Must people who work in book shops have an English Literature degree?
May 7, 2002 1:39 PM   Subscribe

Must people who work in book shops have an English Literature degree? "At Foyles, the book-lover's bookshop, I approach the counter with a copy of James Joyce's Ulysses. "I bought this book the other day," I say, "and I want my money back. It's full of typing errors and there's no punctuation." But who dumbed down first, the readership or the book trade? Also, I notice Books etc isn't included, perhaps because the clerks in that chain have to write little reviews of all the books they read, which are then put on the edges of the shelves ...
posted by feelinglistless (38 comments total)
Book stores pay nice and sometimes bright people terrible wages. Worse, many of these places doing well in the market. The article written by some snippy wise ass who would know better (or should): either a store takes the book back or it doesn't. You don't go through pages to spot "misprints." At local stores in my area, no questions asked. Turn back the book and get full refund.
Perhaps if the writer worked for the wages being paid to those who work at bookstores, he would try to be a bit lcess clever.
posted by Postroad at 1:55 PM on May 7, 2002

If you work in a bookshop and someone comes up to you with a copy of Ulysses claiming it's full of spelling mistakes , odd words and no ounctuation and demanding their money back how would you react? I haven't thought of anything that wouldn't get me fired yet.
posted by vbfg at 1:58 PM on May 7, 2002

'Ounctuation' he says. Bloody typical.
posted by vbfg at 1:58 PM on May 7, 2002

"Do you have the latest horoscope books by Henry Miller? I know he's done Capricorn and Cancer, but I'm Aries."

Here's the book you asked for.
posted by vacapinta at 2:15 PM on May 7, 2002

Mean spirited ... that's the article description I've been grasping for ...
posted by feelinglistless at 2:28 PM on May 7, 2002

It's such a cliche, this "big chain stores = dumb clerks" thing
Maybe it's true maybe it's not. They're thriving anyway because they're supermarkets, they carry lots of books and have competitive prices
Want talk about literature? Want to discuss Joyce and Carey? Don't go to a book supermarket, try a smaller independent bookstore
You'll pay more, some books won't be there -- but you get more customer service probably, and you help out independents
It's up to you
Me, I know what I want and don't have to ask clerks, and yes, I like smaller stores. But also use -- happily -- Amazon.
But I guess for some people it's cool to feel superior to some minimum wage person
posted by matteo at 2:32 PM on May 7, 2002

Just to round out the topic: Here I sit, working at as I type - and *bonus* I have a bachelor's degree in English Literature ;)

Of course I'm not working as a clerk... er, it's not my shift yet.
posted by kokogiak at 2:40 PM on May 7, 2002

When I'm contemplating my next Robert Ludlum or Stephen King purchase I'll be sure to consult with the trained Literature Counselors™ at Borders.... Akkkk.

Usually buying a book is painless. I know what I want, I have my faves and I go get it. Never had a need to consult with someone, namely a clerk who is probably overworked/underpaid, regarding their knowledge. As long as they slide my plastic through the register and it rings up "approved", our relationship is over.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 2:40 PM on May 7, 2002

Book stores need English Lit. majors like CompUSA needs Electrical Engineers working the aisles.
posted by patrickje at 2:42 PM on May 7, 2002

I agree with feelinglistless, it was very mean-spirited article and those writers came off as very snobby. Oh yeah, most bookstores I know only carry "classics of literature" and for shame if a seller in Mind and Body or Children's doesn't know who Milton is. Yeah ,yeah, canon and all that, but still. Bookstores deal with something like 25,000 new books a year. It's like going to a grocery store, asking the butcher the difference between celery root and radishes and laughing at him when he doesn't know.
(Yes, I worked on a bookstore and yes, I still have issues, but the cold sweats in the middle of the night have subsided quite a bit.)
posted by rodz at 2:50 PM on May 7, 2002

Customer: "excuse me, I'm looking for a novel by Celine..."

