One Question Quiz
a young white woman looking nonplussed with bookshelves behind her
Book Depository meant the books just kept coming (Photo: Lucy Lambriex/Getty)

OPINIONBooksAugust 2, 2020

Confessions of a jaded NZ bookseller

a young white woman looking nonplussed with bookshelves behind her
Book Depository meant the books just kept coming (Photo: Lucy Lambriex/Getty)

We can’t tell you who wrote this piece, or where they work. What we can tell you is it’s not Unity.

A little while ago, I said to a friend that working at a bookshop kind of sucks. He was clearly bamboozled. “I thought working at a bookshop would be lovely and magical. Being surrounded by books, reading all day … ”

I used to think so, too.

When I got my first job as a bookseller, at 16 years old, I was thrilled. I had wanted to work at my local bookshop since I was a child – I hero-worshipped and crushed on the staff, was entranced by the shelves and the papery smell, and spent hours reading in the kids’ room while my Mum and Dad had coffee next door (note to parents: if your children are gremlins, this is not good practice).

I loved cutting up the Christmas wrapping paper and recommending children’s books to parents. I happily gave up half my weekend to be there, making friends I’ve kept ever since. Through the bookshop I’ve become more confident, met countless lovely customers, been introduced to excellent and thought-provoking books, and experienced the way that communities continue to support an industry that would otherwise disappear.

But after 10 years as a part-time bookseller, I’m jaded. I’ve become someone who frequently loathes other people. And this isn’t just me being an asshole.

Lately, grumpy booksellers have been going public. In 2019 Anne Barnetson, a bookseller in Perth, started posting her comic series Customer Service Wolf to Tumblr and Instagram. She told the BBC “It’s unenacted fantasies that I think people have after a very long day when they think: ‘It would just be great to stop all this right now.'”

There have been books, of course: London bookseller Jen Campbell released Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores in 2012; five years later Scottish secondhand bookstore owner Shaun Bhythell published The Diary of a Bookseller, described by Russell Baillie in the Listener as a “funny, pithy, grumpy poignant memoir of a year in the shop’s life and its occasionally annoying clientele”.

And, at the serious end of the spectrum, Sadie Stein, contributing editor for The Paris Review, opened a 2016 column with “I love bookstores, but there’s something that needs to be said: they’re often filled with lurking creeps.”

All retailers know that just one unpleasant interaction – someone who doesn’t treat you as a real human, basically – can ruin your day. These customers come in various forms: the creepy men, the entitled, the children-with-icecreams, the bigots, the (many) people who are outraged that we don’t have a particular title, despite Covid-19 playing havoc with supply chains (NB: please call ahead!). Crucially, unlike most retail jobs, customers of bookshops want to discuss ideas, and that can lead to uncomfortable, sticky situations.

Plus, I now know that part of the “bookshop smell” is a carpet that has absorbed urine both canine and toddler — so a bit of the olfactory charm has gone, too.

Probably weeing. (Photo: Martin Barraud/Getty)

The reality: working in a bookshop is sometimes a bit shit, more ​Black Books​ than ​Notting Hill​. Let me list the ways.

When the customer is wrong

A woman once said to my manager, “Do you have ​20 Rules for Life​?”

“Do you mean Jordan Peterson’s ​12 Rules for Life?​ ” she asked.

Haughty look. “No. It’s ​20 Rules​.”

My manager picked up a copy of the book, ​12 Rules for Life.​ “This one?”

“Well, that’s the right author. But no. I’m certain it’s ​20 Rules​. I’ll call my son and get this sorted out.”

When the customer is wrong and also racist

The number of times I’ve had someone tell me “I don’t like Asian writers” would be ridiculous and absurd if it wasn’t so offensive. Generally, I assume such customers have read one Murakami novel and believe that he’s It.

An incident that really sticks with me is when an older woman asked for a book recommendation, and I suggested ​A Little Life​ by Hanya Yanagihara – a Man Booker finalist, incredible, brutal, and one of my favourites. Recommending a book like this, which left me devastated and still has the power to choke me up, feels like extending an (emotionally laden) olive branch. You’re trying to share an experience that moved you, so it’s hard not to feel a bit miffed when you gush over something amazing and then the customer buys Jojo Moyes. But this time, the customer stopped me before I finished saying “It’s about four men – ”

“Oh no,” she said. “I don’t read Asian authors.”

A pause.

“Hanya Yanagihara is American,” I said. “The book is set in New York.”

“Then what’s with her name?”

Long exhale through the nose. “Her parents are from Hawaii.”

She scrunched up her face and said no thank you – and at that point I just had to walk away, leaving her to browse all the novels by men called John or Robert and women called Ann. How, I thought, did people still think these things, let alone say them aloud in public? Is it because people like me just walk away, rather than telling them it isn’t right?

It’s hard, though, to say what you think when you’re in customer service. Even in a regular social situation my conflict-averse nature would make it difficult, but when a large part of your job is to ensure that your shop keeps getting five-star Google reviews and receiving happy paying customers, biting your tongue can feel like the only option, even when on the inside you’re spitting nails.

