I used to work at one of those large chain bookstores. Yes, one of those places we indies used to consider the big, bad wolf, until Amazon’s rise to power made us all realize who the wolf really is. I needed a job, it was a job in books, and I took it.
I appreciated many things about the job. Employees had very good health benefits. I was respected for my knowledge of books and my customer service skills, and it was fun to work with many other book lovers. I loved recommending books to customers.
But the workplace had its dark side, which started to wear on me. Management placed very little trust in the staff, constantly watching us to see if we were actually working. I got yelled at for looking at a book on a slow day. The corporate office had time frames for completing every task, and it was impossible meet the time frame if you stopped to help customers.
After a couple of years, I was tired of rules, restrictions, and even dress code, but the defining thing I was tired of was the building itself, a generic concrete block that looked like all the other chain stores around it. Our break room had no windows, and the only place to be outside was a small square of grass out by the dumpsters. I sat on this tiny square of green one day, looked up at the building I spent so much time in, and thought, “You know, I work in a box.” It struck me that I had to look for something better.
I began quietly casting around for a new job. For a while, nothing happened. I sort of gave up actively looking. Then my husband and I went on a whim to Paulina Springs Books, where we always enjoyed browsing on the rare days we went to Sisters. This time, a sign on the door read, “Do you like helping people?” and explained they were looking for a part-time employee.
I went in, walked up to Brad, the store owner, and said, “I like helping people.” I got an application and told him a little about my background. He acted so neutral that I had no idea if he was interested in hiring me. I later learned that he took the signs off the doors that day.
My interview was delayed by a severe cold. When at last I went in for the interview, I was still having coughing fits. I had underestimated the time it would take to drive from home to Sisters, and I was a little late. I was afraid this would blow my chance of getting the job.
When I arrived, I was alarmed to find not only Brad, but also Bunny, one of the employees, who was going to be involved in the interview. Having more than one person interview me made it seem serious and intimidating.
My interview was the most intensive and stressful one I’ve ever had. In retrospect, this is ironic. The interview lasted somewhere between two and three hours, and I felt like I was being grilled. I think now that Brad and Bunny probably felt like we were all just having a great conversation. I felt on the spot and wished it would be over much sooner.
I left the interview exhausted, went home, and began to seriously think about what I would do if offered the job. Looking back, it’s a little hard for me to believe that this was a big dilemma whose solution was by no means clear to me. Working at a local independent bookstore was a lifelong dream of mine. The thing that impressed me most in the interview was that when I told Brad I had gotten in trouble for reading on the job, he’d said, “That would never happen here.” The store and its small-town surroundings appealed to me. But leaving my current job would mean leaving a community I was attached to. Also, I would give up health benefits.
I wandered around in our pasture for a while, until strange wavy colors developed at the edges of my vision. Soon I had one of the most intense migraines of my life, and I had to go lie down. I had a vivid sense of two ships passing each other. There was a limited window of time in which I could leap off one ship and catch the other. I wished the ships would slow down, so I had more time to think it over, but Brad had said he needed someone right away.
In the interview, I’d said something very honest. “I like my job. I like the people I work with. But I work in a box.” It was true in more ways than one. The building was a box, and the restrictions and lack of trust had me boxed in. I wanted out of the box. I decided if I was offered the job, I would accept. The next day I got the offer.
So I took the leap. I jumped ship. I did it not knowing the difficult things that would happen: that in winter my hours would be cut back radically for the slow season, that my migraines would become chronic and it would theoretically be really nice to have secure health insurance.
Would I do it if I knew then what I know now? Yes, especially if I knew the whole picture. I no longer work in a box, literally or figuratively. I order into the store books I like or think I can sell, instead of having a distant corporate office decide what will be on the shelves. Along with the other staff, I decide what authors come for events. I wear what I please and listen to music I choose. Customer service truly is the top priority, with projects taking second place on those busy bread-and-butter days. If it’s slow and I take a few minutes to look at a book, I won’t get yelled at, and later I can hand-sell that book more easily.
Most importantly, though, I can be myself. I no longer feel like I have to pour myself into a Perfect Bookseller mold, devoid of my own feelings and opinions. The freedom to express my opinion in conversation with customers makes me feel like a person instead of a doormat. There’s no pressure to be unnaturally perky or to sell customers things they don’t really want.
I remember the day when I had gotten through most of the stress of learning a new job and was heading to work. As I walked past the other independent businesses in Sisters and the outdoor tables and chairs where I sometimes take breaks, my thoughts went something like this:
“I can’t wait to get to work. Maybe there’s a new book I can look at today. Fun!”
“Why not?” my new, free self asked. “Seems like a good reason to me.”
I suppose this, dear reader, was the crux of the whole matter.