Reading Rage Tuesday: Tales from a former bookseller. Also, wankers.

17 April 2012 by 47 Comments


You may or may not be surprised to know that I used to work in a bookstore. I know. It’s the most shocking. If you like to read, working in a bookshop is almost ideal. I say “almost” because, despite the obvious pros (you know, getting to fondle, smell, look at, linger near, and generally be around books all day–and having a discount wasn’t terrible, either), the job is just like any other job. There’s actual work that you have to do (sadface) and not all of it makes you happy to be working in a bookshop.

Those of you who have worked in bookshops are nodding your heads sagely, but people who only frequent bookshops might be wondering–just what about working in a bookstore might make one hate working in a bookstore? Well! I’m glad you asked. Even if you didn’t ask, you’re about to find out, because that’s what today’s Reading Rage is about: things that sucked about working in a bookstore.

Suffer from children.

I’m already not the world’s best at children. I tend to get really awkward and not quite know what to say or do when kids are talking to me. Lucky for me, I didn’t have to work directly with kids too much. (This cut way down on the panicked, deer-in-headlights looks.) Most parents blissfully shopped after leaving their monsters children to play in the kids’ section, where we had a wooden train they could sit in and a small table where the rugrats could presumably read or stick foreign objects in their mouths or up their noses. Although a great solution for the parents, I didn’t find it quite so agreeable. By the end of the night, our kids’ section invariably looked like this:

earthquake struck


and guess who had two thumbs and had to clean it up five days a week? THIS GIRL!

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to straighten children’s books, but it’s a lot different than organizing adult books. The books have absolutely no regularity as far as shape, size, or thickness, and the spines on modern books (well, modern for the era that I was working in the bookstore) were often so thin that there was no information on them. This made organizing books, which traditionally reside on the shelf spine-out, a tiny bit difficult. Plus, the books were not only organized by author but also by age, and not having children myself, I had no bloody clue what age group some of the books fell into. A few of the baby books had age recommendations, but most lacked clear guidelines–guidelines that I could have sorely used. Maybe something like, “Okay, this one has mild violence and nudity, so it’s for the 8 to 10 set.”

Couple a lack of direction with a very small time frame, and we all ended up shoving books wherever there was room and calling it good. This practice backfired on us regularly when parents came to us in search of a particular title. “Uh . . well, did you try doing what everyone else does, pulling every book off the shelf and leaving the ones you don’t want on the floor? We don’t really know what’s over there. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s a warzone.”

It was a vicious cycle.

We’re all children at heart.

Lest you think that kiddos were the only offenders, guess again! The kids’ books weren’t the only books that we were likely to find anywhere but the shelves. There were also any of the how-to/DIY sections:


I know that says Drama. You can pretend it says DIY. Our actual drama section was rarely touched by human hands, except when English classes started and everyone needed a copy of whatever Shakespeare they were assigned.

the gaming guides:

Books without shelves

I would have been happy if it had looked like this, actually. Less to clean up.

and, of course, magazines and newspapers:

shovel ready

What 90% of our customers actually came in to read.

You know, anything that people like to read for free and then leave in a haphazard pile wherever they were sitting. And yes, I still indulge in this terrible habit myself whenever I’m sitting at a bookshop cafe, which makes me the most awful person in the universe since I know exactly how much work it is. It’s a good thing I’m loved for my sassiness instead of my contributions to humanity.

I wish nature would stop calling here. I’ve changed my number twice.


Yeah, cleaning the toilets was this ominous.

I think that, outside of the home, the bookstore toilet is probably the most-beloved place for people to, uh, relieve themselves. (Starbucks is second–yet another place where I have worked and cleaned toilets.) There’s something a little more serene about a bookstore bathroom if you absolutely have to go in public. Cleaning the women’s room wasn’t terrible; it got a messy, but it was mostly just sweeping up stray bits of TP and wrappers. The men’s, though. Holy fucking hell, the men’s.

