Maybe I should have bought a fast red car or had a facelift during my midlife crisis, but instead, I got a job at a bookstore.
I have a peculiar history with bookstores and, in particular, bookstore clerks. I thought you had to be a genius or at least a college graduate to be a bookstore clerk. This was one of those youthful myths that I let flow into my adult life unexamined.
It started in the Seventies. I was 17, living around Hollywood, crashing wherever I could, not finishing high school. There was a bookstore I frequented in Westwood, home of UCLA. It was a late-night place across from Stan’s Donuts, which gave away bags of free donuts at closing time. For hours, I sat on the floor of the bookstore reading (bag of donuts by my side), being totally left alone.
Until one evening the clerk, a Trotsky-looking guy with a goatee and circle glasses (though I didn’t know who Trotsky was at the time), stood over me and said, “Steal that book.”
“What?” I asked, looking up with jelly donut in hand.
“Steal that book,” he said. “You’re clearly a starving student and it’s what Abbie Hoffman would have wanted.”
I didn’t know from Abbie Hoffman at the time, although it sounded like a Jewish name and I wondered why a Jew would tell you to steal a book. “Does he own the store?” I asked. The guy laughed like I made a joke and I admitted sheepishly that I was not a student. Luckily, he was.
Several more visits to the store got me a stash of stolen books, someone to share donuts with and lessons in counterculturalism. Then, one day, my friend was not there. He left for a study abroad program. I was so impressed.
My next extended encounter with a bookstore clerk was at Book Circus, a 24-hour porn store selling books, magazines and paraphernalia next to my apartment in Hollywood. It was 1980 and I was 22. The clerk, a slim guy of about 40 who had the edge of a junkie and the clothes of a cowboy was a Socialist brainiac, who took me under his wing after he caught me cruising the small selection of “real” books, and putting one in my bag. I’d go there when I couldn’t sleep and we’d share french fries and discuss whatever book he gave me to read while most of the store was deeply engrossed in stroke magazines.
I stole books and chatted with clerks until I moved to NYC in the 80s, had children, and went to college for the first time. I was in my thirties and was now too old and had too much at stake to get caught stealing books, even though the first professor I befriended told me she regularly stole books!
At 55, after more than a quarter century as a freelance copyeditor and personal fitness trainer, I thought it would be a great idea to get a job job — that is, a job with set hours and people who were in charge of me and would not pay me for my comments about misplaced hyphens or the command, “10 more reps.”
I wouldn’t admit that getting a job was a diversion, a way of procrastinating, of not finishing my memoir. I was defensive. Getting a job in a bookstore, I reasoned, would help me write because it would bring me closer to books and people who loved them. In my myth-laden vision, I would be the college-educated clerk standing over a young wayfarer, offering recommendations and letting the occasional book be stolen.
Because I had no experience in a bookstore or retail outlet of any kind, my cover letter took a whole afternoon. I tried to make myself sound smart but anti-elitist, one of the hoi polloi. I mentioned my working membership at the Park Slope Food Coop, my board membership at my synagogue and that I was there at the start of Occupy Wall Street.
With my résumé in hand, I went to three bookstores. I was a nervous wreck. For decades, I believed bookstore clerks were better than me.
The indie places with the Trotsky-like clerks didn’t hire me, but a week after I spoke to the schleppy (a sure sign of intellect) owner of the most mainstream indie bookstore in the area, I got a call. Did I want to sell books and be the store’s publicist — for $11 an hour? Sure!
I lasted a month. There were too many computer systems to learn and the young people were way more adept at them than I. The young employees, the kind who, in the Seventies and Eighties, hung out behind the counter reading or discussing books with patrons, now deciphered inventory and sales software, pitched e-readers and promoted books on social media.
Don’t get me wrong: It’s fabulous that indie bookstores are thriving and people still read bound books, but it took acting on my midlife crisis to figure out that the day of the Trotsky-esque clerk and stealing a book as a radical act is definitely over.