Thursday, September 5, 2013

why I am returning to a dying industry (and why I feel cautiously optimistic about it)

            It’s probably absurdly apt that I received this epiphany on Labor Day, in the period between receiving my first paycheck and leaving work for the day. The day is meant for reflection and my work—at a large chain bookstore—is, if not meant to be a model of reflection, at least doesn’t detract from it.

            I haven’t worked full-time in over two years, so the response to my title is very simple: I need the money, and of thirty-six resumes and vitas I recently sent out online or hand-delivered, this was the only one that responded. Previous to this, I was a full-time seminary student working toward national ordination in my faith. Prior to this, I was a part-time seminary student and full-time college teacher. In 2011, at the point at which my contract with the state stipulated I must, after working so long at a particular institution, be granted tenure and permanent employment, I was informed, owing to precipitous drops in enrollment, my contract would not be renewed for that crucial final semester. In effect, after eleven years teaching at multiple sites for the state, prisons, public institutions, workplaces, and private colleges, I was being let go.

            Friend asked if I thought it was personal. As my teaching style is a little unorthodox, but effective, there is some cause for the question. But I don’t think so. At least twenty of us at the same institution were let go that semester, and enrollment is down, so I don’t think it was any more personal than any other cost-effective business decision to downsize before costs become burdensome.

            This argument gains traction by the observation that this recession works differently than all others. Whereas in earlier recessions community colleges were a great place to work because everyone went back to school to improve their education, teaching English as I did was a hedge against unemployment—everyone has to take English. But this recession is not like others—industries are imploding, businesses are closing shop, and what used to be the standard is no longer that.

            To return to academia and my job in it would now require my return to post-graduate school and getting a PhD—my MFA, while it is a legitimate terminal degree, is snubbed by Human Resource Managers up to their eyeballs in doctorate applicants—only to have no more promise of work than before and for the same amount of money I previously made, was not an option. But as I was already in a mid-career change to ministry at the point I was let go, my wife convinced me to take classes full-time and work odd jobs in order to finish. I graduated with a Master of Divinity this past May.

            But my faith, which is post-Christian, has been experiencing a downsizing of congregations for years, and while I’ve been locally ordained by congregations I’ve served in the past, and can legitimately call myself “Reverend,” that all-important national recognition requires a year’s internship at a church under an older (and presumably wiser) minister. Most of these, owing to the shrinking of congregations, are unpaid. I can’t convince my wife (or myself) into subsidizing my yearlong unpaid internship, so I need to return to full-time employment. But part-time is all that has presented itself.

            Fortunately, what I am doing is something I enjoy and have done before. I worked for this same chain a decade and a half ago while I was in the midst of one of my previous identities as a professional bookseller.  I worked for six previous bookstores in my history and I have quite a background in knowing my way around a stack of books. Nevertheless, despite my history both with the profession and with this chain, when it came time to determine my pay the corporation determined I was worth the same as someone walking into the job off the street. I receive minimum wage, which admittedly as I work in a marginally more progressive state is slightly higher than the national average, but it is minimum wage.

            So, in my mid-50s, the holder of a terminal degree, two advanced degrees, ordination, over a decade of experience teaching, and nearly a decade of experience working in this industry, I am being paid minimum wage. I make less now, both in real wages and in current pay, than I did when joining this company 16 years ago with less experience.

            But bookstores are dying and no matter how big they are they are dying at the same, and maybe a greater rate than their smaller competitors.  Of the six bookstores I previously worked at, I helped to close three of them. This bookstore, larger than the others I worked for, will probably ride out the future expected decision to close many of the chain’s underperforming stores, but doubtless at a reduced staff and at reduced services and reduced stock.

            Because bookstores are not the only part of this industry that is dying. So is book production (although not writing: between online content, online-only ebooks, self-published books, and traditional book publishing, we are in a glut of writing. We may not be the most literate nation but we are certainly the one that uses reading most often in our day-to-day operations).

            As I reminded a customer who opted against joining the chain’s membership plan by explaining she was “not a reader,” the person who reads but chooses not to is worse off than the person who can’t read at all.  We are a highly literate society that often chooses to be functionally illiterate or perhaps the better term is “un-literate.” We can read we just choose not to (except online gossip items and the occasional tweets by our friends). Readers are becoming more and more an exclusive club that is experiencing a balkanization of its decaying corpse into The Feminine Nation of Novels and further dividing into Post-Apocalypticatopia, Chicklitavania, and Religioficastan. These are separated from The Country for Old Men comprised of Memoira, Currentrightwingidolland, and Kindasciencey, and the same reader rarely visits both destinations. There is nothing wrong with the balkanization of readers but there is something wrong with readers being unwilling to experiment and potentially being surprised by fulfillment from an unexpected source at the risk of being disappointed.