For me, cleaning the men’s bathroom already had a strike against it, because this is the only urinal that doesn’t totally gross me out. Our urinal was especially icky; we never seemed to be able to get it clean, and there were a fair amount of patrons who really needed to work on their aim. We used to wear bags on our shoes so that we didn’t have to stand directly in Pee Lake. The only worse bathroom I’ve ever seen was at a really seedy dive bar I used to frequent; unfortunately, I couldn’t get drunk enough not to care when I was at work. I tried, but they frown on that sort of thing.

The lone stall didn’t fare much better; besides the normal, uh, waste issues, the stall gave cleaning the bathroom another strike because it had privacy. It had privacy, and we, being a bookseller and all, had porno.

Yeah. You see where this is going.

Guys would nab a dirty magazine or a book of Penthouse letters and go have a nice wank in the bookstore bathroom on pretty much a daily basis. Then we had to clean it up, and these guys were NOT considerate. (Would it have killed them to use a bit of toilet tissue as a landing place instead of ALL OVER THE WALLS?) I maintain that the men’s bathroom stall of a bookstore would be the perfect place to commit a crime, because there’s so much genetic material on the stall walls that they could never prove it was you based on DNA evidence alone. Also? I would just think twice the next time you want to buy a sexy book from a store with a bathroom. Because if the guy put it back instead of stashing it somewhere in the bathroom, it might be used. And that’s just… ew.

You know the book about the thing, by the guy?

Sometimes, when I was very lucky, I got to work the customer service desk instead of being a cashier. The CS desk rocked because it mainly consisted of helping people find books and answering the phone. I got to stand on a platform and be a little taller than everyone else, which meant that, for a few hours, I was the supreme overlord of Bookdom. Plus, I got to see who came in and bought porn, which we kept behind the desk–yes, that’s right: the bathroom wankers had to ask for a Playboy before committing their crimes against booksellers. I guess those big balls were the reason they couldn’t wait till they got home.

At least once a week, though, a customer managed to completely frustrate me. The conversation usually went like this. (clears throat, puts on chipper voice)

Me: (brightly) Hi! How can I help you?

Customer: Yeah, I’m looking for a book.


Me: Okay! What book are you looking for?

Customer: I forget the title. I think it had “the” in it. Or “a” maybe. Might have started with a B, or an F. Maybe S?

Me: O-kay. Do you know the author?

Customer: One of those popular guys. It’s a novel.

Me: Can you tell me anything about it?

Customer: It’s about a woman. I think she gets killed. Or maybe she doesn’t. Or it might be a man.

Me: So. . . .  you’re basically talking about every novel that’s ever been written.

Even with my serious search-fu, I couldn’t find these books. Which, fine: you can’t squeeze blood from a turnip, and I couldn’t squeeze any more information out of them than they had. What irritated me was that they would get mad when I couldn’t find their book. They would yell at me. They would storm away from the desk and then come back twenty minutes later with the book that they wanted–or, claiming it was the book that they wanted–and wave it in my face. “This one! This one! You had a whole display of them, why couldn’t you have found it for me so I didn’t have to waste 20 minutes looking for it?” At which point, I would grab the nearest bookshelf, knock it over punk-rock style, and scream incoherently.

Okay, so I didn’t. But I did in my mind.

All in all, working at a bookstore was a sweet job, and I’d recommend it to anybody who likes to read. (Especially if you don’t sell porn, or have a public bathroom.) Like all other jobs, though, you have to put up with bullshit from time to time, and you occasionally want to see how far you can jam a booklight up some jerk’s ass. Still . . . yeah, having that discount again would be badass. I’d do it all over again, even if it meant having to equip my shoes with baggies to avoid a puddle of piss.

How ’bout you? Have you worked in a bookstore or a library? Have any tales of woe from a house of books? Share ’em in the comments!

P.S.! I made a new t-shirt, just for you guys.



Susie is the Bitch-in-Chief at IB and is also a contributor at Book Riot. She's an ice cream connoisseur, an art fanatic, a cat-mommy of three, and a wife. She runs the @thebooksluts Twitter account and may be slightly addicted.

47 thoughts on “Reading Rage Tuesday: Tales from a former bookseller. Also, wankers.

