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We're more than confirmation numbers: What I learned selling books to strangers

I forswore Amazon and took a job at a local bookstore to make rent; it became something much more than a paycheck


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Annie Hartnett
December 26, 2015 5:00AM (UTC)

The week before Christmas last year, the bookstore I worked for ran out of "All the Light We Cannot See," the most buzzed-about book of the holiday season. It was backordered, and we couldn’t get it in the store until December 29th.

“What am I supposed to get my wife?” a man demanded. “That’s what she wanted.”

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Get her another book, I wanted to suggest, but instead I apologized from my perch behind the counter, explaining that the publisher hadn’t printed enough copies.

“I want to support local bookstores, but you people are really making me want to go to Amazon,” he said.

“The book is backordered on Amazon too,” I told him, as politely as I could. “They can’t get it to you before Christmas either.”

Nothing about this conversation was unusual. Customers regularly threaten booksellers with Amazon, like it’s a weapon they can deploy to get what they want from us. “I could get this much cheaper on Amazon,” people tell me when checking out.

These book buyers want to feel good about themselves for shopping in a bookstore, but they want special credit for it too, as if the bookstore should give out gold star stickers along with receipts. People love the ease, anonymity and convenience of shopping on Amazon, but many do feel guilty about shopping for books online – we know bookstores are where real live authors hold events and where little kids can go to a story hour on Saturdays. We know that the money spent in bookstores sustains a lively town center; it doesn’t go to buy Jeff Bezos another rocket ship.

So readers congratulate themselves when they make it to a bookstore, but are annoyed when it’s not a perfect transaction. The books are more expensive than they are online, and sometimes there’s a line to check out (only during the two weeks before Christmas, really). And man, do customers hate waiting in line. I remember waiting in the Borders line forever during the holidays years ago, my arms full of books and CDs, but people get annoyed if there’s a line in the bookstore now, asking why we don’t have a third cash register. We have become a culture that refuses to wait for books.

Once, I had a customer come in and say: “I’m parked illegally, so can you check me out and also giftwrap the book as fast as possible?” Another customer yelled at my coworker because she got a parking ticket while shopping, as if booksellers are in cahoots with parking enforcement.

We want shopping in person to be as quick and easy as shopping online is. It is not, and last year, during the holiday rush, I began to understand the value of this slowness.

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*

I took a job at my local bookstore in order to supplement money I earned from a fellowship, but bookselling quickly became something much more than rent money to me. It was a job I’d been training for my entire life, a job that required knowing more about books than the average person. I had always read more and read faster than most people I knew. But no one can read everything, and in my years as a bookseller, I've learned to listen to NPR in the morning because someone will almost always come in later that day wanting a book that they heard about on the way to work. I remember one customer in particular: “I don’t know the author or the title, but it has something to do with World War II and love letters.”

“I heard that on the radio too,” I told him, and went off to fetch the book.

I had other customers get so excited when I found the book they wanted based only on some very vague descriptions (“Blue cover, I think it’s about Italy?”) that they hugged me.

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“What’s cool about that—the blue cover, Italy thing—is that’s really hard for a computer,” my husband told me. He studies artificial intelligence, and he loves Amazon. Other than the fact that I’d complain about it, I don’t think he would miss bookstores much if they were gone.

What he doesn't seem to understand is the thing I've come to learn: There are people who really need bookstores, people who I have come to know well. There’s the elderly woman who comes to every reading and sits in the front row. A professor visits in the afternoon to tell dirty jokes and he often brings challah to share. There is a therapist who works next door, and he buys and reads more novels than I would think is humanly possible or financially responsible. When one of our booksellers was snowed in overnight at work, the therapist let her sleep on his couch. There is a man who wears a leather cowboy hat, and he told me he almost never leaves his apartment except to come into the store. He always tips his hat to me before he leaves (really). And every Saturday, a father and his young son come in to buy a new Geronimo Stilton book, which is a series about an adventurous mouse. I eventually learned that the father was going through a divorce, and the bookstore was one of the things that both he and the little boy really looked forward to.

Last December, a customer in a wheelchair told me that he was dying. He explained: “I need a book to give to my family that helps them to understand that I’m the same person, even though I don’t look the way I used to. I’m so tired of them treating me differently, like they’re afraid of me.” He wanted a book to help them let him go. We talked for some time about what he really wanted from the book, and I told him we’d special order a few books for him. The bookstore owner and I brainstormed and researched, and we ordered 10 books, including a graphic novel about death. When the man came back a few days later to see what we’d found, he bought a few. He said simply: “Thank you for listening to me.”

Bookstores are for people who aren’t always listened to, or for people who don’t always have someone to talk to. Bookstores often attract people who are otherwise introverted, or people who don’t realize how much they need a social connection. It’s a comforting environment to socialize, an easy place to strike up a conversation. There’s always something to talk about: books, of course, but we also talk about our families, our ex-boyfriends, the weather, the good restaurants around here, the funny story about that young-adult author we went to college with. We give directions to the bank and to the coffee shop. We talk about our love of dogs (it’s a dog-friendly store), and we even talk about politics.

This year, the chalkboard mounted over the cash registers reads: “Our holiday wish: Books, not Bombs.”

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“I like that,” many people say, pointing as they check out.

*

But the day when I most clearly understood what bookstores really offer us occurred last year when in the midst of the holiday chaos, my high school history teacher came in to shop and I almost cried when I saw him. He didn’t remember me at all, but it didn’t matter. Mr. Cho was the first teacher I had in high school to make me feel smart, to make me feel worthy, a way I hadn’t felt in years, not since elementary school. After the first test in his class, Mr. Cho wrote me a postcard about how smart and capable he believed I was, and that he knew I could do well. This was the same year my English teacher told my parents that he thought I was “such a pretty girl, I’m surprised when she opens her mouth and says something smart.” Mr. Cho was the first teacher I felt was on my team. I remember so clearly when Mr. Cho reprimanded a boy who made a comment about my butt during class, a comment most of the teachers I knew would have ignored. It wasn’t just a mild scolding either, but a full-on lecture about the unacceptability of treating women as objects.

Mr. Cho is still very young now, so he must have been a really young teacher when I had him, maybe 24 or 25 then. In the bookstore more than 10 years later, I told him what a profound impact he had on me. I told him I believed he had changed the course of the rest of my life.

“Really?” he said. “I was such an asshole back then.”

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I laughed, and assured him he wasnt an asshole, at least never to me.

That Christmas, I realized we may never know the value of the gifts we give to others every day. And it is at bookstores, at actual physical places, that we make connections with other people, where we give and receive small ordinary gestures of humanity. If I had run into Mr. Cho on the street, I might not have said anything. He didn’t recognize me or remember me, so I might have let him walk on by. It was because we were at the bookstore, a place where I feel confident and knowledgeable, that I said hello and we connected. And that was the moment I understood why we all keep coming to these places that some might call obsolete: that it is in such places that we can still feel like more than a confirmation number, that we can still feel like a person in the world. 


Annie Hartnett

Annie Hartnett is the author of the novel Rabbit Cake, out in March 2017 from Tin House Books.

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