After I finished my bachelor’s degree, I spent several years as a part time clerk in a mall bookstore. I had been reduced to a state where I was fit for little else: Not only had I gone straight through from high school with the exception of one or two summers off, but I had taken a double major and married in the same period. I needed time to coast while I considered the next step, and to earn enough money to pay my share of the expenses in the mean time.
In my naivety, I thought an enthusiasm for books was a natural qualification for such a job. Add a good memory for books and titles glimpsed, and I seemed a natural. Probably the fact that the job was minimum wage should have tipped me off to reality, but I was as green with inexperience as a new branch in spring.
Looking back, I have to say that disillusion took a surprisingly long time to set in. Yet, gradually, and with growing horror, I realized that other employees were far more interested in their shreds of status than books, and that my affinity for books was dismissed at the same time that I fielded all sorts of questions from them. I was unworldly, they decided, and they were right, although not in the way they thought.
All the other employees and managers, I realized, considered books commodities, not as exciting diversions and intellectual stimulation. Their lack of university degrees might have tipped me off, I suppose, but show me the twentysomething man who doesn’t believe he knows how the world works.
But I endured as I recuperated, experiencing the change in my life as Sunday store openings became the norm, and the embarrassment of having the older sister of a school acquaintance arrive as manager. She never said anything, but I grew increasingly afraid that she would mention my lowly status, and whispers would start to circulate that I was a failure.
However, despite this background of discontent, what I mainly recall were the surreal moments of comedy that went with the job. Some of these were corporate, such as the constantly shipping of reduced items back and forth for sales until long after any profit could be recouped from them.
One book I remembered was entitled Les Femmes aux Cigarettes, a reprint of a French photo study from the 1920s by a photographer who found the then-novelty of women smoking irresistible; it started at forty-eight dollars soon after I took the job, and had been reduced to twenty-five cent by the time I left.
I remember, too, the buzz of cleaning and drill that surrounded the visit of the owner – an event that lasted perhaps two minutes as he strode to the back of the store, shook the district manager’s hand, and went out to lunch with him.
Then there was the time I considered applying for a full-time position. The manager took me aside and talked to me solemnly of the duties and responsibilities of working full-time – as though I hadn’t been doing everything the full-timers were doing anyway. Asked point blank if she was implying that I wasn’t responsible, she back-pedaled furiously, but, with such events in my past, no wonder my view of the corporate world is ironic and bemused at best.
But what I remember most vividly are the customers. Many would enter the store in early afternoon, wanting the book they had seen on Oprah that morning, and could not understand that I had been at the store since 9AM, let alone that I’m not an Oprah sort of person. My favorite in this category is the woman who came up to me and said, “I can’t remember the name or the title of the book, and it’s hard to explain what it’s about, but it was on some television show this morning, and had a green cover.” What I wanted to do was direct her to the green book section, but, wisely, I refrained.
Another time, one of the many mothers who used the children’s section as a cheaper version of mall daycare berated us because her son had wandered. We should have kept an eye on him, she kept saying.
Then there was the time I chased a young shoplifter out the door, through the mall, and halfway across the parking lot. I didn’t catch him – which was probably good, since I might have got into trouble with the law – and, to tell the truth, I didn’t much care if I did. For me, the incident was an unexpected moment of excitement in an otherwise monotonous day. But from the terrorized look on the shoplifter’s face as he looked over his shoulder, I doubt he felt the same way – although perhaps he went on to tell his own boasting version of the story.
And who can forget the hordes who arrived in the last few hours of Christmas Eve, overheated in their winter coats, furious about everything that had sold out, and about as full of Christmas cheer as a tax collector? One Christmas, I had just slumped against the door lock when a young male executive came bounding at the door.
“I have to get a gift for my wife,” he kept saying. “I have to!” His tie was askew, and he was more than a little drunk, and all I wanted was to go home and start my own Christmas. Safe on the other side of the glass, I muttered, “Keep this up, and you won’t have to worry about buying for your wife much longer,” and let a staffer take pity on him.
I think that these random encounters helped shaped the basis of my worldview: Things don’t make sense, I decided, and I would only get a headache if I insisted in looking for the logic.
But I had outgrown the job by the end of my first shift. I enjoy people, but not constantly, and I’m not a naturally servile or patient person. After two and a half years, I was looking for a way out. I started applying for any job remotely suitable, then hit on grad school. That fall, I applied for both the Communications and English Department at Simon Fraser University. The Communications Department would only take grad students in September, and I wasn’t waiting another eight months, so I became an English master’s candidate, sinking gratefully into the familiar world where ideas mattered and books were viewed as precious.