I’ve had only had one job that paid minimum wage (or minimum plus 50 cents, as I recall.) That was as a bookstore clerk at Shakespeare & Company on the Upper West Side in the mid-90s.
The 85th St. bookstore was the flagship of the Shakespeare operation, which at that time included four Shakespeare and Co stores, two or three Murder Inks, and I think one or two other literary bookstores. It was generously, maybe from a strict business standpoint, overgenerously, staffed. We did spend a lot of time reshelving.
What’s memorable about the place is how everybody there was a book person. Some of us wanted to write fiction, some essays, some plays (that was kind of the store’s thing). Some wanted to work at publishers, some — for serious — were into the printing and bookbinding side of things. Most of of us wanted to write book reviews; some — well me, at least — left to edit the book review section of a marginal left-wing magazine. The book culture of the place was smoothly continuous from those of us behind the registers to the buyers to the mysterious owners upstairs. When publishers’ representatives came by we all met them, as a matter of course: they were selling to the store. I remember one of them spinning out this mystery novel she was going to write about a serial killer knocking off Granta‘s best young American novelists one by one; it seemed like a pretty good joke.
They used to have contests, beginning of the week, pick a book, whoever sells the most of it wins, well, I don’t remember what the prize was. Anyway I took it seriously; books I thought people ought to read. Oh hey, you’re interested in history, do you know Eric Hobsbawm? Oh, Jared Diamond, sure, but you know Plagues and Peoples covered a lot of that same ground? It was a point of pride.
And we hated shoplifters. There was one fellow who was a regular — he was obviously getting instructions on what specific resaleable books to steal. One time we’d had enough — it so depressing when two hours before closing there’s no one in the store except the professional shoplifters — and when he made his run for it we didn’t just accept the alarm-went-off;-oh-well as always. We took off after him. Why? it wasn’t our money. But we did: we caught him: or rather, like a lizard’s tail, we caught his bag, full of stolen books and hypodermics.
I first encountered the word “snarky” working at that bookstore. It was in a New York Magazine article about what was wrong with us, what was wrong with independent bookstores in general, why chains were the future. People wanted an antiseptic book purchasing environment, not all those book people telling them what to read. Whatever, we thought, all separately wondering how to incorporate “snark” into our new novel. But we should have seen the writing on the wall.
When the Barnes & Noble opened at 66th St., that was bad. When the next one opened at 82nd and Broadway, that was the end. This was not long after I started; surrendering, they had a going-out-of-business sale. And that was even worse. There was a brief false summer as the locals — our former customers! — picked over the stock that was suddenly attractive at 40% off; but as soon as the owners unwisely tried to reopen at full price those same customers tripped over each other rushing back to the lattes at Barnes & Nobles.
For the record, I suspect that if the Shakespeare & Co. guys could have competed with Barnes and Nobles at their scale, they would happily have done so. They weren’t doing it for the sake of small. Still, what matters is that you can get the books you want, and there it’s all progress, right? From your point of view as a consumer, probably, sure. I’m prepared to argue that you lose something when there are no more bookstore clerks like me, trying to sell you on William H. McNeill. On the scale of things it’s a small loss, but it’s a retreat from the world as it should be.
I don’t know if Shakespeare hired us because no one but book people would work for what they would pay, or because they had some vague idea that their clerks would rise to manage their little empire or simply because they were book people themselves. But hire book people they did. Within their world, you could imagine that it was a natural progression from clerking at a bookstore, to buying for a bookstore, to editing novels, to writing novels. As in a civilized world it will be.
Which is all to say: Fuck you, Barnes & Noble. I hope all of your stores close.