these idiots could've avoided the situation if they'd simply not waited until the last minute, since all the kids in the area tended to have that same assignment, and our store generally didn't know until they started to arrive looking for the same book. You can't please everyone.

1. Everyone in the Book Business Seems to Fear That Books Are Going to Disappear Soon. And that's understandable; the world of publishing is changing very quickly and everyone is scrambling to catch up or hold their ground. It seems like everything is moving online, and that's bad news for the types of bookstores whose bread and butter has always been selling new books. Personally, I think there will always be readers such as myself, who like to own a physical book, at least for the foreseeable future, and there are millions of used books floating around, but for large bookstores that have always relied on recent best sellers to make money? I think they're quickly realizing that's not going to be a viable business model for a lot longer. When I went into a national chain bookstore recently, the first thing I saw walking in was an enormous display of their newest tablets for sale, presumably to read new books on. So yeah, there's a certain desperation setting in. When I worked at the store, people who'd been in the business for years were already predicting the end of magazines and certain broad categories of books, such as reference or language books. Travel guides? Who will need to carry those around when the same info and more can be found on a smartphone?

It seems to me that the huge book sellers are starting to stock a lot more non-book merchandise. I saw a whole lot of toys and "collectibles" the last time I was in one, for instance. It's an interesting and anxious time to work at a large book retailer, that's for sure.

My time working at that bookstore was an interesting one. I had many unusual experiences and got to see firsthand the behind-the-scenes mechanisms of a world I'd always enjoyed and for the most part still enjoy. Books are like old friends; some I'll return to for comfort, and others will draw me in immediately. But like any job in retail, working at that bookstore was also an education, and I got to see the good and the bad sides of people. But I also discovered a lot of great books I probably wouldn't have otherwise, and it was worth working there for that if nothing else.


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