Clark the clerk: "psstfff, we dont carry music here sir...geez"

good thread.
posted by clavdivs at 2:52 PM on May 7, 2002

I'm looking for the book on the September 11 attacks, by J.R.R. Tolkien. And, the one on the postwar Afghan political process.
posted by dhartung at 2:54 PM on May 7, 2002

I forgot to mention, this Tolkien guy is a linguist, like Chomsky. Does he have any other political books?
posted by dhartung at 2:56 PM on May 7, 2002

Is it silly season already? The piece reads like a bunch of frustrated Eng Lit graduates (that'll be the Graun's trainee desk, then) one-upping themselves against the staff at bookshops. And you know, there's almost a pang of jealousy there. I imagine the entire feature was designed to get them out of the office for the day.
posted by riviera at 3:00 PM on May 7, 2002

What to say to the dumb customer returning Ulysses that won't get you fired? "Well, this is an experimental form; Joyce knew what he was doing. I'm sorry you didn't like the book." Of course that would just start a fight, but what else can you expect from dumb customers? Ask a dumb question, get a dumb answer: 11th Law of Customer Service.

What's more frustrating is when you know a book is carried by the store, but no one in the store can find it. That's a customer service issue, not a knowledge issue.
posted by Electric Elf at 3:00 PM on May 7, 2002

i work at a borders. i should probably be better-read than i am in order to help customers better.

but you know what? i'm not exactly stupid (i think). reliance on a computer for keeping track of an inventory of well over a million books is not something to be ashamed of. i good naturely try to help every customer that comes through the doors to find whatever it is they're looking for.

am i bumbling and idiotic on occasion? yes. can i sometimes not find what the customer is looking for? yes. do i parrot the equivalent of "would you like fries with that?" most of the time? yes (the boss says to). do i make fun of snotty/snobby customers who come in and try to put one over on me? relentlessly. but i'm earnest and i try to be helpful.
posted by carsonb at 3:08 PM on May 7, 2002

What's more frustrating is when you know a book is carried by the store, but no one in the store can find it. That's a customer service issue, not a knowledge issue.

Exactly. Especially when The Seven-Percent Solution is shelved under "W."

Speaking as a former employee of this bookstore, I wasn't quite so upset by the article as I gather other people were. How can you help the customer if you don't know anything about, at the very least, "the greatest hits"?

But yes, the Joyce stunt was silly.
posted by thomas j wise at 3:13 PM on May 7, 2002

btw, just to help other British people here books etc. is a part of the Borders group. Although they also have Borders superstores in the UK and run the two seperatly on admin stuff the pay, conditions and general atmosphere are about the same.

Knowing quite a few bookstore people I'm sure that most of them attempt to do their jobs to the best of their ability and if they weren't working for almost nothing in anaymous chains that deliberatly stifeld most creativity and initiative I'm sure thay'd be happier. As would most people. I hate snippy, snarky g2 pieces like this one.
posted by nedrichards at 3:16 PM on May 7, 2002

Working in a bookstore gives one the rare opportunity to use a Lit. degree. And there's a lot to be said for working with books, and readers. Pity about the pay, though...

I agree that the article was snippy, but bookstore staff can and should be able to use the computer to search more successfully. If you don't find The Colour Orange under title, you should spot The Color Purple when you look up Alice Walker. The best stores really work on this. I hate it when the bookseller just looks it up in the computer and waves me off to a section of the store. Surprisingly, the computer can be wrong, or the book can be mis-shelved, stolen, etc.

There's more than one Books, Etc.
posted by theora55 at 3:32 PM on May 7, 2002

Boarders Books
...slowly i turn, inch by inch...

JoeClerk: "...well sir, we might have a copy of 'The Languages of Tolkiens Middle-Earth'...lets check, ohhh, we dont have the 1980 paper copy of Noels work, but we can order it".

Clark the Clerk: 'ya next to the 'perfecting dissent' or by....the...sports...(points to fern) boy, she was Hot..."

posted by clavdivs at 3:58 PM on May 7, 2002

The Seven-Percent Solution is shelved under "W."
er, that would be 'dubya'.
posted by quonsar at 4:05 PM on May 7, 2002

oh i'm so glad to finally find out that the reason customers (not guests) are complete and utter assholes to me when i can't answer their urgent queries about 'that book, by that guy. where that girl falls in love with someone completely inappropriate for her?' it's because i don't have a bleeding english lit degree.

perhaps it's from the exhaustion after dealing with customers who rudely remind me that the cost of a friday paper is fifty cents. listen, buddy, just because i take your fucking money doesn't mean that i'm an idiot.

