Tag Archives: bookselling

Underearning and the power of shame

There’s a really well-written post about being the low-earner and the power of shame here.  It’s an issue I’ve been struggling with ever since I left the practice of law, back in 2009 when I had my Big Fat Nervous Breakdown.  Managing a bookstore is not mucho moola (frankly, it is a joke, and I wasn’t a manager all that long, either), so while new job is a raise, I’m still not even close to what I made as a law clerk out of law school.   It is, though, a much better way out of being underpaid and living for the rest of my life with my dad– it’s a more solid career path/skill set, as well as work at a company with real, solid growth and demonstrated commitment to internal promotion, not to mention actual morals and, y’know, customer service.

I was ashamed to have quit my job, to have quit it unprofessionally, to have not understood why I hated it so very much, to have not been understood by anyone who was
“supposed to” instinctively love and support me and maybe shake me by the shoulders and say “OH MY GOSH, YOU’RE DEPRESSED, TAKE SOME TIME OFF, I’VE GOT YOUR BACK” in the midst of my panic when it was something I didn’t get and was trying so damned hard to hide because– who’d love a failure?

I was ashamed that I was depressed and not earning money (for all of three months) and not going to work when I had all of this college and (now essentially useless) graduate school debt.  I was ashamed that I might turn in to my mother, who used her own depression and divorce as an excuse to not work most of my life, a fact that is a huge barrier in my relationship with her, and a huge trigger for me in my responsibility kinks, because I feel like I have to be the grown-up all of the time because my Mom never was.

Formative Childhood Traumas (TM) aside, though, I was ashamed that my husband had to pick up my slack (what kind of feminist was I?), even though he’d been un- and under-employed for several years of our marriage, during which time I’d been the bigger wage earner– and at no point had I felt too resentful toward him because eh– shit happens and we didn’t live in an economic boomtown/boom-region.  I did have the occasional what, you couldn’t have at least cooked me dinner, if you’ve been home all day kind of feeling.  I’d like to think I didn’t voice that feeling too often, I know I didn’t push him too much or pick fights just because he was underemployed.  Maybe I should have.  Who the heck knows.

TL; DR: I was ashamed to have failed at my legal career, just like my parents had failed at their academic careers due to their depressions/etc., and panicked that I was never going to find my way out or be worthy of regard or merit.  (By my husband, who had had his own period of unemployment, which I didn’t fault him for all that much, and by my parents, whom I sometimes faulted and sometimes didn’t and yet, still held their opinions important.)


I was nevertheless proud, in the midst of my shame, that I was getting my ass out of bed to go to my bookstore, and proud that they basically hired me the minute I walked in the door.  I was proud that for all that my pay was shit, I could help people, was the smartest girl in the room (Emotional Trigger #2),  and was making it through every day pretty soon without feeling like I was a complete useless sack of shit whose depressive and suicidal tendencies made her utterly worthless and unworthy of love.

Except, well, you know, when I was frustrated with work and wanted to vent, I got shut down because I was “stupid” to be frustrated about it.  Because, you know, crazy people aren’t allowed to have feelings of annoyance and frustration, because they’re being unreasonable.  It’s a fallacy of logic by the non-crazy, by the non-underpaid– if we “accept” shitty pay at shitty jobs, we are required to suck it up and be quiet, because if we aren’t at a place of complete, total mental health like every one else to get out of our shitty jobs, then we should just shut the fuck up, because the frustration is only what we deserve for our craziness, laziness at not going back to our real vocation, or whatever other faulting-thought-process is going on in our own minds or that of the people who judge us– not just ourselves.

I’ve always held the “you never know peoples’ story” party line, and never tried to judge my bookstore coworkers, many of whom are as smart or smarter than I.  If they lacked ambition to start with, were disorganized or addled or as burnt out or sad as I ever had been?  I got it.  I wasn’t going to call them a slacker.

But all things come around to Monty Python, and I wasn’t dead yet.  I got better.  And as I got better, my frustrations with the mundanities, the mediocrities, the inanities that were part and parcel of the job got to me because– I might not be the most emotionally level of gals, but I have an idea about the right way to do things most of the time, and if you just let me at a problem, 95% of the time, I’ll solve it, the right way, on time.  Ride my ass about it and insist I do it the One Corporate Bullshitty Way?  Yeah.

I lost patience, in short.

I lost patience, too, with all my fellow smart/depressed/unambitious/slacker/burnout fellow underearners, and started to feel very much as though I was not only not getting paid enough for this shit (all too true) but that I hated all my coworkers because none of them were doing their jobs and I had to pick up all the damned slack.  It’s not a good place to be in, both for me and my responsibility kink, not to mention anyone who wants to avoid acting like a defensive jerk to their coworkers;  plus, as I must always remember, because this is my Golden Rule, you never know everyone’s story.  If you can’t confront/fix other people, and you can’t fix yourself to fit the situation, there’s only one answer.

(Cue George Thoroughgood and the Destroyers guitar track…) “And out the door I went.”

It took me four and a half years to get to that point, and only after working myself up to ask for a promotion to shitty retail manager pay (GO, ME, I CAN MANAGE GERBILS ON WHEELS) and then running around being pulled in 60 directions for two years, feeling frazzled and under-appreciated, not just underpaid– and all the while, feeling ashamed at doing something below me and angry at everyone who was telling me it was below me because– they had no idea how hard it was to go to work some days instead of just slitting my wrists– not to mention?  Retail is hard, because people?  Are fucking moody assholes.

