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I Was A Barnes & Noble Bookseller

Yesterday I applied for a job at Barnes & Noble. The last time I’d done so was when I was 21 in 1996, after my my mother interrupted an afternoon spent watching Tom & Jerry.

“I think we should have a dialog about your plans for getting a job,” she told me.

“It begins,” I thought.

But I couldn’t argue. She was right. I’d graduated college a year early, and as a reward I was allowed to take the summer off. Now it was October—back in 1996, Octobers were cold—and I’d stretched my vacation time to the limit.

I was a bookish kid, so a job at a bookstore made sense. I filled out an application at a Barnes & Noble, and before I could say “Oprah’s Book Club,” I was answering the phone like this: “Good afternoon, Barnes & Noble! This is Heather, how may I help you?”

Usually the person on the other line would be looking for a bestseller—”The Celestine Prophesy”; “I Was Amelia Earhart” (a surprise best-seller thanks to Don Imus’s on-air recommendation); “Chicken Soup for the (XYZ) Soul”; and anything by Tom Clancy were among our biggest hits. And sometimes the callers would be weirdos, like one guy who would growl, “Do you have ‘The Story of O?’” “Pervert!” I’d yell, and hang up. Then I’d go try and find “The Story of O” on the shelves.

The crew was originally a lot of fun—mostly kids my age, which wasn’t surprising. What was surprising is I liked spending time with them. I normally shunned anyone my age for fear they would shun me first. But we were all bookish, the management staff was laid back, and since it was an older store there was no coffee section and therefore no one had to deal with cappuccinos.

Then overnight a new regime invaded. Where once we had been led by Tim, a man who was the object of an unrequited crush by Mary from Peter, Paul, and Mary, now we were under the thumb of Gertrude, who was more “Rude” than “Gert.” (And she even wrote erotica!) Gertrude brought her equally unfun-loving cadre, and the job went from your usual retail gig to practically life and death if you couldn’t find a book.

Spies were everywhere. I got called into the office once for making fun of a phrase we had to use: “Pub No.” It meant that a book was out of print. Once I said, “Pub This!” instead. Someone in management heard me.

I was making $6/hour, and a year later I got a raise to $7/hr. I quit. And then ended up working for Barnes & Noble Books in 2002.

But that was a long time ago. Ten years after my first day as a B&N salesperson I gave up a potentially—well, if not lucrative, perhaps stable—career as a children’s book editor for the life of a freelancer. Hence this article. And my application to another Barnes & Noble … 22 years later. This time I had to apply online. I haven’t yet gotten a response, though maybe it’ll be “Pub No.”