November 2, 2018

Fantasy or reality: does bookselling live up to the hype?



Photo via Ugur Akdemir/Unsplash

We all have it. Just one small fantasy lurks in the back of our minds. As complete giant book nerds who wish deeply to spend the rest of our days surrounded by books, to be a small independent owner of a quaint little bookshop, helping customers find their perfect books, and giving our recommendations for our favorites is a  dream.

I want you to breathe that fantasy in, as deep as you can, and hold it in your mind.

Then, with a big exhale:

Destroy that fantasy for good.

If you had the “privilege” of working in retail, then you know that bookselling, like all other retail jobs, is essentially glorified customer service with a smile. The only difference is that the best booksellers are the ones who voluntarily choose to do it. Instead of asking whether if a customer wanted a different sized shirt or a better-fitting pair of jeans, a bookseller instead is just asking whether the customer knows the actual title of the book they want (“No, I just know it’s a blue cover”). Or, telling passive parents that the children’s section is not an actual playground for their kids (“I’m sorry, sir, but you’re not actually allowed to have a playdate here with ten children.”)

Not quite the “Black Books” comedy and not exactly the “You’ve Got Mail” rom-com, bookselling is hours and hours of back-breaking work: reshelving inventory, taking in stock, maintaining civility in face of obnoxious customers who come in looking for that specific Harry Potter book that no, Janet, it’s not sold here, this is an independent bookstore. And that’s only just scratching the surface of the bookselling woes.

It’s not all bad. Sometimes you might meet a customer who reminds you why you chose the profession in the first place. They’re just… not the norm. But, if you’re really gunning for a taste of the bookselling life, just remember that we warned you – it’s not all fun and games here in this capitalist world. Like anything else in this world, it’s a labor of love.

Oh, who are we kidding? It’s still a great dream.




Erica Huang is former Melville House intern.