Before Christmas I made the crazy decision that I would work in a bookshop over the festive period. I am sure many writers before me have imagined that working among dusty tomes would be the ideal day job to accompany their fevered evenings perfecting their craft. I was one of these ridiculous people.
My idea of a good bookshop is something like Shakespeare and Co in Paris. The owner would be a mild eccentric, the customers would be fascinating literati sort of like Samuel Beckett and Dorothy Parker, the books would be stacked higgledy piggledy in no apparent order. You could spend hours browsing and not buy anything.Candles would burn as the only source of light and owls would peep from the rafters. I am aware this kind of bookshop doesn’t really exist outside the pages of Harry Potter but I like my fantasies.
In my small, affluent, dull town no such bookshop exists. I signed up for a temporary contract with Waterstone’s. Waterstone’s is not really a bookshop. It is a vast aircraft hangar containing bestsellers and assorted tat that you find in Poundland except it is more than a pound.
The experience was bizarre from the start. I was shown round by some elderly chap who had worked there for eighteen years. He was the guru of the children’s section. Assorted middle class women in velvet hats with more money than sense would come in at two minute intervals and ask his sage advice on which book to buy for their spoilt children who were ‘reluctant readers’. He blithely extolled the virtues of the latest children’s blockbuster and they hung on his every word, fascinated. He was like a children’s book Svengali, reminiscent of the child catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He left two weeks before Christmas and the ample burghers were distraught. Nobody else could possibly ever live up to his genius. He had chosen the correct book for Tarquin’s Christmas stocking every year since anybody could remember.
In fact everybody who was anybody had left Waterstone’s. I think the technical term is a high staff turnover. I would soon be one of them.
I was dumped on the till and trained by my co-workers. All the other temps were young, thrusting, unemployed graduates. They were all better than me due to their vast experience of shitty minimum wage jobs. I had only ever been a teacher and failed writer. What did I know? The till was incredibly complicated with all these endless buttons and screens with multifarious functions that people who had worked there for ten years didn’t understand. It took me ages to get the hang of it. In fact I didn’t ever get the hang of it. I think I must be quite dippy though this trait had never properly come out in teaching. Perhaps everyone else in that profession was as dippy as me. I have no idea. One day I completely broke the system trying to help an elderly lady who wanted to pay with a combination of cash, credit card, points and out of date vouchers.
There was an antiquated stock search system which looked like an Atari video game. One was supposed to check if books were in stock using it. It was actually easier to just go and look at the shelf. Customers would sweep in and say things like: “I am looking for a book by Rudolph Vierbizhki from the 1930s.”
Me: “Do you have a title?”
Customer: “No. I thought you would know it. I mean what sort of a bookshop is this? It’s something about Adolf Hitler living as a woman in Argentina and having thirteen children. You know the one.”
Me: “How are you spelling the author’s name?”
Customer: “How the hell do I know?”
I enter an approximation of the spelling into the system. No stock. No stock at the wholesaler. I might not have the name right.
I sneakily enter the details into Amazon. Everybody does this. It is Waterstone’s policy because their system is so crap. Oh Amazon. The perfection of the website! The user friendly interface! The ability to guess what I really mean from my bad spelling! It is like book nirvana. And the prices are cheap! Amazon has three hundred copies for £1.50.
Armed with the correct spelling I re-enter the details into the Waterstone’s search. No stock. There is a copy in Dundee for £35.99. There is a way of transferring it which I don’t know. I tell the customer we don’t have it. I feel like saying why don’t you just buy it on Amazon as it’s cheaper and easier. The customer leaves in a huff.
I then serve a nice gentleman in tweed who buys himself a Greek tragedy as a Christmas present to himself from the dog. He is jolly and doesn’t moan. This is the sort of customer I like. He tells me I am beautiful. I like him even more. This is the high spot of the day.
All of this would have been fine if it hadn’t been for the awful staff. They were half middle aged women who had been abandoned by their husbands for floozies half their age. They were bitter and twisted at having to work in Waterstone’s for five pounds an hour. The other half were young. stupid and bitchy. They knew nothing about books. They all hated me and had a campaign of passive aggression against me. I always think it is the people who make a work place not the job itself. They were horrible people. The temps were the only decent people in the place but they got blamed for everything that went wrong by the fat supervisor when in fact it was mostly the permanent staff who cocked everything up. I was in what is known in psychology as the out-group. In the Middle Ages I would have been stoned to death in the town square.
Another thing that I hated was the sub zero temperature. The double doors were kept wide open and nobody knew how to switch on the door heater. Even the customers felt sorry for us. One day I turned up in my fleece I hadn’t worn since living in the Highlands and a fake fur snood. I got some funny looks but at least I was warm.
When it was busy you missed your breaks. It was tiring, repetitive and boring.
On my first day some poisonous queen turned up who was some kind of over-manager sent from head office to sort us out. He made me climb a step ladder and pile the extra book stock in weird pyramids on top of the shelves where nobody could reach them. As I descended the step ladder hours later covered in dust and cobwebs he told me he had decided that was a silly idea and could I take them all down again.
I was asked if I was interested in “hours” after Christmas. I said no. The temperature dropped from sub-zero to Baltic.
On Christmas Eve the manager and sundry under-managers (obergruppenfuhren) left early mid-afternoon. The temps were left to hold the fort with the girl from the cafe in charge who seemed to think she was the lynch pin of the whole establishment. At half five, my finish time, I logged off from the till, tossed my dirty work issue fleece into the basket and disappeared into the night. Home to my husband who has not yet abandoned me, my cat and my warm house and my almost ruined Christmas.
So what have I learned from this as Carrie from Sex in the City would say. I am not cut out for retail. Waterstone’s treats their employees like shit. Women are bitchy. The British public are quite ignorant and have no idea how a bookshop works. The place they are looking for is called a library but there aren’t any left as they keep voting Tory!