  1. Oh, oh, oh! I volunteered at our local library through junior high and high school. Our town was super tiny, and the librarian would leave me for a few hours to go grab lunch or check the mail or do some paperwork or whatever and ALWAYS this Mennonite family with eleventy billion kids under the age of ten would show up. All boys, btw. She would let them run wild through the back while she argued with me about which Babysitter’s Club books had arrived that week (FOR HER) on inter-library loan.

    • Wait.. what? I need to know more about these arguments, because, what could she possibly be arguing with you about?

      • Her: “No, no, no! I didn’t WANT A CLAUDIA BOOK!”

        Me: “Look, you ordered the next one in the series, you gave me the number and that’s how I filled the request.”

        Her: “BUT IT’S CLAUDIA, I HATE HER.”

        Me: “Shouldn’t you be taking care of your kids so I don’t have to clean up after them?”

        Her: “Well, is the next one Stacey, at least? I like her.”

        Me: [sigh] “I don’t know…? I read them when I was 8, I really can’t remember.”

        It was seriously unnerving having this conversation with a woman at least 10 years my senior, who was this worked up about the BSC. Oh, and she only ordered one book per week, and I had to look up the ISBN in the GIANT book so we could call in a request to the libraries that had…y’know, computers and junk.

        • Okay, besides her being way too old to be that concerned about the books . . . . . . unless she is special needs or something, in which case, I retract that statement….

          HOW CAN YOU HATE CLAUDIA? Claudia was badass.

          • I don’t think she was special needs, I think this was just her reading level, which I found way sad even in junior high (I was a total smartass, and the librarian made it clear that I was not to take any crap from her – so I didn’t).

            From what I understand of their group (this was only the local Mennonite population, I have no experience with them outside of the community that lived in NW Montana in the early 90s), most of the women were not schooled after fifth grade. After that point, they were expected to start their womanly duties. My understanding is that she was married at 16 (which is/was the age of consent there) and started her family shortly after that. It made me sad that she was in her 20s but really little more emotionally/intellectually mature than her children.

            Anyway, Claudia and Dawn were my favourites, too.

          • Aww, that is sad. (shakes fist) Girls can contribute to society, too! We don’t need to be cut off from education just to have babies.

            I liked Mary Ann. She was a lot like me.

  2. In high school and much of college I worked in a mall bookstore, and I don’t think any other store in the mall had a more interesting mix of customers. I am very, very grateful we did not have a public restroom. :)

  3. I’ve only ever worked in a secondhand bookshop, which means that our most annoying customers were the ones who would come in cradling an elderly, battered copy of Oliver Twist or something, and say ‘I found this book in my grandmother’s bookcase and it’s really old so I think it must be very valuable.’ I would then have to try to persuade them that the fact that a book was falling to pieces and so discoloured it was barely legible did not necessarily mean it was worth enormous sums of money.

    I am now thankful that we had no bathroom… O_o

  4. You were damn BLESSED to clean that men’s room. And here’s why:

    I have worked at convenience stores, off and on, throughout my life. For the most part, the job was decent. I met a lot of new people and I had a sort of megalomaniacal joy in denying cigarette and alcohol sales and having the state back me 100%… even if I was being a douche for the sake of douchebaggery. But the worst job? It’s, obviously, cleaning the public restrooms of said establishment. In particular, the ones from south Texas.

    Sure, the lady’s loo was fine. You hit the nail on the head with the sweeping up bits of toilet paper. It could get bad if a woman didn’t think sitting for the whole ride was a good idea. But the WORST was the men’s room. And the reason being that… Mexican men. Did you know that in Meixo they can’t flush their toilet paper? And that even shit-stained toilet paper goes in the trash? No? Well, it’s the truth.

    Now, the store I worked at was six to eight hours from the border. We had LOTS of immigrants who used our men’s room. And that meant that the trash can became overloaded with shit-covered TP. And if we weren’t aware that herds of Mexicans were using our men’s room then it was a coin toss on who was cleaning next. Because not only did the TP covered in shit overflow that trashcan but on the walls, all around the toilet, and DID I SAY ON THE FUCKING WALLS??!! Yeah. Yeah.

    P.S. they’re turning Ender’s Game into a movie.

