The dog days are here, that time of year when the hours dilate and each shift behind the bookstore counter seems to extend beyond the clock’s capacity to measure. At Island Books, this happens in August, a month when we slow things down by cutting back on special events and giving the staff a chance to spend the vacation hours they’ve earned. Customers are still coming in, but the pace isn’t what you’d call frenetic–most books for summer trips have already been bought and the back-to-school rush hasn’t started yet. For us, the dog days neatly align with the sultriest part of summer, which feels like an appropriate time to mellow out, but it may be different at your local shop. If you live in tourist central, your bookstore clerks might be bouncing around like pachinko balls right now, hoping against hope that foul and frigid weather will return to clear out all the visitors and give everybody a chance to breathe.
Whether your dog days come now or then, though, come they will. And when time begins to stretch, so must the mind. Otherwise boredom sets in and your bookstore job is no better than your last one, that crummy gig you couldn’t wait to quit. What to do? Well, when every minute seems the same, make what you’re doing into a game. If you’re too torpid to come up with ideas on your own, fret not. My patented time-frittering techniques are free for the taking.
You can kill a good thirty minutes reorganizing a display table if you apply a few logical constraints. This book goes here, but then it’s next to another one that also has the back of a woman’s head on the cover, so that one has to move. Now there’s too much blue on this end, so all those have to be redistributed. Which would be fine, except the arty text-based covers have somehow gotten bunched up and need to be spread out, and you’ll probably have to add some back-stock to the table because the stacks are starting to look uneven, and where can you find something chartreuse so the whole color spectrum is represented? Your co-workers will provide invaluable assistance when you’re playing this game by undoing everything you’ve accomplished once your back is turned.
If you’re stuck at the register, there’s still plenty of fun to be had. Without any special equipment, you can play a few rounds of Guess What They’re Buying. That grizzled character wearing a USMC cap and a serious expression who’s approaching with book in hand? It’s either The Admirals or the latest from Joseph Ellis. Then there’s the Book Club Lady and the Bukowski Kid and the Starry-Eyed Enneagrammer. Your years of expertise at ringing people up will enable you to guess correctly nine times out of ten, but this is a game you only win when you’re wrong. Having your expectations blown away is the whole point, and book buyers more than anyone will oblige you by not always being clichés.
Once the purchase is on the counter, you can engage in a quick session of Landing the Bookmark on Page One. It starts the reader off on the right foot, and you’ll quickly develop the knack for knowing exactly how much front matter each publisher bothers to include. Don’t guess wrong, or your customer will see that row of out-of-order numbers and know it’s not a first edition!
My favorite way to keep from drifting off while I’m running credit cards is to take mental mini-vacations. I do this by using sales totals to do a bit of time traveling. $17.52 becomes 1752 without any effort at all, and poof, there I am in a ruffled shirt. When the sales tax kicks in and the figures are right, I can visit almost every year in history, although a few destinations in the 19th and 20th centuries are much more popular than others. The only danger is that if I’m not careful, my solo flights pick up extra passengers. “1862,” I say, announcing the cost of a paperback. “Good year for sideburns.” Was that out loud? Someone splurges just a little more. “1971–good year for bell bottoms.” OK, that was definitely out loud, because she’s looking at me funny. Hopefully she’s remembering the halcyon days when she wore beads and ironed her hair. I’ve been working on a one-liner about the Battle of Hastings in case we ever price something at $9.74 1/2, but so far I’ve got nothing good. Suggestions are welcome.