Our Reading Lives

Why Working In A Bookstore Was So Disappointing

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Sheila Loesch

Staff Writer

A big fan of the written word, Sheila Loesch is a writer, reader, and editor-in-training. She likes to write about books, sustainability, and queer lives (and intersections of all three). A few years ago Sheila traded a fast-paced life on the East Coast for the inspiring and lush greenery of the Pacific Northwest, where she happily lives with her partner and cat. Say hello @sheilaloesch or sheilaloesch.com

Working in a bookstore might seem like the dream job for bibliophiles. I thought so, too, and I was thrilled to start working as a bookseller last year with a national bookstore chain. I envisioned discussing my favorite authors with customers, constantly learning about the best and newest books, and taking advantage of my employee discount. 

Turns out this was naive optimism, because I grew to understand that profit takes priority over the joy of spreading great stories at a big-box bookstore. For me, that outweighs all the benefits of the job. I quit after eight months, spurred by how the behind-the-scenes is far from the idyllic retreat I believed bookstores to be. 

Chain Bookstores Establish the Rules 

The nation-wide bookseller chain that I worked for had a corporate office that designated everything from the appearance of bookshelves to the items in stock. These guidelines were helpful, but mostly extremely faulty. 

Misguided Design Guidelines

The bookstore I worked for is located in western Washington. This is a region where, for more than half of the year, the weather forecast is some version of overcast and wet. In my opinion, that’s the perfect weather for snuggling up with a book! The bookstore setting of my dreams has rows of armchairs situated next to the windows for natural lighting and to view the falling rain while I read. Unfortunately, my shop’s design emphasized cohesion across all its locations nation-wide, which leaned more toward medical office waiting room than comfortable neighborhood bookstore. As a result, the store’s ambience was more “ho-hum” than cozy.

Monetizing An Affection for Books

I love recommending books to anyone I encounter—it’s the main reason I expected to thrive as a bookseller. In my first few weeks I picked books off the shelves I had read and loved (including Fun Home by Alison Bechdel and The Power by Naomi Alderman), fully prepared to share them with customers. Because I knew them to be incredible tales that I was sure other book lovers could also read and adore, I had no qualms about handselling them to anyone who walked in the door. 

I soon came to realize that my employment was contingent not on the quality of my discussions with customers or my ability to recommend them books, but on my success in selling them those books. My employer was good about praising booksellers who made a sale. However, managers awarded no accolades for the most common interaction I had: endorsing a book to a customer who expresses interest, but ultimately moves on without making a purchase. 

I took my job seriously. But encouraging a customer to buy a book that is not appropriate for them based on their prior reading choices, or simply is not what they are looking for during their visit, warrants a hard “no” from me. My distaste for pressuring visitors to buy books—perhaps against my better judgment—pushed me out the door.

Bestseller Lists Rule the Game in Bookstores

The facet of bookselling that left me with the most bitter taste in my mouth was, without doubt, the emphasis on bestselling titles. Bestseller lists (like the ones measured by the New York Times or Publishers Weekly) identify which books sold the most copies in the previous week by genre or region. I never read books solely because of their bestselling status. However, my bookstore repeatedly highlighted the current bestselling titles as the ones I should handsell. The notion of introducing a customer to a book that I would never personally read and only because it is a national bestseller is not a practice I can feel good about. I had a difficult time resolving myself to prioritize books and authors that are “bestsellers” over other compelling novels for the sake of the shop’s profit. 

Working in a Bookstore Means Being an Eyewitness to Disrespectful Behavior

I am certain that you, as a Book Riot reader and certified bibliophile, would never pick up books to browse, then leave them lying around when you’re done. Or, worse, try and replace them on the shelf in a different spot than you originally found them. Because I consider disrupting the peace of an organized collection of books to be a cardinal sin, I never expected it to be common practice in a bookstore. But, sure enough, customers regularly leave books strewn around. I spotted books on the shelves in the business section that belonged with the biographies, recovered paperback books with their covers and pages bent haphazardly, and picked up so many abandoned coffee cups. Maybe other people have a higher tolerance than me when it comes to cleaning other people’s messes, but I was disenchanted by the disorder.  

Transitioning From Bookselling Bliss to Uncomfortable Reality

It was not easy to participate as my real-world fantasy of working in a bookstore crumbled into pieces. I lavished the honeymoon phase of bookselling by admiring the new weekly releases and enjoying the undefinable smell of books. Unfortunately, that glamor quickly faded and I had to face reality: a critical element of my employment was my success in sales. Obviously I expected to be selling books to customers (the title “bookseller” says it all), but I never realized this would taint my pleasure for books themselves. With a heavy heart, I conceded that working in a bookstore was not my dream job after all.