Saturday, August 1, 2009

on the good and bad of being a bookstore rat

When I was little, I read a book about Degas and the Paris Opera Ballet. The only thing about it that I remember (aside from the reproductions of pastels, which I found boring... I've always preferred Degas when he plunges things into shadows or sketchy charcoal rather than his diaphanous, light-filled ballerinas.) is that they call the students of the ballet school "les petits rats." I don't remember why they call them that, but assume that it's because the little dancer children sometimes resemble rats scuttling down corridors.

Which is sometimes how I feel when I'm at the bookstore. (and the fact that I got started on that rat thing is just evidence of how dance entrenches itself in your brain if you let it, ready to spring into action at the most barely tangible suggestion.) I scuttle back and forth between the shelves, ferrying books to their respective sections, climbing ladders into corners, sometimes (but less frequently than you might imagine) answering questions for customers ready to admit that they can't find what they want, and rarely, but most happily, doing my best to produce the book that will satisfy someone's heart's desire.

A friend of mine recently asked how working at a bookstore affects me as a writer and a dancer, and I have to say that it's really not much different from any other not-too-ornerous part time job. There are very nice things about it. Being around people who believe in books, listening to authors talk about books, being forced to look at books on subjects and in flavours that you would never glance at otherwise. There are not so very nice things about it as well. Extricating yourself from awkward conversations, getting scolded by customers for your failure to remember every book mentioned on NPR in the last six months, interpreting the usual lapses in organization and communication, waiting, waiting, waiting.

It's interesting to be surrounded by books, and particularly interesting to see the ones that are new, or suddenly remembered, or strange but inexplicably popular. I've had a more varied reading diet since working at the bookstore, mad veering from Ogden Nash to Ian McEwan to men who play out their mid-life crisis in stamp collecting. But you also have the usual mix of fun and unpleasantness that comes with helping people spend their money. It's retail (though admirable, worthwhile retail), and I can't say that it contributes to either the dancing or the writing (except that I stay up too late too often and am often tired), unless you count the experiences that always come along with interacting with other people.

Though I think the scuttling has improved. I may soon develop a stoop and misshapen pockets from trying to squish too many bits of paper into them, and then I'll really feel like I belong in The Wind in the Willows.

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