Our Reading Lives

5 Ways Working at a Used Bookstore Changed Me Forever

Danika Ellis

Associate Editor

Danika spends most of her time talking about queer women books at the Lesbrary. Blog: The Lesbrary Twitter: @DanikaEllis

My second job was at a bookstore (my first job was as a dog treat baker, but that’s neither here nor there), and I continued to work in bookstores for more than a decade. I began in a small chain bookstore, and then spent many years in the largest used and new bookstore in Canada. I met my partner there! When I started, I was overwhelmed. There were…so many books. So many systems and things to remember! There were two floors, and you had to go outside to access the other. A street over was another location that felt more like a cave dug into the stone, with books squeezed into every available space, whether that was under shelves, on top of piping, or on the floor.

I would go on to cycle through many roles at that store: downstairs shelver, upstairs cashier, kids’ section shelver. Then I was the head shipper, dealing with online orders in that cave location, listening to audiobooks while packing orders. Eventually, I ascended into the role I loved the most: children’s book expert. Manager of the kids’ section. I priced, shelved, and recommended books. I valued antique picture books. I invented strategies to squirrel away thousands of books we had no space for. I culled the shelves mercilessly and found new ways to convince and trick the owner into letting us get rid of books that weren’t selling. I trained shelvers and lobbied successfully for the teen books to be separated out from middle grade (don’t even get me started). I fielded questions from coworkers on any kids’ book related topic, usually faster than Google could.

I loved that job, if it’s not clear. When I went back to school to train to be a teacher-librarian, I continued to work there on weekends, alphabetizing the entire (giant) fiction section and its numerous piles of books on the floor. I helped in the last push as it moved to its new location just across the street, with — it almost seems too wonderful to be real — an elevator (no more hauling 40 pound tubs of books up and down stairs every week!) and escalators and air conditioning and just one entrance!

While I no longer work there, I still love that store and consider the owners family. That time in my life has changed me a lot. I went from a cowering nervous new employee to a confident supervisor, and I learned a lot about books. But there are also some…weirder things it changed about me.

1) Author Death News = Adrenaline

There’s no nice way to say this. When authors die, their books sell more. When I worked at a used bookstore, hearing about an author dying meant sales were going to spike: we had to locate all of their books around the store (hello, Anthony Bourdain fiction) and make sure it was displayed. It should also be listed online — but it might double sell before the system updates, which is bad.

Despite not working at the bookstore for a while now, I still get an adrenaline spike when I see a known author’s death announced online. I’m not excited as in happy! I just feel like I need to do! something! now!

2) A Bad Back

Did I mention carrying heavy tubs up and down flights of stairs? Unsurprisingly, at that time, almost everyone who worked there got a back injury eventually. (Since then, they have an elevator and shelving carts and lifting policies, but I worked there in the wild west days of bookselling.) We were doing a fireman’s line to unpack a pallet of books, and I twisted while lifting — don’t do that! I learned too late! — and heard a pop. Ever since then, my back requires maintenance (mostly yoga) or it won’t work right. Then again, I’m past 30 now, so I’d probably have a bad back anyway.

3) Conflicting Internal Book Lists

My favorite day of the year when I worked at the store was our city’s annual book sale: $1 for kids’ books, $2 for adult paperbacks, $3 for adult hardcovers. I would go on behalf of the bookstore, searching for treasures in the kids’ section, and I took this job Very Seriously. I showed up at dawn (literally), hours before the sale started, to stake out a place in line. I made lists of the books I was looking for, especially customers’ wish lists, and studied them. I don’t mean to brag, but I was really good at it.

As a result of both that and generally working in a used bookstore for many years, I have a hardwired list in my head of Good Books — meaning, books the store needed more of, or books that are valuable. So when I’m searching for books for myself at a bookstore or book sale, I’ll still get that mental ping! and half the time I’ll pick it up before remembering that I don’t actually want to read this book. You can take the girl out of the bookstore, but you can’t take the bookseller out of the girl.

4) A Disdain for Book Club Editions

There are a few things that are instant “no”s for our book buyers, and one of them in a book club edition — like the kind from Book of the Month Club. They’re bound cheaply, and there’s (obviously) a million of them online. BookTokers and BookTubers proudly display these collections, and I can’t help my immediate reaction being, “Well, those are worthless.” Not every book has to be a collector’s edition! There’s no reason for me to be judging that! But just as my internal list of Good Books persists past bookselling, my criteria of Bad Books — as defined by bookselling — seems to have a permanent place in my head. It’s the same reason I think, “Ooh, a racist old picture book? That’s definitely worth money.” I don’t need this information anymore, but it’s too late. It’s a part of me now.

5) A Refusal to Annotate My Books

I know plenty of serious readers love annotation. BookTok and BookTube are full of people showing off their books packed with tabs, liberally highlighted and annotated. I get that it helps people engage deeply with books. I get that it helps to write reviews afterwards. But despite having an English degree and even having taught high school English…I don’t get it. I cringe seeing it.

Obviously, it’s your decision to treat your books however you see fit! And lots of people even like reading books annotated by other people! But working at a used bookstore taught me to think that my books will outlive me, that I’m only one in a series of owners of that object. Not only will writing in it ruin the resale value (to be terribly capitalist and crass), but it also prevents the next reader from experiencing it as the author intended. I’ve often thought about annotating my favourite books for my own use, to see how my thoughts on them change over time, but I just can’t bring myself to do it.

So those are the weird impressions that working at a used bookstore made on me. I bet they didn’t mention those things in the job interview! Of course, there were also lots of great aspects of working there, and I miss my coworkers and discovering wonderful new (and very old) books — especially kids’ books. It remains to be seen if these old bookselling habits will fade over time, or if I’ll always be a bookseller at heart. Either way, I’ve got to go. All this bookstore talk has got my store credit burning a hole in my pocket, and I’ve got to go do some serious browsing.