    • Actually, I was aware that you can’t flush any TP in Mexico. (Did I do it anyway? You bet your ass I did.) What I had never considered was the ramifications of that with immigrants coming to America. I say this with complete sincerity: omg, you poor thing.

      There is a hotel we used to stay at in Ensenada, MX, that has really funny signs about not flushing your “toolier paper” or wiping your shoes on the towels.

      Your P.S. kind of made me snort laughter in its complete disconnect to the comment above it, and then my heart sank. I can’t imagine they’re going to do any better with Card than they did with Asimov. I’m afeared.

      • Toolier paper. I wish we could have had signs about toolier paper.

        They will utterly fail at this movie. The room is that Ender’s Game will have additional scenes from Ender’s Shadow in it. Sad. Sad day. But I’ll still go see it because I am dumb.

  5. “Hi, I am looking for a Book”, definitely became the most irritating line ever. Customers did not seem to comprehend just how many books have similar plot lines and the certain authors have plenty books with the same plot lines, just new characters. I would give them my “are you fucking serious face”, which would then deter any more stupid questions for the day.

    My favorite part of the year was when I new school year starts and parents come rushing in to get their kids required SUMMER reading. Then storm off when the books are not in stock. I would kindly say to them, ‘but you had all summer to get this book’.

  6. THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THIS. I’ve never worked in a bookstore, but I want to own my own (I’ll remember to avoid having a public bathroom). :)
    Also, I’m currently procrastinating on my Writing paper…which is about working in a bookstore! Do you mind if I use this post as an informal source? :D

    • Do it! Will you leave all of the stuff about the wanking in? :D hee, jk, unless you actually can, in which case, that’d be awesome.

  7. Heh, when my friends or family would come up and say, “I’m looking for a book” I would look at them as seriously as I could and ask, “Then why did you come here?” That was always good for a confused look or two. However, I wasn’t allowed to do that to customers I didn’t already know.

    My absolute favorite instance of trying to find a book for someone involved a case where the general manager had a brain fart and put me as door greeter. I spent all day welcoming people who were trying to ignore me until an elderly lady came up and asked me to help her find a book. She knew it had a purple cover with a girl twirling around in a dress. Oh, and it had been on tv a few months ago and that’s why her daughter read it. Now, by this point I was good enough at finding books that telling me the color of the cover would sometimes actually be enough for me to find it, but not this day. I was stumped. My coworkers were stumped and on this day I was able to ask nearly every category’s resident expert, but to no avail.

    So she talks to me for about 20 minutes trying to get me to suddenly realize which book she was talking about even though she wasn’t coming up with any new clues. At least she’s being very nice the entire time. She eventually wanders off hoping she’ll know it when she sees it.

    I was flabbergasted when she came back about an hour later holding a pink book with a boy on the cover filling a pail with water from an old fashioned water pump. She was so happy that she had found the right book that she barely even noticed it was nothing like the way she had described it.

    At least I managed to sell her a club card.

    • NICE.

      Oh, those stupid club cards! (p.s. Marcus and I both grew up in cities in Western Kentucky, and both worked at the same bookstore chain, to anybody who is like wha?) Did y’all have those stupid printed-out lists that were GINORMOUS instead of a proper computerized system to find people who didn’t have their cards? I had forgotten all about those until just now.


    I would love to work in/own a bookstore. And I would not clean the restrooms. No, ma’am. If that makes me an asshole snob, then so be it. Hahaha! “Oh, you won’t hire me because I said I wouldn’t clean restrooms? I’m good with that. Good day, sir/madam.”

    • I love a girl who has standards. I’ve cleaned enough public toilets to know that if you can avoid it, you totally should.

  9. I would like to work in a bookstore but I feel that my associate discount would get out of hand way faster than it does currently that I work in a clothing store. Books>Clothes.

    It’s odd though, all the times I’ve had to clean public restrooms, the women’s was ALWAYS worse. Usually with time-of-the month ickies. The men’s was usually spotless, I guess because there were less men even using it. There’d be like a couple pieces of toilet paper or paper towels and that was about it.

    • LUCKY. We almost never had female mess, but the men’s was ATROCIOUS all the time. I’d take a few blood spatters on the seat over Pee Lake.

