I recently applied for a Saturday job at a local branch of a well known bookshop. Obviously, I love bookshops and when I saw the ad in the window I was drawn to the idea of some extra cash and a job that involved handling and talking about books.
I took in my CV and was invited for an interview that afforded me an exciting peek behind the scenes. I was led through a code-locked door, up a twisty staircase to a draughty attic office with flaky paintwork, a paper strewn desk and weathered sofa. All as delectable as I’d imagined.
The interview started with the basics. Did I read a lot of books? Duh. Which books did I think would make it into the top ten sales charts at Christmas? I reeled off a couple of top selling authors and my interviewer nodded her agreement, whilst pointing out that celebrity memoirs and cook books would outsell everything else. She also complained that one of the authors I’d mentioned had been very lazy lately and taken well over a year to produce his latest novel. I quashed the urge to ask if she’d ever tried writing a novel herself.
As the interview progressed, I started to struggle with some of the questions. Having devoted much of the last twenty-two years to raising my children, I couldn’t think of an example of when I’d provided good customer service. Nor could I cite any evidence that I was able to use my initiative.
Was I flexible? Yes. Could I put in extra hours around Christmas? Yes. Travel to different stores? Yes. Did I want to build a career as a bookseller and become a shop manager one day? Um…
It came as no surprise when I didn’t get the job. Nor would I argue with the manager’s decision. I do read a lot, but I know very little about selling books and, on reflection, I’m not sure that I want to know.
Going through that forbidden door I gained entry into an engine room of the book trade. Working at a bookshop you get to see what sells and what doesn’t, which books are promoted and how the marketing machinery makes, or breaks, careers. Useful information, you’d think, for an aspiring writer. Or is it? When I’m sitting at my screen for months on end, is it helpful to know what’s happening at the coal face of the industry? Or is it healthier to remain a regular punter labouring in the background to produce the best book I can?
Of course, lots of writers do work in bookshops without coming to any harm. It makes a kind of sense. But, apart from missing out on the staff discount, I’ve decided I’m more than happy for someone else to take that place behind the counter whilst I browse the shelves and give the memoirs and cookbooks a miss.