Bookselling ain't easy

I worked in bookstores for a dozen years — at a chain store for four years and at an independent shop for eight — and I have to say this Publishers Weekly essay by Wendy Werris that went viral yesterday about her two weeks working at Barnes & Noble brings back a lot of bad memories. My bad memories aren’t of working at bookstores, mind you. They’re of people like Wendy Werris.

I probably worked with about a dozen variations on Wendy Werris, meaning roughly one every year. They might be a young man just out of grad school, or a woman on the edge of retirement, or some combination of those elements. These booksellers often go into the job with the idea that they’ll just talk about books and read all day. They usually have trouble working the computers, and they seem morally opposed to the idea of computers in bookstores at all. They generally last anywhere in the neighborhood of two to six weeks, and then they’re gone, leaving the staff shaking their heads in their wake.

The thing is, bookselling is work. Keeping on top of an inventory of thousands of items, each with its own unique product number, is work. Shelving and alphabetizing and receiving and returning books is work. Dealing with the public, as weird and wonderful as it can be, is a lot of emotional work. And no matter how many times you warn someone of that fact in an interview, sometimes they’ll be taken by surprise when they realize that it’s a job, with break times and lunch breaks and rushes and paperwork, just like any other job. The romanticized version they imagine—or, in Werris’s head, the idealized memory of a past bookstore job—quickly disappears. They never last long.

But I do want to highlight one thing about Werris’s essay that I believe is very important, and which more people should see. It’s this paragraph:

Every display and endcap in the store was formulized, clearly marked on the printed examples that arrived frequently from corporate. Everything was precisely copied; nothing was left to chance in the book, music, and gift departments. Booksellers didn’t have to think about merchandising—it was thought out for us, and all we had to do was match titles with the designated spaces on shelves and tables.

This is important, but not for the reason Werris mentions it. Those displays are all “formulized” because publishers pay Barnes & Noble for that display space, much in the same way that cereal manufacturers pay for placement on supermarket aisles. I believe a lot of browsers naively think that the displays in Barnes & Nobles are selected and placed by passionate staff members. That couldn’t be further from the truth. They’re paid advertising, plain and simple. This is not the case in most independent bookstores.

This doesn’t mean that you should not shop at Barnes & Noble. As I’ve said before, the publishing industry would be in terrible shape if Barnes & Noble went away. But it does mean that as a shopper, you should know when people are paying for shelf space. I would love to see a law that required retail businesses to place special signage on display space that was paid for by manufacturers. Maybe it would change your shopping habits, maybe it wouldn’t, but more transparency is never a bad thing.

The rest of Werris’s article, though, is bunk. I’d love to see a rebuttal written by someone who worked with her. That would be illuminating — and maybe more than a little cathartic.