My first book, From Hang Time to Prime Time: Business, Entertainment, and the Birth of the Modern-day NBA, took 16 months to report and write. In reality, the book was born almost 15 years ago. On November 15, 2006, I left my editing job and officially became a bookseller at the Borders in East Brunswick, New Jersey.
Before my trade magazine editing career began in March 2003, I had worked at Borders for six months. Then, it served as a helpful stop-gap. The second time it changed my life. When I wasn’t ringing up The Secret and swerving around kids parked in the Manga section, I wrote what I wanted. That stretch of time, which ended when the store closed in January 2008, was transformative. I wrote an essay about the experience in August 2007 called “A Bookseller’s Education,” my first piece for a major national publication.
“Selling books is certainly not a glamour profession,” I wrote in the essay, which appeared in Publishers Weekly. “I’ve been snapped at, lectured to, and dismissed, all of which could happen in an hour. But I’m comfortable in my own skin. I still sleep well every night. I’m not ashamed; I’m not on edge. That’s probably the biggest life lesson working at bookstores has taught me: not one moment or exchange defines you.”
From Hang Time to Prime Time doesn’t get written without my time there. I doubt anything of substance does. Confidence and calm are mandatory when talking to a customer who disdains you as part of their life philosophy. Those traits helped me when I had to convince a literary agent of my value, guide an editor through my vision for the book, and summon the composure to talk to Doctor J.
People typically don’t say you’re a loser. It’s not like having spinach in your teeth, a temporary flaw that can be gently remedied. The evidence slowly mounts until every move you make feels preordained to fail, and most telling, nobody is surprised by the outcome, especially you.
I was 29 years old and racing toward a life of irredeemable mediocrity. I hated that it felt comfortable.
Any youthful potential I had possessed after college graduation had long curdled. I was closing in on four years of editing three trade magazines, where volume mattered more than quality. In symbolism a freshman creative writing student would have called heavy-handed, the office sat next to a graveyard. The lone highlight of the week was the Friday free lunch – usually General Tso’s chicken from the same restaurant, insufficient balm for a quarter-life crisis.
Urged by my new boss, who was appalled by the office’s subterranean morale, I voiced my frustration to the owner. He listened as if I were recommending toner vendors and tabled my pain. Even as I raged and chucked my notebook down the hallway, I knew my two weeks’ notice was inevitable. The game plan came after self-pity subsided.
The Borders across the street from my condo was hiring holiday help. It immediately served as a spiritual detox. Whether I was browsing or working there, bookstores, no matter their size or stature, promised possibilities. In the late 2000s, the internet was feasting on the printed word. I’d shelve wobbly stacks of magazines and carts full of books – they both came in like stormwater in a patchy basement – and feel a hope that dulled the soreness from eight hours of standing. There was room for me.
Not that there was time for dreaming. Working at Borders in one of the strings of strip malls that dots central New Jersey’s glamour-free, car-clogged commerce boulevards kept me busy. It also enhanced my journalism skills. I talked to more people from more disparate backgrounds in my 14 months slinging books in the sterile suburban setting of East Brunswick than in my early years as a reporter and editor. I had to make a total stranger feel at ease immediately – even the one who threatened to kick my ass over an imaginary slight.
That is an invaluable skill for a reporter to possess. I earned it selling Borders Rewards cards – “It’s free, and we don’t sell your information. You get coupons!” – and chatting up customers at the register and counseling the wide-eyed husbands daunted at what to get their wives. A friendly cadence and a slight deference work whether you wear a name tag or hold a tape recorder.
My retail life was no scarlet lanyard. If you derive pride from your job, it doesn’t matter how many zeroes conclude the check. At Borders, I was the best version of myself: charitable, patient, diligent, and charming. I have the same feelings now as a freelance writer and as a husband and father. At Borders, people were happy to see me. I was rewarded for the work I did with smiles and relieved sighs — and the only employee of the month designation I have ever received.
After six years of monotonous, longing-for-the-weekend jobs, I thought validation was a finite resource, something that eroded as you lost hair and appreciated inertia. Borders did more than any byline or book deal could. It offered proof that I was valued as a representative of the written word – and, most importantly, as a person.
—Pete Croatto (Twitter: @PeteCroatto) is the author of From Hang Time to Prime Time: Business, Entertainment, and the Birth of the Modern-day NBA, which was released December 1 by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster. He is the former “Freelance Success” columnist for The Writer.