As a bookseller at an independent bookstore in the hyper-networked, super Type A city of Washington, DC, I usually receive zombie stares when I tell strangers where I work, as if they’d like to eat my brain and replace my carcass with someone they can better understand: a lobbyist or a lawyer or a former Senate staffer who attended law school at Yale and is now a lobbyist.
News flash: independent bookstores cannot afford lobbyists.
To ease the awkwardness, The Stranger typically asks for my business card and I shrug because I don’t have any. In a city where even my unemployed friends have business cards, not having one at the ready to sling like a gun in an old Western is akin to missing three fingers on each hand. While The Stranger eyes me like I have an infectious, air-borne disease, I make an excuse about needing the bathroom and we move our separate ways.
It’s not that the Washingtonians don’t read or love books. We’re as prone to lit snobbery as anyone else. It’s just that Washingtonians can’t understand why anyone would work in a bookstore — no power! no access to Senators! no scantily dressed interns to cause scandal with in the summer! — because, in Washington, your value is inversely proportional to the amount of face time you spend interacting with the public (also known as “constituents,” “photo opportunities,” “the voting minority key to campaign success,” or simply, “the poor”). The less you interact with the public, the more your value increases. Because all I do is work with people, my very existence baffles The Stranger, who usually assumes I’m destitute, desperate, stupid or uneducated.
A common Q&A:
Man: So not a bad place to spend some time before going to college, huh?
Me: Actually, I already graduated from college.
Man: Yeah, I’ve heard good things about community colleges.
Me: I went to Georgetown.
Woman: Thanks for getting that book for me. (Presses a dollar into my hand.) This is for you.
Me: I can’t accept tips.
Woman: Oh, it’s not a tip. It’s to help you out.
Woman: Do you read? You know. Reading. Like books and things.
Me: No. I’m illiterate. I also don’t speak English.
Woman: Oh, how nice of them to let you work here!
Yes, bookselling — indie or otherwise — isn’t granting me the opportunity to bathe in a tub of money before retiring each night to my canopy bed with gold embroidered sheets and a pillow stuffed with the arm hairs of a million darling children, but I’m okay with that. I could always make my own business cards at Staples. I could preface all conversations with, “But Janet Napolitano shops here!” I could lie and tell everyone I work as an assistant deputy senior speechwriter in the White House and that I dog sit Bo while the Obamas are out of town because, really, I don’t think I’d be the only person in Washington with a long nose.
Confession: I enjoy being a bookseller. I don’t have a Blackberry. Work stays at work. My boss doesn’t call me at midnight in a panic over the Dorchester military account. I receive free books. I chat with writers who shop in our store and writers who visit for author readings. I can tick off forty hours on my time sheet each week, go home, be with my family, read, write, edit submissions for the lit ‘zine I founded, go for a jog, watch an episode of Modern Family, gleek out watching Glee — all without the need to compulsively consult my Blackberry, check my e-mail, or worry about the boss’s press interview on Monday.
Even though customers are ridiculous and exasperating at times, I’d still rather be a bookseller over squeezing myself into the sliver of apotheosis glowing from someone “important” alongside the other sixty people vying to be near greatness. I genuinely enjoy helping an overwhelmed mom find a cookbook to accommodate her rugby-playing, fourteen-year-old recently vegan daughter. And if I don’t make an appearance in the footnotes of some Senator’s posthumous biography, I’m okay with that. I’d rather have the time to practice and perfect my writing so a decade after I’m gone, Janet Napolitano can appear as a footnote in mine.