Scene: Me, standing behind the checkout counter in a bookstore.
Customer: Are you a cash register?
Me: No, but I'm thinking of becoming one. I hear there's a lot of money in it.
It's a bad joke, but I'll confess I used it a few times during my tenure as a bookseller. Usually it got a laugh, or at least a smile. Not surprisingly, "the most wonderful time of the year" featured prominently in most of these encounters. 'Tis the season that tends to bring out the best and worst in customers, as well as booksellers.
|Holiday shoppers at Literati in Ann Arbor, Mich.
You may have noticed.
This is just a theory, but I suspect most prospective booksellers underestimate the amount of time they'll spend as cashiers. That duty tends to be soft-pedaled during the interview process, since in this vow-of-poverty, passion-driven profession, accentuating the positive is the rule. It just makes sense to showcase the glories of handselling, the avalanche of unlimited ARCS and the distinguished company of well-read colleagues, while the interviewee clings to sugar plum visions of a "dream job," featuring serene hours lost in the stacks that are occasionally, yet gently. interrupted to handsell the perfect book to its perfect reader.
The holiday season can be a serious wake-up call. In the heat of retail battle, a little voice whispers, "This isn't what I signed up for." But quickly you learn to become the person your customers need you to be in that moment. And why not? Booksellers love their customers because they can't afford not to, and because booksellers and their patrons are nice people, mostly. In fact, the worst customer I ever dealt with as a bookseller was better than the average customer I encountered working in supermarkets. People go to grocery stores because they have to. Most go to bookstores because they want to. It's a significant difference.
|Cash registers at the Last Bookstore, Los Angeles.|
I was a good handseller, but I was a great cashier, having started young at the local A&P during high school. Customers used to line up at my register because I was fast, and proud of it. One of my favorite chapters in Studs Terkel's Working is the profile of Babe Secoli, a supermarket checker who says: "It's hard work, but I like it. This is my life.... I'm just movin'--the hips, the hand, and the register, the hips, the hand, and the register.... You just keep goin', one, two, one, two. If you've got that rhythm, you're a fast checker. Your feet are flat on the floor and you're turning your head back and forth.... If somebody interrupts to ask me the price, I'll answer while I'm movin'. Like playin' a piano."
I get that.
And so I decided it would be appropriate to ring in the holiday season with words of praise for you, the bookseller/cashier. In the crazed, checkout counter nucleus of the holiday rush, you just handle it as those customers stampede your way. Often you wonder how so many people manage to arrive at your cash register simultaneously. And then they keep coming, wave after wave, until--despite your best intentions and the spirit of the season--they begin to merge into a single, multi-limbed organism, and what you see when you look out from behind the counter are piles of books, sidelines, toys, calendars, greeting cards and imposing stuffed animals bigger than the child they are meant for. You're in a Ralph Steadman drawing, and there's no escape.
|Cashiers at Politics & Prose in Washington. D.C., stand ready to help|
A bookseller/cashier is not a specialist. The questions hit you from all sides and some of them are repeated dozens of times: Is Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven as good as they say? Does Amy Poehler's Yes Please come in paperback? Why isn't Cheryl Strayed's Wild with the fiction bestsellers? Do you carry The Innovators by Isaac Walker? (Do you mean Walter Isaacson? No, that's not what I wrote down.) Could you page my wife, husband, kid? Where's your rest room? You are asked to wrap the unwrappable and box the unboxable.
Standing alertly behind your besieged cash register, you're the only representative of the publishing industry that most of these people will ever meet. So you do your best to smile and chat while your hands repeat a series of long-practiced, fluid and instinctive movements with the dexterity of a casino card dealer.
Sometimes, in rare moments of illusory calm, you take a break to straighten shelves and displays. You restock. You fling yourself recklessly into the throng to handsell your favorite books of the year. And you do all of this without abandoning your base camp--that at once cursed and blessed cash register. As Babe Secoli so wisely said, "I enjoy it somethin' terrible." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2405.