Wednesday 11 November 2009

The Sarazens head without New-gate: time for some gushy good feelings

While I continue to meditate on how to infuse new life into my blog (or to my feelings about my blog), I will fulfill a long overdue promise: waxing ecstatic on what's so great about being a self-employed bookseller. If the following begins to look suspiciously therapeutic, like a gratitude list for some kind of self-help event, don't be surprised: I've been rather cranky this week and I'm writing this post now in an effort to remind myself why I should be excited about being a book-wallah.

Employment for the unemployable
In partial response to my "confession" of a few days ago, Amateur Reader assured me that I was doing the world a service by reminding it that doctoral studies are not like other forms of school; that doing a PhD is, in fact, rather like a shitquake in its destruction of health, hopes, minds, and relationships. (Okay, he didn't say anything about shit tectonics, but you get my point.)

What grad school also destroyed, for me, is the ability to work in a so-called normal job. Having made my own schedule for so many years, I find being somewhere that isn't my kitchen, in apparel other than pyjamas, by 9 am to be closely related to being punched in the neck by Andre the Giant in the amount of pleasure it provides. Not only do I find getting up early to be convulsion-inducing, but I also have a very hard time working steadily.

In grad school, I acquired the very bad habit of waiting until the last possible moment to do anything and then riding the adrenalin-mare to the terrifying and deadline-skirting finish. Of course, this didn't work so well with my thesis as there was no real deadline; and it also maybe didn't work so well in the "real" jobs I've (briefly) held in attempts either to continue to afford grad school or to try something entirely unrelated in my early bids at escaping the academy.

But. But! As a book-wallah who owns her own proverbial stall, I can open whenever I see fit to do so; and luckily, I bought a shop in a 'hood that doesn't see customers before 11 am as a general rule. This is important not only because getting out of bed is so evil, but also because sitting around with a hot drink surfing the interwebs before starting work is actually pleasurable now that thesis-writing doesn't follow it! There is no guilt whatsoever in these sometimes exceedingly lazy mornings.

More importantly, perhaps, if there are days on which I really don't feel like working, I don't. And reading all day in a bookstore isn't really an unrelated activity. It's like research, for which I'm paying myself a wage that puts me well below the poverty line. So double that no guilt thing above. Not that I have entirely unproductive days very often, for there's always a mountain of books to be cataloged and/or shelved. But there's some leeway. It's the perfect job for someone with a great deal of edjumakayshun and no discipline whatsoever.

It's a buyer's market
Back in my undergraduate days, selling used books was a profitable activity. A few times, in desperate circs, I managed to pay my rent just by off-loading a third of my books at a local second-hand shop. That wouldn't happen now. I get literally 15+ calls a week from people wanting to sell their entire libraries and then there are the walk-ins, with just a bag or two of books. Every baby boomer in Toronto is apparently trying to make space and so not only do I have to turn potential sellers away quite frequently because there's just no space, but I also don't have to pay very much for these books. In fact, I pretty often open the front door in the morning to find someone has left hundreds of books on the stairs for me.

It may not be a seller's market though, and so at some point, the beautiful dream will likely end. If we didn't sell our books online as well as in the shop, we wouldn't survive. And I've spoken with many other booksellers who either say the same, or who aren't online and are really struggling just to make ends meet. So, who knows what will happen? I'm just going to run with it until it no longer makes sense to do so. And then I'll become a twitchy, Valium-addled housewife with nothing to do but read a couple 1000-page novels a week and write angry letters to the papers about what a bunch of illiterate little bastards the kids are these days. I like the sound of that actually; I'll include it in my 5-year plan.

Book-buyers are the coolest people to have to deal with if you work in retail
You've all read about the crazy people I sometimes have to deal with but the majority of my customers are calm, nice (or nice enough), and not given to temper tantrums. Most want simply to browse because unlike some big box store working, ridiculous vest wearing booksellers I've met, I don't push at all. Most indie booksellers don't; it hearkens back to a rather more civilized age, I think.

At the same time, I often have excellent and stimulating conversations with people about books. I've had great talks with disaffected academics in which we shot the intellectual shit completely free of any anxieties about how up-to-date our ideas or interests were. I met one prof who revealed that while she had tenure, was employed at the most respected (by certain magazines) university in the country, was about to begin a year-long sabbatical, and working only on things she was interested in, STILL regretted not chucking it all to do something else. She fervently informed me I'd made the right choice. She looked really tired. Her unhappiness saddened me but think of how generous she was to admit so much to someone she didn't know, just to alleviate any doubts I might have had about the choice I'd made! Amazing.

