What Not To Say to Bookstore Employees

Vivienne Woodward


Vivienne Woodward lives in Philly and works as the events coordinator for an indie bookstore. She can often be found drinking too much coffee in the sunny spot on her couch and over-identifying with fictional characters. She enjoys collecting hobbies, dancing to radio pop, and rearranging the book stacks on her side tables.

You have decided to click on this little article of mine, so I am guessing you already know that bringing up Amazon in a (non-Amazon) bookstore is in pretty poor taste. We know their books are cheaper. We can’t match their prices. We still clearly believe in the value of the service we provide, so it’s really not the venue for you to air your frustrations about a fact (their prices are cheaper) or an impossibility (us matching their prices). But I digress because you already know all of that! Right? Right??

We’ve talked about some of the things not to say to bookstore employees before, but I’d like to take it a little bit further and unpack the psyche behind the shelf. I think people who say these things to indie booksellers are doing so based on a specific schema they have of themselves and the bookseller. I have had a lot of jobs and never have the same things been repeated to me time and time again in the way they were when I worked in an independent bookstore. There were the typical not-very-nice customer behavior things, but those don’t stand out. Rather, it was people acting on their idea of who a bookseller is and what a bookseller does and, in turn, coming off as dismissive to the person or the situation.

Anyway, I can tell you’re on the edge of your seat. Here are the things not to say to a bookstore employee (in addition to the Amazon stuff, but you already know that!!):

“So what else do you do?” Hm, um, this? Is that okay? I know that well-meaning people say this because they assume I am a reader, and therefore, they assume that I went to college and, therefore, they assume I have ambitions beyond bookshop girl, which is, I guess, fine. But just because you see me sitting at the register right now doesn’t mean that this is the only aspect of my employment at this here bookstore. And also, if this is the only aspect of my employment, what’s wrong with that? It’s not unreasonable to assume that someone working at what is often a part-time gig has other things going on, but it’s also not unreasonable for someone to be working full-time in a bookstore, and if they are, well, the question doesn’t feel great.  

a photo of someone browsing bookshelves
image via Pexels

“Wow, you must love your job; you get to sit around and read all day. I am so jealous.” It’s a personal pet peeve of mine when people TELL you that “you must love your job.” Like, it’s a job. I am giving away my free time for money to be here. And people tend to say it to those of us who work in the arts — which, sure, maybe people who work in the arts DO more often love their jobs. But the work is chronically undervalued and underpaid, and so people constantly telling you that “you must love your job” when you work in the arts feels like the collective culture telling you that because you get so much joy from your job, you don’t even really need to be paid for it. You just do it for the passion!!! The more specific response to this sentence is that working in a bookstore is not the “I wish I could just be paid to read all day” utopia that we all imagine it to be. Yes, there are great parts of the job. But most people who work in bookstores don’t sit around and read all day. It’s still customer service, and it’s still inventory, and it’s still packing up returns and orders and creating spreadsheets and data entry and and and. You get it. 

“How are you guys, you know, doing? I always mean to come in more.” Listen. I get it. Books aren’t cheap, and bookshelves are only so big. Libraries are great. Some people rely on the savings they get on Amazon. I’m not here to judge if I don’t see you in the bookstore every weekend. But it drove me up the wall when people would use that conspiratorial and concerned tone to ask “how we were doing” when it was the first and only time I had ever seen them, and they didn’t have a record of any prior purchases. I forgave them if they were visiting from out of town. But otherwise, it just felt like virtue signaling. “Hi, hello, I am a person who is concerned about independent bookstores, and I want you, bookstore employee, to know it (because I basically pay your salary!!), but I am not concerned enough to spend my dollar bills here more than once a year on the day I forgot to buy a gift for my mother-in-law in advance.”

Bonus: “My [fill in the blank child] reads way above her grade level!” Listen, this doesn’t bother me, but it is funny that pretty much every single person shopping for a book for their nibling, grandchild, friend’s kid, etc., made a point to say the kid was reading way above grade level. That’s nice! They might still wanna read the books their peers are reading, though!! What do I know??

I want to finish this little diatribe by saying: I am not bitter. Any bitterness you detected was an illusion. I am a positive vibes-only (former) bookstore employee, and what I want you to know is this: independent bookstores are safe places. You can say a lot of things in them but do remember this: you are not in a Meg Ryan movie. You are in a real place and speaking to a real person, not a bookstore employee™ — just remember that. 

Bookstore employee