The books chose me

Working as a bookseller has unintended perks, such as stumbling upon titles you may never have picked up before.
By Megan Kaplon | Published: January 6, 2013


An aspiring writer working in a bookstore is a giant cliché. As my friend said when I told him about my job: “Loves to write, works at a bookstore. I’m reserving the movie rights.”

Yet, faced with clothing retail or foodservice positions because writing and editorial jobs were scarce after graduating last May, selling books didn’t seem so bad. Besides, there had to be something luring those other aspiring writers to the bookselling field. Perhaps a publishing company would someday be impressed by my ability to recite the bestsellers from July 2012, or at the very least, I’d collect an intimate knowledge of what books and magazines sell and maybe even develop a hypothesis of why they sell so well.

But mostly, I hoped that creative genius would be contagious and that by being in close contact with centuries of writers’ work, I would find it suddenly easier to realize this writing dream of mine.

As expected, I spent hours a day in the stacks handling books, moving them into and out of overstock, alphabetizing and sorting by subject but I contracted no writing-genius infection. I was no more inspired to put pen to paper than in the month immediately after graduation when I first began channeling all my writing efforts into creating a unique cover letter for each job application.

Working at the bookstore did have an unexpected benefit, however. Whenever damaged titles arrived in our shipments, we could take them home – after we reported the error to the vendor and requested a replacement copy, of course. So instead of choosing my own reading material, my literary entertainment became a victim of chance, determined by the long precarious journey of a package from a giant book warehouse in Tennessee or Pennsylvania or Georgia to our store in downtown Boston.

One week I read a squished copy of Jaycee Dugard’s memoir A Stolen Life about her 18 years in the captivity of a cruel kidnapper. Next was Chad Harbach’s baseball-inspired Art of Fielding, the back cover slightly ripped. Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time with the top right corner of the cover missing still sits on my coffee table half-read.

Before college, I considered myself solely a reader and writer of fiction. Four years later, I emerged into the professional world a wannabe magazine writer with little more than my course materials as reference. After five months in the bookselling field, armed with ripped, water-damaged, crumpled and advanced reader copies of novels, magazines, memoirs and biographies, I have become so much more open and aware of the writing styles of a variety of authors and genres. Dugard’s secret is her ability to inhabit the psyche of the person she was at each stage of her story; Harbach’s is a skillful touch for weaving the stories of an entire community into one emotional narrative, placing just as much weight on the tenth character to be introduced as the one on the opening page. I can’t say that just by reading a wider variety of material I can now mimic these authors’ styles and generate copy that perfectly blends their talents, but without knowing of their existence, how does one ever choose what kind of writer to become?

I’m no longer a bookseller – one of those labored-over cover letters finally worked out – but I harbor the hope that all my receiving, stocking and inventorying has paid off, and I’m a carrier of this writing-genius disease, the infection lying dormant, ready to burst forth.

Megan Kaplon is a recent graduate of the Writing, Literature and Publishing program at Emerson College and now serves as editorial assistant for The Writer and Volleyball magazines.

 

“When I started working at RJ Julia it felt like coming home to be in this sort of environment. It’s really important to me to be in a place where people love to read. It’s a hard industry but to be around people with a passion for writing and reading is really encouraging.” ––Courtney McCarroll, freelance writer for Daily Nutmeg, New Haven, Conn., and bookseller at RJ Julia in Madison, Conn.

“Being surrounded by books and the constant influx of new titles has taken the pressure off the whole illusion that your book is going to sell well or not sell well. That’s not what is important as a writer. It makes me want to write more than ever, and it’s not because I have any illusions that I’m ever going to be a bestselling author. Now I fully understand how high the stakes are and how difficult that is. And that’s not what the writing process is about. ” ––Susan Coll, author of Beach Week and other books, events and programs director at Politics & Prose Bookstore, Washington, D.C.

“I think Stephen King said that for every book you write you need to read 1,000 books, and I truly believe that. I have the luxury of having to read for a living – it’s part of my job – and when I discover something great, it sets the bar higher for me. Every time I discover something good I think, God, I wish I’d said that. I wish I had chosen those words to express that feeling. I find that challenging and inspiring to be surrounded by beautiful language every day. It’s like living in a library.” ––Susan Savory, artist and blogger and children’s book buyer at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore, Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.

“I definitely do more reading now. Working in a bookstore helps you realize what is cliché because if you see something all the time you don’t want to write what is common and all over the place. It makes you be more original.” ––Evan Allgood, writer and bookseller at Bound To Be Read Books, Atlanta, Ga.