Spilled Ink: The truth about being a bookseller and 10 ways to be a better customer

Willa Smith, Beyond Our Walls Editor

The Barnes and Nobles store that I work at by night. Photo by Willa Smith.

People always ask me what it’s like to work in a bookstore. I’ve even had customers ask me if I like working at Barnes & Noble, and they’re always surprised when I tell them earnestly, that I do.

Because I’ve been a bibliophile since I was kid, I had always dreamed of working in a bookstore.  My family and I would take trips to libraries and bookshops on the weekends throughout my childhood, I would go to the storytime at BookPeople, and I always got books for Christmas and my birthday. When I was in seventh grade, my dad gave me five paperback books, and that goes down in history as the best birthday I’ve ever had. One of those books was my favorite book of all time: Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta. My copy of Jellicoe Road is definitely showing signs of wear from the nine times I’ve read it, but I can’t bear to separate myself from it.  

Barnes & Noble hired me at the end of May of 2015. I originally applied to work in the cafe, but my manager looked at my cover letter where I gushed about my love for bookstores and moved me from cafe to the bookfloor. They weren’t hiring for booksellers at the time, but they interviewed me anyway. Even after being hired, I had plenty of misconceptions about working in a bookstore.

For one thing, I thought I would be able to read while I was working.

I’m not allowed to.

I thought I would give tons of recommendations.

Barely anyone asks for recommendations, unless it’s the holiday season.

I thought my job would involve finding books, shelving, and maybe working the cash register.

It’s a lot more than that.

Each shift at Barnes & Noble is different. If I’m working at the Customer Service desk (my favorite place to be) then I spend the entire shift a) putting away books people leave all over the store, b) finding books for people, c) talking to customers on the phone, and d) putting up displays. If I work at the registers, then I give the same speech for every customer, and attempt to sell Memberships (which I’m horrible at). There’s lots of downtime if it’s a weekday, and to be honest, my feet hurt the entire time.

From the above description, it probably sounds like I would hate my job. Some days, I do leave feeling angry at people, but most days, I leave work happy and exhausted.

The thing that saves me is my co-workers. Working with people older than me is one of my favorite things about working at Barnes & Noble. We talk about books, life, and the weird things we find in the store. We laugh hysterically, go on the hunt for books we can’t find, and are completely nerdy together. I’ve walked into heated debates about the new “Star Wars” movie and people putting together Beatles puzzles in the break room. My boss blasts Finnish music over the loudspeaker when we’re cleaning up after the store closes, and I always take my shoes off, sliding across the tiled newsstand floor in my socks.

When I have days off, I miss work. I miss spending my entire day around books. I miss knowing the store top to bottom and being able to tell someone exactly where the book they’re looking for is without having to look at the computer. I miss having old ladies thank me profusely over the phone for finding their specific coloring books. I miss annoying my co-workers and wearing Santa hats during the holidays.

For me, working in a bookstore is the best job I could have. I get paid for working with books and hanging out with people like me. Even though the job wasn’t what I was expecting and occasionally has its downsides, all of the positives far outweigh the negatives, and make every day worth it. I feel blessed that I always go into and out of work with a smile on my face and a heart full of books.

From my time at Barnes & Noble, I have compiled a list… Now, I do have some tips for you all, bookstore customers, on how to make a bookseller love you a little more.

  1. Don’t leave the books you don’t want in the aisles of the store. Or stacked on the floor. Or on the tables in the cafe area. Bring them to us or leave them at the customer service desk. We will love you forever.
  2. Just because something isn’t in the section where you think it should be doesn’t mean we don’t have it. We have weird sections for things, and we also have dozens of books on display throughout the stores. Come and ask us!
  3. When it says online that the book is In Stock, that doesn’t mean every store has it. Call us and we’ll put it on hold for you if we have it.
  4. We don’t price match with Amazon. Just as a heads up.
  5. The price on bn.com is not always the price in store. Online prices have to be competitive with Amazon, while in-store prices are the prices publishers want us to sell the book at.
  6. Barnes & Noble retail stores don’t carry textbooks. Go to your college bookstore for those!
  7. Please don’t come in asking us for some obscure subtopic. There probably isn’t a section for that. Find a couple books online that are in that category, and we’ll be happy to find those for you!
  8. Coupons you find online for Barnes & Noble that aren’t directly from us won’t work in store 99% of the time. Our coupons expire and are one time use only.
  9. Our return policy is 14 days. Please don’t bring in your year-old receipt and ask us to take the book back. We’ll love you a lot more.
  10. Be the nicest and patient-est you can be. Sometimes it takes us a while to find things because they’ve been moved and we don’t know where they are.
  11. When in doubt, talk to a bookseller about Star Wars or Harry Potter. You’ll become instant best friends.

So, next time you come into Barnes & Noble–or any bookstore–put those practices into action and see how it goes. Who knows, maybe I’ll be working and I’ll enjoy helping you a little bit more than usual.