(just so you know, i don't take the money anymore. i'm the magazine goddess, see, so i can answer questions about periodicals instead.)
posted by sugarfish at 4:23 PM on May 7, 2002

yes, i'd have to say these guys are not jerks, but a special kind of lazy pretentious group that thinks they know everything about bookstores because they know a lot about books. i worked at a video store for a long time, so i'm going to assume they're similar. first of all, there are a lot of books, everyone of these people asked about literature, what if you ask about sci-fi, cooking, religion, periodicals, are they expected to know each equally well, or only the areas that you, mr. guardian writer, got your degree in? second, when you work with that many inventory items, you *trust the computer* if it says you don't have something, you don't, and if you know that person x wrote y book, you look anyway, because god knows there are quirky naming schemes which will affect the physical location etc. and my real pet peeve, when people think managers must know more about books/movies than the other employees, no, they know more about loss prevention, human resources, payroll, and the software that runs the store.

those employees could stand some video store hostility training though, it really helps put customers in their place when they ask questions they shouldn't be asking:

"I need a book by a local author: can you suggest anything?" "No."
instead say, "We index only by title" this way they won't ask their next stupid question, and if they do just repeat, "yes, but we only index by title"

What's more frustrating is when you know a book is carried by the store, but no one in the store can find it. That's a customer service issue, not a knowledge issue.

oh see, the customer should never think something is in the store until you have it in your hands, you type a little [and for fuck's sake the computers should not be where the customer can read anything] then go out to the shelves, if it's not there, say you don't have it, and maybe you can help them find it somewhere else. they never need to know that the computer thinks it is there.

yes, i'm bitter, here's why. "um, there's this movie, and i can't remember the name, but there is this guy in it, with brown hair, and a girl, and i think they fall in love, there's this other guy too. something really bad happens, and there are a lot of cars. know what i'm talking about?"

"We index only by title."
posted by rhyax at 4:36 PM on May 7, 2002

Supposing that bookstore clerks were 'required' to be familiar with the subject matter of the books their customers are buying, wouldn't it make more sense to know the works of John Grisham and Danielle Steele? I'd bet they get a lot more queries about "that Stephen King novel about the clown" than "that Joyce book with no punctuation."
posted by swell at 4:37 PM on May 7, 2002

"wouldn't it make more sense to know the works of John Grisham and Danielle Steele"
i believe these customers already know where these fine texts are. no need to ask.

who reads Trollope?
posted by clavdivs at 4:46 PM on May 7, 2002

i must say i've been very impressed by the local Borders --no more indie shops around--and every book we buy, whether it is poems by Sharon Olds, books about women in art, history...the clerks always comment on them and ask us if we have read such and such book the same author wrote. Favorite place to hang out on sunday afternoons.

They have a local authors section as well.
posted by th3ph17 at 5:45 PM on May 7, 2002

Supposing that bookstore clerks were 'required' to be familiar with the subject matter

P'raps bookstore folk should get paid like librarians.
posted by hob at 5:53 PM on May 7, 2002

Those no-magic-eye-dinosaur-seeing people are so lame.
posted by rodii at 5:56 PM on May 7, 2002

You get what you pay for. And, sadly, the only people rushing to nab a minimum wage service sector job in a bookstore (unless they are plagued by economic conditions that make a low-paying service sector job a necessity) are, for the most part, ignorant about books. But this article was written with a decidedly elitist agenda. But it fails to take into account the possibility that bookstore clerks can learn from their customers. For example, there is one local bookstore that I regularly frequent in which I have been gradually recommending titles to a very enthusiastic guy behind the counter. He is young and when I began talking to him, he told me his favorite author was John Irving and that he liked "quirky" literature. I suggested some John Barth, David Lodge and Donald Barthelmie titles to the kid as being representative of some off-kilter literature that he might enjoy reading. Guess what? Several months later, the kid has informed me that he really enjoyed grooving to some of the titles I presented to him. Without any prompting from me, he managed to discover some of the King Arthur mythology hidden within Small World and he thanked me for the choices. And he now asks me about some of the books I'm buy and wonders if I can offer him a brief report the next time I come in.

