Why Working in an Independent Bookstore is the Bee’s Knees

Amanda Diehl |
4 months ago

Working in an independent bookstore is a dream job. Full stop. The key words in that sentence are independent bookstore. Will it be for everyone? Of course not. But the past six months I’ve spent working at an indie have been lovely, employee discount and advanced reader copies aside.

First, let me bore you with background. I have a degree in publishing. I’ve worked in book publicity. My full time position is book reviewing, specifically working for Smart Bitches Trashy Books and filling all available free time with freelance work. As a dedicated romance reader, I have complicated feelings about the relationships of publishers, bookstores, and Amazon. That is a very long story for another time, but tl;dr I know how the sausage is made.

Yes, working in a bookstore is still a retail job and independent bookstores are made on customer service and community reputation. People don’t do it for the money, I can assure you. But hey, I worked at JC Penney in college and have seen cashiers crying in the break room. I have had to work Black Friday at 3 AM at a very busy mall in a college town.

Bookselling is retail, but it isn’t that. And, just a caveat that if you go into any job thinking it’ll be idyllic, whew buddy, do I have news for you.

Let me list the terrible things about my independent bookstore:

The Book Ladder

That’s it. End of list.

Sure, Belle made library ladders look fun and romantic, but those things are death machines that will have you white knuckling it as you climb each step.

The good things…well that list is much longer and bookishly nerdy to the highest extent.

Scavenger Hunts

There is a certain victory a bookseller feels when finding a book and let me tell you, there are many ways to find a book.

  • When it says there is one of a particular book in inventory but the whole staff has been searching for days.
  • When you really have to get into the minds of your coworkers because you swear a book is supposed to be in fiction but has somehow wound up in bio. Or vice versa.
  • When a customer comes in looking for a book that was kind of a big deal years ago and the title starts with “Mother” and the author’s first or last name is Van. (Spoiler: The book she was looking for was Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut, and yes, we did find it.)

Low Pressure Creativity

Designing displays, posters, social media graphics, holiday bow extravaganzas, etc. becomes a large part of your down time. I have a weakness for a theme, and creating engaging displays for my independent bookstore is one of my favorite things, from crowdsourcing the poster (Does the kerning need to be adjusted? What about sans serif font? Do autumn leaves or a pumpkin patch establish the season more?) to selecting the books being featured.

Oh and heads up, if you walk into a big box store or national bookstore chain and you see books on the ends of shelves (end caps) or on special front tables, that’s called cooperative advertising and that promotion is often paid. At an independent bookstore, we often display books we want you to notice because we think they’re particularly great.

And back to holiday bows. A lot of independent bookstores will offer free gift wrapping. After my interview, the manager and store owners asked me if there was anything I wasn’t comfortable doing as part of the job.

My answer: gift wrapping.

I am of the opinion that everything should just be stuck in a bag with fancy tissue paper. Unfortunately, there is something so satisfying about wrapping a book perfectly (diagonal way is the best way) and now I kind of love it? I don’t even know who I am anymore.

Book People Are The Best People

I say that as someone who has been around a lot of different kinds of book people: editors, authors, readers, reviewers, sales reps, and so on.

Do I hate going to Book Expo America, and is the Javits Center the embodiment of a Hellmouth? Yes, absolutely. But talking about books with people who have such a love for them gives me hope for humanity (American Dirt aside).

We have a wonderful children’s section at the store, which always has a small crowd reading the latest Dog Man or asking for a recommendation for their friend’s birthday. On an almost daily basis, people from the community comment on how great it is to have a bookstore in the town center again and that they’re so glad we’re here.

I have worked plenty of jobs that felt thankless, but every damn shift I work, I’m so grateful that the store owners ask me how I’m doing, that my coworkers will always jump in if there’s a shift emergency, and that customers value my opinion on what book they should read next.

Do I have to empty the trash at night and take it to the creepy dumpster? I do. But working in an independent bookstore gets me a kickass employee discount, old pastries to take home from the cafe to satisfy my midnight raccoon snacking, and, you know…meaningful work relationships or whatever.

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