And she's not the only generous person I've met. One day, a crazy man was in here harassing me. He kept insisting that I let him go get me a coffee, or a juice, or a tea, or why didn't I have some of the JOLT he had in his bag, etc and he was so loud and manic that while I firmly insisted I wanted nothing to drink (from a crazy man I'd never seen before!) he would not take the direct hint and just kept on trying. I was getting nervous but what kept me relatively calm was the presence of 4 - 4! - people who hadn't come in together but who all stayed for a long time and were obviously only pretending to browse as this went on. They all 4 stayed close to my desk (behind which I was hiding) and only left after crazyJOLTman left. And they left immediately after he did; two of them even turned to look at me and offered conspiratorial/comforting smiles! I wanted to hug them all and yell, a la Sherman Alexie, "How many good men are there in the world? Too many to count!"

And one more gushy story for you. I was chatting with a woman about a lurid mystery novel we'd both read and enjoyed a few years back - Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind. I asked her if she'd read the prequel, The Angel's Game, which had recently been released and she said yes; I said I was waiting for it from the library but was 200th in line. She came back the next day and gifted me her copy, insisting that I shouldn't have to wait that long. She didn't try to sell it or ask for credit or anything; she just handed it to me with a smile and left. And that's a fat, new hardcover book.

(Sidebar: I've since learned that being 200th on a library waiting list isn't such a big deal here. A couple of months ago, I put The Elegance of the Hedgehog on hold - 450th in line. And recently I decided I'd check out Wolf Hall because another blogger whose taste I trust said it was good so I put that on hold - I'm 950th in line!!!)

Oh yeah, the books part
Yes, and I live in a giant library of my own. This seems so obviously a Good Thing that I don't think I need to say anything else about it.

My boss is okay too
Sometimes she's a jerk but it could be worse. She brings me lunch every day and sometimes also snacky cakes.

Alright, so there you go. The next installment of The Sarazens head without New-gate will likely involve some weirdness, if I know myself at all. Looking forward to it.


Celine said...

Man if I had needed some joi de vivre today this post would have been way more then my RDA.

Thanks Colleen (PS. the best bit was the 4 silent bodygaurds.)

Heidenkind said...

Can I work in your book store? That sounds heavenly (actually I have a job pretty similar to that right now, except with boats-I'm enjoying it while it lasts).

I can understand what that tenured professor was saying. People--my own father, for example--think being a professor is a total cake job, and all you do is show up and then collect your paycheck. Ha. Ha. Ha. That poor woman probably hadn't had a day off since the last time she took sabbatical.

verbivore said...

Just read this and became insanely jealous of your job...hooray for a self-employed book seller! And what can I do to have people leave me hundreds of books at my door in the night?

Amanda said...

I am insanely jealous as well. It's my dream to own a used bookstore/coffeehouse or something like that.

Or...a beer garden.


Yuri... said...

Great post Colleen! Love to hear the bright side of your life :)

I hope, however, that you will get a a good number more than five years before going gentle into that good night of Valium-addled letter writing!

And if not, maybe I will step in for you and a spend a few latte-fueled days reading in the Sarazens head... :)

Bookphilia said...

Celine: I know! I still get all emotional when I think of them.

heidenkind: Ha. Ha. Ha. indeed! During my PhD, I once went 3 years without taking one day off. *Sobs in remembrance*

verbivore: People in this city have, to me, a rather unusual relationship with books. Besides finding books on my front steps fairly often, people very often leave boxes of books on the sidewalks in front of their houses with "FREE" signs taped to them. I've picked up a lot of good books that way.

Amanda: A bookstoreSLASHbeer garden could be quite lucrative, don't you think? ;)

Yuri: Yay! The Sarazens Head would welcome the spring, if we can get our s*** together in the apartment.

andrew said...

Colleen, this post: I laughed, I cried...I re-evaluated my whole frickin' life. Brava. If only I had a five-year-plan half as wonderfully misanthropic.

Bookphilia said...

andrew: Well, you know, it's not too late to amend your 5-year plan...