Confessions of a Bookseller
- Alice Stephens
- June 16, 2016
A behind-the-scenes look at a rewarding, not-so-glamorous gig
This month marks the one-year anniversary of my very part-time employment as a bookseller, a dream job for someone like me who loves books, writers, readers, and people-watching.
Bookselling is not a calling. It’s barely even a job. It’s a hobby. The average gig is four hours, the average number of events I do per week is one, the pay is…well, let’s just say that the bookstore will have to give significant raises when DC’s minimum wage is raised to $15.
And it’s not all fun and games. Most of the events require navigating downtown Washington at rush hour, hurriedly unloading boxes from your double-parked car on congested streets, circling garages for a parking space, and schlepping cartons of books through an obstacle course of stairs and back entrances. And to state the obvious, books are heavy.
Why do I do it then? Because each gig is a cultural safari that takes me into worlds very different from my own, giving me the opportunity to spy on the rich and famous (for DC, anyway), eavesdrop on the conversations of high government muckety-mucks, check out the designer frocks of the ladies who lunch, and see the art collections and grip-and-grin photographs of the elite.
I’ve gained entrance to think tanks, ultra-exclusive private clubs, luxury hotels, and Georgetown mansions. I’ve heard journalists, academics, religious leaders, historians, scientists, policy wonks, senior government appointees, mercenaries, chefs, and celebrities speak.
Laid out before me in this job, for my delectation, is the incredible universe of the publishing industry and all the stars that spin within it. As a devoted fan of literary fiction, I tend to romanticize publishing’s mission as producing masterpieces that win prizes and accolades. In reality, its only objective is to churn out books that people will buy.
This being Washington, I sell a lot of policy books, political histories, biographies (Teddy Roosevelt was popular this year, and somehow people still find new ways to write about Lincoln), and self-promotional, er, political memoirs. I get an up-close-and-personal peek at our national politicians.
Unlike the Hollywood stars of Us Weekly, they are not just like us. They work the floor like a Roomba, pressing flesh, listening with heads cocked, and gamely posing for selfies with every single person who asks, all with a smile. Sometimes they must get rescued by their bag men, personal assistants who, as seen in “Veep,” carry briefcases, purses, and lumbar cushions; fetch drinks; brush the dandruff from shoulders; whispers names and facts into ears; and extricate their bosses from persistent petitioners.
A lot of customers assume I have read the book I’m selling. While that is almost never the case, I generally Google the author before an event.
My bookselling debut was for a memoir of an extremely handsome and exquisitely attired European politician who, the internet told me, had recently married. That didn’t prevent him from asking the attractive young representative of his PR agency out for drinks. As I watched them walk away together, his hand on her back, her hair flipping flirtatiously, I thought the writer in me was really going to like this job.
The very next event presented me with another type of politician, a dedicated leftist who’d run several times for high office. Rumpled and no-nonsense with a keen interest in how many books had been sold, he introduced everyone to his equally no-frills wife. When someone asked him out to lunch, he demurred, saying he had to go home and write his column. I had once voted for this man and was glad to see that he was indeed of the little people, pure of intent and incorruptible. Needless to say, he lost that election and every other one he has run in.
In the past year, I have had the privilege of witnessing some powerful moments. A rock star singing her hit song a cappella. A minister delivering a potent sermon on civil rights and black pride. A top security official assuring an audience that military commanders would not obey the illegal directives of any president who did not understand the constitutional limits of his job.
But the highlight of my gig-economy position is the chance to see my literary heroes. It’s thrilling to see a favorite writer in the flesh, to hear her speak her own words. A quote attributed to Arthur Koestler says, “To want to meet an author because you like his books is as ridiculous as wanting to meet the goose because you like pâté de foie gras.”
Maybe so, but it’s human nature to bask in the physical presence of an idol. I heard the author read from the best novel I read in 2015. I thrilled to the words of another great writer whose book helped me through the biggest crisis of my life. An author’s eloquent acceptance speech at an awards dinner inspired me to read her profoundly moving and beautifully written book.
Let me just finish with a Public Service Announcement: Buy the book at the book party. Please don’t get it on Amazon to save yourself a few bucks. The independent bookstore at the event is ordering the inventory and paying employees (not much, it’s true) to haul books back and forth to that party for which the author is footing the bill for the venue, drinks, and hors d’oeuvres. The least you can do as you’re hoovering up the free (to you) mini crab cakes and white wine is buy the book. The author, the bookstore, and my back thank you.