            Publishing, of course, is in decline. Bestsellers aren’t what they once were, and while it’s never clear the multiple copies that people bought of Sinclair Lewis’ Cass Timberlane were actually read, most media behaved as if they were. It may be a good thing that we’ve scaled back our expectations that all those copies of Happy, Happy, Happy have been read cover to cover but we lose something by not having a shared glossary even if it’s Phil Robertson’s mutterings on faith and family.

            One way my chain seeks to offset the fewer-reader future is through the use of a membership. There are good reasons for becoming a book store member, number one of which is an intent to see to it that the bookstore you frequent continues. Perhaps more small bookstores would still be in business had they shifted to a members-only or subscription model. And there are other genuine advantages to membership. But if lose my new-found minimum wage job at this chain it will be because of the requirement that each bookseller sell at least one membership every 50 ringouts. I can’t in good conscience push the hardsell for this.  Most people in the current climate aren’t interested in memberships in anything. They don’t want to be tied into something for which they’ll feel responsible, if they remember they belong, or feel guilty for if they forget. When they work, as with gyms or supper clubs, they rely on a self-selected group that, with the best of intentions, signs up and pays up, and then it’s in the best interests of that facility that the person show up rarely if at all, to reduce costs. When stores have used memberships in the past—in my own experience with a store called GEX or Government Employees Exchange—they have been an abject failure.

            We live in an incredible time when nearly everything ever published and almost everything ever written is available in some form at some price. The difficulty for professional bookselling is, of course, the same as with social services, ministry, education, and other forms of personal service: everybody wants to make use of it and almost no one wants to pay for it. This state of affairs doesn’t portend the Fall of Civilization but it does seem to present a serious case of a Lessening of a Quality of Life.

            I mentioned being cautiously optimistic in my subtitle and so far I haven’t given any reasons for feeling so. In fact, I’ve given nothing but reasons for being unabashedly pessimistic about both bookselling and my role in it.

            It may be that publishers and bookstores will need to completely reinvent themselves and become less purveyors of new books and more producers of smaller, shorter runs and, for stores, sellers primarily of older copies—there are millions of copies of books printed over the past century that no one has ever read as well as copies someone has read once or read a portion of and will never pick up again, and, like clothing, we may need to switch to a consignment economy. This gives me hope in addition to appealing to my punk aesthetic, a reverence for Do It Yourself in terms of, say, repackaging unattractive-looking books with more artistic, hand-made covers made by the bookstore staff.

            But here is what really makes me optimistic. In the short time I’ve been at this new job I’ve had a conversation with a retired truck driver with whom I commiserated over the practice by some cities to drag you along a detour only to drop you on a side street with no indication how to get back to the main highway you started on. I’ve talked with older people who are visiting Las Vegas after a long time away and are concerned about their ability, now that it’s physically harder for them to get around, to circumnavigate The Strip and made them aware of websites devoted to their questions. I’ve made an older woman, asking in a sad voice for books about grief and getting on with life after a death, laugh a real, full, belly laugh.

            The afternoon I was most depressed about my age and low wage, Labor Day, I was approached at the register by a woman and her two children. The girl had gotten a fortune cookie with her Chinese lunch that said “Treat yourself to something you’ll enjoy,” and that was a book. They were younger kids, perhaps around four and six, judging from the books they were buying. They were learning, their mom said, to pay on their own and they had crumpled bills and pockets full of pennies.

            A short line of people formed while I helped them by smoothing out each bill and counting pennies with them but no one seemed in a hurry. I took an extra three minutes, perhaps, to check out the two kids separately so each could experience the accomplishment of buying his and her own book. I cannot explain or emphasize enough how good, how like ministering to them, this act felt to me. If there are holy acts in retail, this was a holy act.

            As they left, the boy stepped back to tell me that he really, really liked the book series he bought and that he intended to read all of them. I thanked each person who’d waited in line individually and several of them took an extra moment to smile and say they appreciated the time and care I took with the kids.

            Yes, I was indoctrinating them into bourgeois, consumerist society, teaching if only indirectly that the shiny new thing will soon turn into just so much something-in-the-way they don’t need. While it doesn’t guarantee the two of them will become avid readers, the opposite likely would have dissuaded them from that. In addition, I helped them have a positive experience with books and that itself cost them and me and no one in line nothing. That is worth celebrating.

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