Wednesday, March 19, 2008

How I Became a Bookseller

Note: This blog is part of the American Bookseller Association's blog carnival, a collection of posts on a particular topic. Links to all the "How I Became A Bookseller" stories will be available on the ABA Omnibus on March 25, 2008.

I've always loved books. Some of my earliest memories are sitting on the couch or at the kitchen table learning how to read. Both of my parents began their careers as teachers, so books were an essential part of my upbringing. They had shelves filled with hundreds of books and I always was trying to read far above my reading level (in first grade I told my Dad I wanted to read his copy of James Michener's "Hawaii"). So, perhaps it was inevitable that books would become a important part of my life.

During my sophomore year at the University of Utah I chose to live on school loans and concentrate on school, but once summer came around it was time to get a job. I had worked in a variety of jobs over the years- landscaping (mainly digging ditches for sprinkler systems), bag boy at a grocery store, dishwasher at a restaurant, delivery driver, clerk in an office supply store, a library attendant in a genealogy library, and an order picker in a warehouse. There had to something out there, I thought, that was better than any of these previous jobs. The question was- what was I qualified for? What could I do?

I spent the next couple of weeks reading the newspaper help wanted ads, talking with friends and acquaintances, and wandering malls looking for the job that I would love, would work with a school schedule, and pay fabulous amounts of money. One day, while wandering through yet another mall, I saw a help wanted sign in the window of a local bookstore, Deseret Book. I ran through the door, waited impatiently at the counter for an associate to help me, then asked for an application. He handed me a sheet that had room for my name, phone number and my previous employer, really not much of an application. "Fill this out and the manager will call you for an interview later this week."

I filled out the "application" then continued my search through the mall. "Everyone must want a job at a bookstore," I thought. "There will be so many people who apply, that I'll never get a call." Meantime, I got a call- from another place I had left an application. I made an appointment for an interview the next day.

The next day, I sat through an interview for a job that would have been perfect. It was at the Union desk at the University of Utah. It was a student position. It didn't pay remarkably well, but it was better pay than at many other part time jobs I had investigated thus far, they would work around my school schedule, and I didn't have to leave campus and travel to another location. It was almost perfect. I walked out of the interview feeling pretty confident that I would get a job offer.

That evening I got a call from Deseret Book. "Can you come by for an interview tomorrow?" asked the manager. "Yes!" I nearly yelled into the phone. "Great. Be here at ten o'clock and ask for Scott."

The next morning at about nine o'clock I received a phone call. It was an offer of employment at the Union desk at the University. I thanked them for the offer and told them I had another job offer I was going to accept from a bookstore. It was a lie, combined with wishful thinking. Now I was going to hell for lying and the punishment would begin by getting turned down by the bookstore. Needless to say, by the time I got to the bookstore at ten, I was fairly nervous.

I asked for Scott at the front counter- and that is where the interview turned weird. Scott came out, shook my hand, and then instead of inviting me back to his office where he could conduct a quiet interview, he took me out to the center of the mall and sat down on a bench. He explained the position to me. "Does this still sound like something you're interested in?" he asked. I agreed that it was. He handed me a three page packet, a clipboard and a pen. "Please fill this out as best you can and I'll be back in about twenty minutes." He got up and left. I sat there looking at a test.

The test listed authors and wanted me to name books the authors had written. Then it listed books and asked me to name the authors. It wanted me to alphabetize a list of ten authors by last name. It gave me a title and author and asked me to match the book to the section of the store it belonged to. Then it gave me a scenario where I'd just sold a book for $13.83 and the customer gave me a twenty- how would you count back the change?

I felt pretty good. I knew the answer to almost all the questions and finished the test a few minutes before he returned. He quickly corrected the test, told me I had done pretty well, and talked with me a few more minutes about my retail experience. At the end of the conversation he told me that there were several candidate he was considering and would be calling each one by Friday to let them know if they were being offered a job or not. "If you haven't heard from me by Friday at noon, please call me." He pulled out a business card and handed it to me. I took it, looked at it, then looked again. My heart sank. "Your last name is Laga?" I asked. He got a big grin on his face. "It's been a long time, hasn't it, Drew?"

Scott Laga had been my second grade teacher.

He remembered me because I'd been such a hellion in his class. I had to take
daily status reports on my behavior from Mr. Laga to my Dad. I knew I wasn't going to get the job. I even considered calling the manager at the Union desk, confessing my sin of lying to him and begging for the job.

That Friday morning I received a phone call from Scott. "Drew, let's let bygones be bygones. Would you like a job at the bookstore?"