Thursday, April 8, 2010

Not a Public Library

   Do you know how people say that teachers are underpaid? It's painfully true. Ever since I started teaching, I have always had to work at least two or three jobs at the same time in order to support myself. I don't have expensive tastes or anything; my biggest extravagance is buying a mocha Frappuccino at Starbucks once a week. But since one (or even two) part-time college teaching job is not enough to pay the bills, I have to work additional jobs.
   One job I had a few years ago was as a bookseller. In several ways, being a bookseller was okay. I got a decent employee's discount. I got to work with books. I got to help out at booksignings and listen to interesting authors talk about their work. Every once in a while, I'd get to chat with a friendly customer about the books that he or she was reading, and they'd ask me to recommend a book that I liked.
   After I started working there for a while, I was able to recognize the regulars. The thing about a big bookstore chain is that they let people hang out for hours and read books without paying for them (as long as they don't leave the store with the books they haven't paid for, of course). I admit that when I have time off I like hanging out at bookstores too. But more often than not, after poring over a book for a while, I'll save up the money and buy it if I really like it. But from what I observed as a bookseller, many people treated the place more like a public library than a bookstore. Even though booksellers generally don't mind if you read the books without paying for them, at the same time it is important to have some paying customers. The reason is that part-time employees in particular are more likely to get more hours of work each week if more people are buying stuff. And we need those hours.
   One girl used to come to the store almost every day and read books, though I don't remember her ever buying anything. I didn't really mind her, though, because she was quiet and stayed out of the way. And she always put the book she was reading back in the right place. So customers like her were okay. But what bothered me were the customers who would sit on those stools that employees like me needed to use in order to reach the books on the higher shelves. Even after I sometimes asked them politely to move so that I could use the stool, they'd just wait until I was done and then take over the stool again. Or other customers would actually stretch out on the floor as if they were at home or something, and other customers would have to step over them because the ones lying down wouldn't even try to get out of the way. Then they'd scatter the books all over the floor or put them back in the wrong place, so that if a paying customer wanted one of those books, it'd be that much harder for a seller like me to find it. And I'd get blamed for not being able to find it.
    People often complain about rude cashiers, and I will admit that there are rude cashiers out there. None of the employees at the store where I worked, however, were like this. The cashiers there worked hard, and they all went through rigorous training. Not to mention there was always at least one manager around supervising us to make sure that we treated each customer with respect. But some customers who were on power trips thought they had the right to treat us like crap. One guy kept insulting me in order to make his girlfriend laugh, and she did. She thought it was hilarious to see my face turn red when he kept making fun of me. Another guy used to come in the store all the time; he'd pull dozens of books off the shelves and then tell the employees to put them on hold for him, but he'd never buy anything. Then he'd come back the next day and do the same thing. Once when he handed me a stack of books to put on hold, he said, "You know why you're stupid? Because you're slow in the head, that's why." And I hadn't even said anything beyond hello yet. Another guy got mad because I accidentally tore a small edge of the book flap on his book when I was ringing it up; I offered to give him a discount or get him another copy. His response? He started yelling and cursing me, and he kept calling me a jerk in front of the other customers. And it was all I could do not to cry and to keep working.
    Many people would ask me if I knew what time the shoe store or the restaurant down the street opened or closed, and rather than walk for about three minutes and just see for themselves, they'd insist that I ask all the other employees until I found someone who knew the answer. Other customers would get upset because they couldn't find a certain magazine and threatened to shop at another store because The Economist wasn't where it was supposed to be.
     I stayed with this job for months because I needed the money and I needed the health insurance. I was able to get health insurance as a part-time bookseller, but not as an adjunct instructor at any of the colleges where I was teaching. I kept telling myself that it was all part of the learning experience, but there were some times where I wanted to stand up to one of those mean customers, if only just once. On my worst days, I wanted to scream at one of those customers who treated me like I was their own personal tour guide to Chicago; I wanted to say, "Open a freaking map and figure it out for yourself, BITCH. I am NOT the expert on Chicago." But I didn't. I kept working instead.

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