When the customer is a creep

Sometimes, behaving like it’s all OK and putting on a pleasant face can really cause trouble. On and off for five years, from when I was 19, a middle-aged man stalked me in the shop. He would come in when I was on my own at night, tell me he’d broken up with his girlfriend because he liked me better, call the shop repeatedly to ask me to coffee, say he’d recently watched ​Fifty Shades of Grey a​nd that Anastasia reminded him of me – because, of course, she’s so clever.

Anastasia Steele (as played by Dakota Johnson): really not renowned for her smarts.

At the start, I partly blamed myself for getting into this situation. Hadn’t I chatted cheerfully with him? Hadn’t I smiled? Hadn’t I wryly told him that ​Fifty Shades of Grey​ is not great literature?

But of course this wasn’t my fault. I was in customer service mode. I was being nice and accommodating because that’s what you’re expected to do, both as a customer service worker and as a woman. You get used to saying “Yes, of course,” and “Oh, how interesting.” Plus, I literally couldn’t leave when he talked to me. The furthest away I could get was behind the till.

What most customers understand is that customer service workers are fakers. Sure, sometimes we’re happy, sometimes we even enjoy the chatting – but it’s also our job, so generally it shouldn’t be taken to heart. But some men – oh, they take it to heart, and they keep it buried deep in their aorta, even when two years have passed and you duck upstairs whenever they walk through the door.

Our health and safety plan in a situation like that is to send a Facebook message saying CALL THE SHOP! to the work groupchat, wait for a colleague to ring, then pretend the friend on the phone is an annoying customer who might take ​hours​ to deal with, hoping that the actual annoying/unstable/stalker customer will get disheartened and decide to leave.

This is not totally reassuring, however, when you’re alone with a man who is wearing a mesh singlet and covered in swastika tattoos.

When what’s selling is extremely weird 

Cultural trends are reflected in what people buy. In 2016, for example, we sold what felt like billions of ​adult colouring book​s. Obviously, that year everyone was stressed as hell and very susceptible to suggestion. After Christmas, the colouring books left and never came back, a weird blip in the book universe.

Over the past few months, since the police killing of George Floyd and the political protests and riots that followed, the trend has been to buy books that confront and oppose racism. ​How to be an Anti-Racist, Me and White Supremacy, So You Want to Talk About Race, White Fragility​, and books by James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Michelle Alexander and others have been hugely in demand – we keep ordering them in, there are stacks put away as special customer orders, and yet there are never enough copies on the shelves.

Black Lives Matter March For Solidarity in Auckland on June 1, 2020 (Photo: Jihee Junn)

The buying habits at our bookshop are just a microcosm of what’s going on in the world. In early June, both the New York Times list of bestselling non-fiction and Amazon’s bestsellers list were suddenly dominated by books addressing racism.

In the UK, Reni Eddo-Lodge (​Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race​) and Bernardine Evaristo (​Girl, Woman, Other​) became the first black British women to top the country’s non-fiction and fiction charts, respectively.

It’s refreshing to see these changes, despite how late they’ve come, despite the incredible discomfort, articulated by Reni Eddo-Lodge, that it took the killing of an innocent black man to drive such widespread interest and care. Still, when I see people lining up to buy these titles, it feels considerably better than when the queue was for ​Lost Ocean: An Inky Adventure & Colouring Book.

When it all gets too much

Books are vehicles for ideas, ideology, and politics, even when that wasn’t the author’s intent (think of when ​Ted Dawe’s ​Into the River​ was banned​, or the recent controversy surrounding ​American Dirt)​​.

While bookshops are generally politically neutral spaces, in which Richard Dawkins is equally as welcome as Eckhart Tolle, there are times when both booksellers and customers don’t see it that way.

A customer I remember well came into the shop one night and turned John Key’s biography face-down on the table before leaving in a hurry. She then emailed the shop to say that she found it both distasteful and mystifying that a small business like ours would propagate such a book. We replied that we didn’t push a political agenda, that our staff hold a variety of viewpoints (although, really, we’re mainly a bunch of lefties). End of discussion.

Possibly not an accidental juxtaposition. Kim Dotcom tweeted this in 2014, commenting “in fine company” (Photo: Twitter)

Really, though, we’re not always neutral and agenda-less. Nearly half of my colleagues studied politics, we’re in the book world because we enjoy discussing ideas, and we’re low-wage earners – of course we have views, not only about the world, but about the books we sell. On occasion, that’s led to some perhaps less-than-ethical behaviour.

Jordan Peterson’s self-help book ​12 (not 20) Rules for Life​ is a good example. After becoming well-known for his views on ​free speech and gender-neutral pronouns​, Peterson was adopted as a mascot of the alt-right. Boxes upon boxes of his books arrived in our shop, and most staff weren’t thrilled.

So after selling dozens of copies to both Peterson fans and people simply intrigued by the title, a few of my colleagues had had enough and ended up hiding Peterson’s books in a cupboard behind the till. “We’ll sell them if someone asks,” they said, “but we’re not going to advertise them on the shop floor.”

Surely it isn’t the place of booksellers to censor or interfere in consumer trends, is it? But, equally, we’re human, we’re political beings rather than customer service robots. And sometimes, we snap.

Keep going!