In one of my lives, I’m a writer. This means, essentially, that I contemplate the human experience while wearing my pajamas. The writer in me constantly reads and writes and thinks about stories. This writer––let’s call her Deborah Willis––has spent whole, pleasant days worrying over commas. She prefers to be alone. If the telephone rings while she’s working, she stares at it, horrified, and refuses to answer. Her shoulders are hunched from bending over a notebook, her eyes strained from the computer screen, and she recently developed carpal tunnel in her wrists. Who says the writing life isn’t strenuous? It can lead to, among other disorders, self-obsession and a Vitamin-D deficiency.
Fortunately, there’s another me, and she gets out more. She works in a bookstore, which means that she’s always on her feet, carrying books up and down stairs, putting them on and taking them off shelves. She can recommend children’s books, Canadian fiction, and foreign-language titles. She makes change, deals with till-tape, runs debit cards though machines, sends special orders, and receives magazines. For her, books are to be displayed, alphabetized, and sold. This is an exaggeration, of course––books are not only products. In fact, her work has made her love them more. But she has been a bookseller for almost five years, which is long enough for the job to become an identity. She wears it like a second skin. Her name is Debbie, and she would be happy to help you.
The bookstore where I work, Munro’s Books in Victoria, BC, used to be a bank. It is grand, spooky, beautiful, and almost as untidy as my apartment. It’s an old building with character, part of what guidebooks accurately call Victoria’s “historic and picturesque” downtown. It has marble countertops, art on the walls, dark wood shelves, creaky floorboards, and a reputation for being haunted. My favorite part of the store is the part customers never see: the basement, which is made up of a series of steel-and-concrete vaults.
When Munro’s was a Royal Bank––during that era before banks were housed in huge, anonymous buildings––these vaults must have held receipts, checks, and safety deposit boxes. Now, they’re where we keep the overstock. It’s like something Lewis Carroll might have imagined, if Alice had fallen down a rabbit hole and into a booklover’s fantasy. Vaults with heavy metal doors open onto to other vaults, and each one is filled with books. There is something romantic and wonderful and completely backwards about this: finance replaced with literature, scurrying bankers replaced with scurrying booksellers, the sterility of numbers replaced with the unruliness of words.
I fell into this job in the same way I’ve always fallen in love––by accident. I needed some income to pay the rent during my last year of university, so I dropped off a resume and spoke to the owner, Mr. Munro. I believe he hired me partly because he found my resume amusing (my list of accomplishments included scooping ice cream at a shop called ‘Wonderlicks,’ and getting fired from a barista job because I didn’t take the ‘coffee art’ seriously enough).
On my first day, I was given the keys to the store, taught the combination to the safe, and told to call Mr. Munro by his first name. It turns out that Jim is an exceptionally kind, trusting, and generous man. To be hired by him is to be immediately welcomed into his family. He runs an independent, old-fashioned business, the kind of place that big-box stores and the Internet can never replace, but often do. It’s the kind of place where employees stay for decades. One clerk even identifies himself as “Steve from Munro’s,” as though the store were his hometown.
I don’t mean to make it sound like a museum piece, since Munro’s is a profitable business. I also don’t mean to romanticize the work. A job is a job, after all, and anyone who has worked in retail during the Christmas season knows that customer service can be its own particular hell. And though it’s one of the best jobs I can imagine, a bookstore can terrify a writer. The sheer number of books makes me feel nervous and unnecessary. Classics, mysteries, romances, essays, histories, poetry––they arrive in box after box of hardbacks, trade papers, and mass markets. Then, a year or so later, many are returned unsold to publishers, to be remaindered or pulped. This is the stuff of writers’ nightmares. When faced with it in reality, it’s hard for me to convince myself that the world needs another book, especially mine. Why bother? I often think as I put labels on the newest page-turner about a vampire shopaholic, or the latest novel hailed as “a triumph, full of wry wisdom.” These are the moments when the bookseller in me is in conflict with the writer. Why do you get up in the morning? she asks. What’s the point?
You can read the rest of the essay “The Double Life” on Deborah’s website. Deborah will be interviewed tomorrow (Thursday, 15th September) at 4pm, in The Ballroom, Metropole Hotel, Cork, and will follow with a reading later in the evening at 7.30pm in the same venue.