  10. I’m now imagining some teenage guy trying to ask for one of those behind-the-desk books or magazines… I don’t know if I’d be able to keep a straight face if I was the bookseller :)

    I worked in my hometown library back in high school, but never had any crazy experiences. Worst thing that ever happened was I forgot we closed early on Fridays, and had to rush about like a maniac, doing all the closing-time procedures. Poor me, I know.

    Also, that Fountain sculpture is pretty cool.

    • I love The Fountain. I’ve been transfixed by it since I was a kid, and I had a western art book that my grandma gave me that I looked at ALL the time. It was my first experience that something other than a painting or what-have-you could be art.

  11. I have recently started working an afternoon a week in a secondhand charity bookshop, which is OK. I kind of prefer being upstairs where the book sorting takes place than downstairs using the till (which I still haven’t got the hang of!) So far it’s been great but we get some really odd books coming in. I find it interesting looking through them all and buying things before they get anywhere near the shelf too! Luckily there is no toilet cleaning involved either!

    Have you heard of the book Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops? If not, you should really check out the author’s blog… I haven’t got a copy yet, but some of the examples are hilarious!

  12. I’ll NEVER go to a unisex restroom again.

    Working in a bookstore would be a dream job for me. Cleaning restrooms….not!

  13. 1. This is hilarious. And oddly enough it just makes me want to work in a bookshop MORE. Except for the kids. It’s not the mess, it’s the whinging.

    2. My most favoritest bookstore ever, Pegasus Books on Solano Ave in Berkeley (not necessarily the BEST, but certainly the one in which I’ve clocked the most hours) does not have a public bathroom. (Now I know why.) One of the proudest moments of my life to date came when one of the wonderful ladies behind the counter allowed me to use the *private* loo in the back. It was, of course, plastered with amazing quotes and graffiti and was generally the coolest place I’ve ever pooped in. And you better believe I left it IMMACULATE.

    Of course, the fact that I count this as a major accomplishment probably says a lot about me, but I am not ashamed.

  14. I worked at a video store for a few years in grad school. Very similar situation. PEOPLE ARE DISGUSTING.

    I had porn room cleanup detail. Let’s just leave out the details of those shenanigans, other than to say: it is utterly amazing how turned on people can get from just the photos on the box the video comes in. Ew. Ew, ew, ew.

  15. I worked in a library my last two years of high school. I would get my work done, which consisted of putting books back, and then read whatever book I had started depending on what area I was working in.
    It was heaven for a young kid who loved to read.

  16. I would have left the first day:) A.not social enough for customer service B. no way on the bathrooms.

  17. Have you ever heard the Monty Python sketch (called “Bookshop,” I think) in which John Cleese is the exasperated bookseller and Terry Jones the moronic customer, looking for, among other things, “Grate Expectations” by Charles Dikkens, the well-known Dutch author? This post immediately made me think of that. Even if you’re not a huge Python fan, I suspect you’d appreciate that sketch. It always makes me laugh until I cry.

  18. I worked in a bookstore for about a week. It was the best week ever, until people started whining about my salary (I got paid more than the others because I took up Literature in college).

    But I don’t think any of them loved it more than I did, except for that one guy I hung out with in the non-fiction section (where nobody else wanted to work). Those bitches.

  19. OMIGOD, the children. THE CHILDREN. I run a second-hand bookshop, and I am terrible with children, and it is NOT GOOD. Last week I caught a small girl climbing up the bookshelves, while her mother studied a shelf two feet away completely unawares. And over the summer I came across a horrendous pile-up in the kiddie section involving several spread-eagled books, three large cuddly toys, a plastic chair, and right at the bottom, squashed flat, a single baked bean. HOW DID IT GET THERE? That’s without going down the ‘please don’t let your eight children split up and ruin all the antiquarian books while you pretend not to know them’ moments. All I can say is, thank heavens we don’t have a bathroom as well! Plus, the quiet uninterrupted winter reading time is pretty awesome… ;)

    • Oh goodness–I can’t even imagine how I would have responded if there were VALUABLE books. I think I might have gone nuclear.

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