Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Working in book shops

Posted on: January 18, 2021

Am I wearing rose-coloured glasses, I sometimes wonder, when I look back at my working life, employed by a variety of booksellers, retail giants and small independents? Students and school leavers love to get jobs in book shops and there are many candidates for every vacancy, but the pay for an adult with a family is quite silly, even at management level.

I don’t miss the heavy work, lugging skips of books from floor to floor, the endless shelving or the fractious or patronizing customers who make up about 5% of the clientèle. I miss the cultural diversity and co-operation; Muslim colleagues explaining to me about the Hadith and Sufism and checking the Arabic text on my Ramadan posters; getting Caribbean recipes off of colleagues; discussing bible translations with a bookseller who was also a church deacon and making him Hebrew flashcards because he wanted to learn the aleph bet. Gay colleagues advised on the LGBTQ displays and were photographed with them for the trade magazine, The Bookseller.

Just once, a colleague – a handsome, edgy, white Canadian whose name I forget – said ‘Gill, we need to talk about Israel’. We talked and I was surprised to learn that he, so well-educated, had never heard of Partition or the War of Independence.

I remember a haughty customer being dismissive to two BAME colleagues, young women, and turning to me, an old white woman, as if I were a reliable source of information. We talked about it afterwards and all interpreted the customer’s preference in the same way, but nobody asked me to check my white privilege.

I was responsible for books on religion: for keeping in stock the Adi Granth, the book of Mormon, the Pali canon, the Vedas, the Qu’ran in Arabic and English, Tanakh in Hebrew and English and the Stuttgartensia, Douay-Rheims bibles with the Deuterocanonical books and KJV without them; ESV, NIV, Tyndale and Coverdale, Good News and Greek interlinear. Ah. I miss being with so many bibles, I really do.

And I miss the colleagues. Friendships endured but then lapsed a bit, as the years passed. I retired about seven years ago.

Worst of all were the hand held computers we all used for stock-taking and other quantifying tasks. The batteries would run down very suddenly and then all the data would be wiped. We would hasten to the stock room taking the stairs two at a time, to reach the chargers which would preserve the battery life.

The powers at head office purged the lower management shortly before I left; knowledgeable, experienced booksellers replaced by yet less expensive retailers from other industries.

I don’t know how the business works now in the age of Covid. The managers must have adapted to the crisis by conducting sales predominantly online.

I wouldn’t wish to be back, dragging three skips piled up like a tiered wedding cake, towards the rickety lift but I have fond memories. It makes me think that, away from political arenas, people usually get on.

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