Many book lovers dream of opening their own bookstore. They imagine setting up a quaint and cosy shop, dimly lit, with little reading nooks and well-padded chairs. Fellow book lovers would be free to browse for hours, before buying armfuls of books that will be discussed at length next time they visit.
Literature is full of such bookshop owners. Among many others, there is The Little Paris Bookshop and the The Storied Life of A.J Fikry. When I was in London, I visited the dusty shop at 84, Charing Cross Road, where the book of the same name was set.
But we’re not all cut out to live that dream.
Recently, a UK bookstore owner who had been dubbed the ‘bookseller from hell’ decided to sell his shop, to the relief of the rest of the community in the Yorkshire Dales town.
Apparently, his sins had included speaking rudely to customers and attempting to charge for entry to his second hand bookstore. He explained that he did not want visitors to the shop wasting his time.
Admitting that he was no people person, he clearly wasn’t in the right industry, no matter how much he might or might not have loved books.
While my reasons were different to his, I also discovered early on that I didn’t have it in me to become a successful bookseller. Or any kind of bookseller, for that matter.
When I landed a casual job as a retail assistant in my local bookstore while studying at university, I was elated. As a hopelessly devoted reader, my dream was to be surrounded by books, so I thought this position was perfect.
Little did I know that I was ill-equipped for the reality of the bookstore. There, surrounded by so many glorious books, I was expected to IGNORE them, and clean the shelves. Once in a while, a customer would sidle up to the counter with a purchase, usually the latest bestseller by Nicholas Sparks (you can see this was the early 2000s).
I scanned the book, and went back to my cleaning duties. As my manager entered a new batch of books into the database at the front desk, I moved along the shelves, looking longingly at each book, drawing on all of my strength to resist the urge to perch myself in the aisle and discover what lay within.
Of course, occasionally someone would ask me for advice about books. When this happened, no one could curb my enthusiasm. Off on a diatribe I went, naming Donna Tartt, Milan Kundera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ian McEwan, waxing lyrical about A Fine Balance, The Bonfire of the Vanities and Monkey Grip. The buyer’s eyes would glaze over and they would edge towards the exit. I would return to my shelf cleaning duties.
Sometimes, I would work alone, when the manager was out to lunch or in the packing room. Like a marathon runner deprived of water, I would grab a book and pore over it, gulping down as much as I could in the little time I had.
And here, looking back, perhaps I could have competed for the title of the rudest bookseller with our friend from Yorkshire. When people interrupted my reading to ask directions to the gardening section, I huffed. When they brought over their purchase, I puffed. All I wanted was to read the book that I had been stacking all morning. While my manager never received complaints, I’m sure some buyers would have left wondering why they had felt the need to apologise for interrupting my reading when they came to the desk to purchase their book.
Then there was the expense – how was I supposed to work with books all day without buying at least a few. While my employee discount helped, it was no match for the rate at which I could gather books on my bedside table.
No, I was not cut out to be a bookseller. I loved books too much. And unlike so many wonderful, disciplined and passionate booksellers vastly different to the one in Yorkshire, I did not have the power to resist.
Perhaps it is true that it is better for your hobby to remain such, and your job to be quite far removed. At least there will be no temptation too strong to ignore.
So, while I will continue to enjoy visiting bookstores, exploring their (clean) shelves and finding quiet places to sit and read my selected books, I will not be the one selling them. I would be far better suited to a job at the local sports store.