A History of Love (of Bookstores)

April 16, 2014 | 2 books mentioned 6 4 min read

I have a long string of past loves, but they’re all bookstores. Depending on what you count, I’ve worked at 8-10 bookstores in the last 13 years. I mark time by which bookstore I was working in the way some people do by where they lived or who they were with, such that my bookstore resume starts to take the shape of a relationship history. Each one attracted me for different reasons, affected my life in different ways, and taught me different things.

My first love: I was a car-hop at a drive-in restaurant all through high school (and the answer is no, I did not wear roller skates), but I was looking to smell like ketchup less of the time. When my dad took me to college to begin my freshman year, we drove through the town and I spied a bookstore from the van. “I want to work there,” I said, unknowingly voicing a wish that would change my life. I did, miraculously, get a job there (I’ve never since seen anyone with so little experience or skills get a bookstore job with the “I love to read” gambit, and I have seen scores try), and started work before I started classes.

coverAs with any first relationship, I was pretty clueless about it and they were accommodating. I hated talking to customers, I read books for class at the register, and I didn’t know who wrote The Corrections.

The rebound: In true rebound fashion, my second bookstore could not have been more different than my first. The store was big, academic, so busy that I had knee problems, and staffed — as my coworker put it — almost entirely by “lazy smart kids.” We had all just graduated from Boston’s various prestigious colleges and didn’t feel like getting real jobs, so we hand-sold Cloud Atlas and talked about this new show Arrested Development and were generally the coolest.

coverMy favorite day at that store was when the power went out for a few hours but we didn’t close. We experienced booksellers manned the computer-less information desk, answering questions using only our amassed knowledge of books in print. It was like bookseller thunderdome, and I have to say that I killed it.

As much as I loved my new bookstore, I was still hung up on my first love. When the fifth Harry Potter came out that summer, I told my boss I wasn’t available, and went to work the midnight release party at the place that still felt like home.

My first serious relationship: I was only there for 3 months before another store wooed me away with the promise of something more serious — and we got serious really fast. I was hired as the assistant events director, but before long I was writing the newsletter, creating the window displays, and redesigning web pages. My life became inseparable from the bookstore. When my shift was over I would stay for upwards of an hour just talking to my coworkers, I was always there on my day off, and outside of my roommate my entire social life was the bookstore.

Those were the golden years of my bookseller life. I eventually left to start grad school in Ireland, but a part of me always wonders if I should have stayed, if I didn’t realize how good I had it. Isn’t your first serious relationship always also the one that got away?

The fancy man: When I moved to Dublin I got a job at my first chain bookstore. I knew I would never really love it, but after Boston it was nice to have something impersonal, uncomplicated. I got a uniform, long breaks, and low expectations. It had no character, I had no emotional involvement, the branch I worked in closed after I’d been there 4 months.

My one-night stand: Listen. We all have things we’re not proud of. When I first moved to Dublin, I got called in for an interview at a charming one-room store that employed one person at a time. I had coffee with the manager and convinced him that working at his store would be a dream come true for both of us. When he called me a day later to offer me a job, I told him that I’d already committed to the fancy store. Four months later, when the fancy store closed, I rang his bell again. He mercifully offered me the job a second time, and I started work. On my lunch break that first day I visited another bookstore a few blocks away and hit it off with the assistant manager. I think you already know that my first day was also my last. I never asked him for that job a third time. We’re not in touch.

The abusive relationship: Things didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped with the bookstore down the street. The store was managed bizarrely and in ways seemingly designed to be dehumanizing, but for all that the job paid implausibly well, and 2008 was a great time to be making euros.

Plus, the draconian leadership fostered camaraderie among the staff, and I stayed for that (and the money). We stashed boxes of cookies in random corners of the store, hid in the children’s section to talk about 24, and went out together all the time. We were required to wear all black, and my fondest, most vivid memory of that staff was when we all went out after closing on one of the first warm days of spring. We stopped at an ATM on a busy pedestrian street and, surrounded by Dubliners busting out their shorts and sundresses and florals, the 10 of us stood in head-to-toe black waiting in line to get beer money.

My Grecian fling: I’ve had some good times. After extricating myself from the bookstores in Dublin I spent 2 months in Greece, living in the back room of a bookstore in exchange for a few hours of work a day. I was there during the off season, and on any given week there were 2-5 of us splitting the already light responsibilities, which meant that some days all I did was go to the beach and read Proust. At night we would go to the market, cook dinner, and spend the evening drinking the island wine and playing Shakespearean mad libs. To paraphrase Rachel Green, “I think there was a bookstore. I know there was wine.”

Working in bookstores always felt more like a lifestyle choice than a career path — it’s both why I loved it and why I moved on. But here I sit, sifting through a decades worth of complimentary bookmarks and memories like Grizabella the glamour cat, grateful for how lucky I was.

Image via the author

is a staff writer for The Millions. Janet is a freelance writer and semi-professional baker living in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in The Awl, The AV Club, the Chicago Reader, and Chicago Magazine. She is the co-host of YouTube's The Book Report and blogs about presidential biographies at At Times Dull. Follow her @sojanetpotter.


  1. I worked in a book store during my undergrad years. The pay was pretty lousy but it was the discount and the atmosphere that kept me on for a few years. Hand picking a book for someone and seeing the excitement and anticipation of a new book in their eyes as they walk out the door, that was golden. I also met my first serious girlfriend through the book store. Books have given me so much. Great post.

  2. There is this wonderful book by Spanish author Jorge Carrión called “Librerías” (Bookstores) that you should read. I hope it gets translated very soon. It’s beautifully, passionately written. It recounts the history of several famous bookstores and reflects upon what we may be losing as these are closed one by one all over the world.

  3. Loved this article! Cleverly done and made me desperate to somehow get to my favorite three bookstores in Chicago simultaneously.

  4. I’m scratching out a living in various Boston bookstores. I’m dying to know what your rebound was! (it sounds familiar…. would love to know if I’m right).

  5. Don’t wait till your local bookstore closes before you realize how much you’ll miss it. I know Borders is no mom and pop store, but since ours has closed, I wish I could go there every couple of weeks.

    But now it’s gone.

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