I started working in my local bookshop when I was 16. As a young person with a voracious appetite for books of all sorts – apart from, with predictably adolescent rebellion, the books my mum suggested I try – it seemed a logical means of earning some pocket money while being surrounded by something I loved.
You might think that working in a bookshop sounds dreamy and, well, you would be right. Sorry, there’s no dramatic reveal here: it really was pretty great. I had, however, foolishly thought it would be an easy job; I’d anticipated gliding about, delving into books that took my interest while occasionally pausing to give someone a recommendation.
I wasn’t completely wrong – recommendations are an important and enjoyable part of being a bookseller – but I soon learned that standing for eight hours a day and lugging boxes of books around added a rather more strenuous element than I'd expected.
On the whole though, there are worse ways to spend your working hours than being among – and talking to people about – books. So, from the obvious to the unexpected, here's what I learned from the six enjoyable years I worked as a bookseller.
1. You can always fit more books on a shelf
Shelving could seem like quite a tedious activity but it was always one of my favourite jobs. Drifting between never-ending arrivals and putting them in their rightful homes while occasionally pausing to read the blurb of a book that caught my eye was a pleasurable way to spend a morning. These days it probably counts as an exercise in mindfulness.
When you’re a book lover, though, there’s always the minor problem of space. No matter the size of your house, it’s just one of those immutable facts that there will never be enough room for all your books. As a bookseller working with a finite amount of shop space, the use of some tender brute force usually means you can create a gap for at least one or two more volumes and, for a minute at least, control the overflowing stacks.
2. There are too many books and too little time
Those books you own but which you haven’t yet read? There’s a Japanese word for that: tsundoku. When you work in a bookshop, faced with an endless supply of books, a generous staff discount and, in my case, a compulsion to see even the books I’m not enjoying through to the end, the realisation that I wouldn’t be able to read everything I'd like to became glaring.
But there’s a freedom that comes with this. To me, learning what you like and reading books you enjoy, rather than forcing your way through the books you think you should be reading is the key. We’re only going to be able to read a certain number of books in our lifetime so if you’re currently stuck with one you’re not enjoying, take a break and come back to it. If you’re still not enjoying it, I’ve learned it’s perfectly fine to stop reading then and there.
3. You learn to talk convincingly about books you’ve never read
When a large part of your job involves discussing books, literary knowledge tends to just osmose into your brain. After thousands of conversations with fellow booksellers and customers, about everything from classic literature to car manuals, I ended up with enough functional knowledge to be able to talk convincingly about books I’d never read.
There were always going to be books I knew nothing about, though, which is where the power of the non-committal phrase never failed. Statements such as: “Oh yes, that’s a very popular one”; “everyone’s reading it!” and “it’s very well-written” aren’t always a sign that a bookseller hasn't read something... but sometimes it just might be!
4. Nothing feels better than hearing someone loved your recommendation
There are so many fun aspects of being a bookseller but the feeling of a customer coming back to say how much they enjoyed your recommendation tops everything else. The occasions when I got drawn into conversations booklover to booklover, rather than bookseller to customer, were always the best – particularly when it involved short stories (a form I love but, bizarrely, customers often wouldn't even consider picking up a short story collection), children's picture books or suggestions for reluctant readers.
Seeing someone get excited about a personal recommendation – and make a trip or a phone call to tell you what they thought – always reminded me of the power reading has to take people on their own journeys as well as bring people together.
5. Being snobby about books means you miss out on a lot of good stories
I read anything and everything as a child but at some point in my teens I became a book snob. Working in a bookshop quickly forced me to realise what a truly terrible stance this was. Being around books of all types, from the ones I’d never considered to the ones I didn’t know existed, opened my eyes to just how small I’d allowed my literary horizons to be.
I don’t think there’s such a thing as “objectively good or bad“ writing, it’s all just a matter of what we like. Surrounded by passionate colleagues and customers who gave me great recommendations that were out of my comfort zone not only made me see that I’d previously been missing out on a lot of great stories but reignited my enjoyment of reading.
6. Bookshops are much-needed spaces on our high streets
They’re not just “retail environments”. Sure, bookshops are ultimately trying to sell you things – they need to in order to exist – but they’re also peaceful places that offer the chance to escape, whether you just need momentary shelter from the rain or a new world to step into.
They’re often thriving hubs for local communities too, and places where you’ll always find warmth and connection. There’s nothing wrong with buying books online but no matter how well an algorithm works, there is a certain je ne sais quois about the bookshop experience that cannot be replicated digitally, like taking a punt on a book that goes on to become a favourite, or the deep knowledge of a chat with a real-life bookseller.
7. You might find love at a bookshop
What better place to find a love interest than a bookshop?! Funnily enough, my partner – then colleague – and I bonded over the music playing over the shop’s speakers before we even got chatting about our tastes in books. Happily for us, our literary tastes crossed over as nicely as our musical ones.
We didn't have a rom-com style meet-cute or a particularly exciting “how we met” story but twelve years later we’re still together. So if you’re looking for your person, maybe this is another reason to apply for that bookseller job – or simply make more frequent trips to your local bookshop.
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Image: Alicia Fernandes / Penguin