Anyone who is literate was at one point illiterate. In fact, if it hadn't been for a few people who recommended certain books to me in my teens and early twenteis, I'd probably be twice as hopeless as I am now in trying to keep track of all the titles. But if the desire is there within another person, if a person WILLINGLY remains illiterate, then I see no reason to condemn someone in the manner of this article. Consider the limitations of the current educational system and how class factors in and question the business approach that attracted this sort of bookstore clerk before hurling arrows from the lofty tower of the castle.
posted by ed at 7:18 PM on May 7, 2002

oh see, the customer should never think something is in the store until you have it in your hands

I wasn't exactly speaking as a customer. I was speaking of fellow employees at a former job of mine at a discount store. (Elf on break, shopping in store, seeing customer ask question in music department.) "Does your store carry Nine Inch Nails?" Fellow employee: "Uh, that's in hardware." He wasn't kidding.

And, my friends, that is why I get frustrated when people working somewhere don't bother to ask for help from other co-workers, or have some sort of grasp about what's being sold.
posted by Electric Elf at 8:17 PM on May 7, 2002

I majored in English Lit.

I worked at Waldenbooks in Chattanooga for two years while making my way through college.

I enjoyed the books, adored the 33% discount, and spent most of my earnings on the product I sold.

The people were at times entertaining ("I'm lookin' for this particular book about a dog and a pig and they have this adventure and the cover was red or somethin'"), often annoying ("this Indian feller was on Oprah today and said I gotta read his book") and sometimes enlightening (Christopher Morley's son, an episcopal priest, would come in every other day to buy the daily paper and chat for awhile.)

So don't knock it too harshly.
posted by grabbingsand at 9:02 PM on May 7, 2002

If you work in a bookshop and someone comes up to you with a copy of Ulysses claiming it's full of spelling mistakes , odd words and no ounctuation and demanding their money back how would you react? I haven't thought of anything that wouldn't get me fired yet.
"That's the way he wrote it, sir." Then give him his money back.
posted by darukaru at 10:39 PM on May 7, 2002

From the other side: a customer came in the other day carry a copy of Ulysses she wanted to return. "It's full of typing errors," she said. "There's no punctuation." Then she suggested that it might be a proof copy. I flipped through the pages, trying not to laugh. "Mmm," I said...
posted by mstillwell at 1:14 AM on May 8, 2002

My above link showed a retail clerk in San Jose making $29,041 per year, or $13.96 per hour (FWIW, this is better than double what I made working in an indy bookstore in this area 10 years ago. Inflation, I guess). That means, basically, that if your question takes 10 minutes to answer, then your question cost the store $2.32.

From the same source, to hire someone with an MLS is going to cost you $47,919 per anum (again, wierd numbers... librarians I know make as much as double this, but maybe they're overpaid), or $23.03 per hour, which means that the same query would cost $3.83

Given that bookstores operate at a fixed margin (40% or less of the cover price of a book), it'd be pretty tough to make this kind of investment in floor staff without really being able to justify it in the revenue stream.

So, provided that your Info Desk clerk were standing there in front of a little brass nameplate that said, "Joe Smith, MLS," would you be willing to stick your credit card in a slot to make him come to life? Or would it perhaps be more benificial to you to have access to a computer lookup station yourself? Perhaps with its own credit card slot?

Would you be willing to pay 10% over the cover price for your book to shop in a bookstore that had a great Info Desk?

How much is good information worth to you?
posted by hob at 7:20 AM on May 8, 2002

I am reminded of this:

P: (excitedly) You mean 'Barnaby Rudge'!

C: No, 'Rarnaby Budge' by Charles Dikkens. That's Dikkens with two Ks, the well-known Dutch author.

posted by briank at 10:35 AM on May 8, 2002

[pedant] um, folks? y'all do know that ulysses actually does have punctuation in it, right? [/pedant]
posted by juv3nal at 12:14 PM on May 8, 2002

In other news, car wash attendants typically lack the education necessary to tell you exactly how the chemicals they're squirting onto your car actually do their dirty work.
posted by kindall at 1:49 PM on May 8, 2002

I think I've been drawn to the following conclusion. The knowledge of the staff in a bookshop depends upon their clientelle ... best way I suppose ...
posted by feelinglistless at 3:48 PM on May 8, 2002

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