Getting promoted to manager was a pretty big fucking deal, even if the pay was bupkiss.

It took almost two years as a manager before I “learned” (got mouthy about) to stand up for myself because other people weren’t doing their share, and I deserved to work at a company whose larger management structure (not my store team, per se) was less brain-dead, more interactive, more customer-friendly, more interested in the employees as actual people and not churns through the mill.  It wasn’t graceful, and I wouldn’t do it this way again– but this was literally the first time at work where I’ve stood up for myself and said– “Um, no.  This is crap, what you’re pulling, I’m going to find something else and go there.”  Will I avoid the what I suspect was a retaliatory “performance” IP the next time by being more gracious in my 360-degree feedback, or just learn to keep my mouth shut?  Maybe.   The fact still was, though, I managed to say ENOUGH without blowing everything up at the same time.

That I’d been meaning to get the hell out, anyway, and lit the fire under my own butt in the process because I was/am TERRIFIED of doing “real” work in the “real” world with people who have expectations of me beyond the minimum competent threshhold?  Eh.  I’m not forty yet.  I’ve still got time to learn to stop flailing.

And I’ve got a few more pennies in the bank account.  Not a lot, but a few.

I’m still underearning, but I no longer feel– underdeserving.  And I can only feel joyful for that, at that release from that shame, and the relief at knowing– I did that, all by myself.

It would have been nice to have had some help on the way– to have had encouragement and belief from others before things got to an almost-crisis, and not some sheer dumb luck and flailing and the lucky fact that I’ve got some raw talent around the crazy, but– I’ll take knowing, for sure now– that I did it all by myself, and now I know– I can do it again.  (And, again, my coworkers have their own stories, some of which have nothing to do with me at all.)  And while yes, it sucks that I am currently having to live with my dad because I made the Classic Stupid Married Woman’s Mistake (no separate savings, no emergency fund) and I have a shitload of educational debt to pay down– there are worse things.

I might have to mostly do it myself, but by the same token, there’s no one to tell me I’m doing it wrong because that’s not the way they’d have gone about things.

And that– that’s both priceless, and mine.

Work: an embarrassment of riches…

… at least when it comes to book titles.  Some of the recent observations I’ve made in the course of my daily management and bookselling rounds have included the following future non-fiction bestsellers.

  • Toddlers & Terrorists Never Negotiate– Why Bobby Won’t Listen and Other Lessons in Child-rearing from a Life in Retail.
  • Why am I on the floor (and other existential questions)?
  • Is it whiskey time yet?
  • Just Because It’s a Public Bathroom Doesn’t Mean You Don’t Have to Flush (aka, I’ll define “disgusting” for you…)
  • Bookstore Organization Hypotheticals:  A proposal for merchandise management by book color, presence of an animal/flower on the Cover, or occurrence of articles such as “the,” “and,” or “or.”  (The Endless Table Proposal, aka, there are five books in print that are blue with dogs on the cover, and two that are green, with pink flowers.)
  • It’s Called Overhead, Dumbass: If You Could Remember What it Was Called, You’d Already Have Bought it Online
  • Managers Cry When You Don’t Alphabetize
  • Manners are for Customers, Too: Hands off the staff, and keep your thoughts and your eyes to yourself.  (aka, Tell me to “Smile, sweetheart,” one more time and I’ll deck you.)
  • Cameraphones and Copy Machines: How to Take a Picture of Your Work Schedule So As to Avoid Your Manager Waking You Up and Everyone Being Generally Unhappy
  • Pay First, Read Later.  (aka, No, you cannot “borrow” the paper and sit in the Cafe for six hours and then not refold it properly, you goddamned cheap slob, aka, it’d be a great job if it weren’t for the customers, aka academic libraries run on the stack system have the right goddamned idea because if I find any more porn in with the Bibles, I’m going to scream.)
  • How Dumb Do You Think I Am?  Adventures in Attempted Returns.
  • Can I help you? A guide to manners, inside voices, and not knocking things over for adolescents and teens.
  • We Don’t Throw Things, We Wield the Banhammer: A remedial course in manners for parents who let their children throw property-damaging tantrums in stores.
  • Soy Milk is Not a Constitutional Right (Yes, There’s an Upcharge)
  • Lift with the Knees and Use Lots of Lotion: A Work Safety Guide to Avoid Backaches, Paper Cuts, and Contact Dermatitis
  • The Police Only Come When You Steal
  • Found Money: The Life of a Lost and Found Box

Exeunt, silence

One of the “symptoms” of there being something wrong, mood-wise, is that I’m being too quiet.  Not responding to things at all, or in too flat a way.

One of the other “symptoms” is the opposite, of course– I overreact to stuff that does deserve some kind of reaction, but because of my formative personal bullshit, I can’t help but be loudmouthed and less than diplomatic about it.  (Histrionic, even.)

The balance between not rocking the boat (and feeling stifled and hating myself for stifling myself and letting others stifle me, too) and blowing the boat out of the water by overreaction, because telling the truth as I know it, right now, still apparently seems to be too critical/disdainful/sarcastic/over-expectant of the rest of the world and therefore not fair.

I find it hard to really give a shit, much.  I spent thirty five years mostly keeping my mouth shut and not asking for stuff, and all it did was make me miserable.  I didn’t get what I wanted, I didn’t save or heal anyone.  Even myself.  All I did was make myself angry, and get increasingly furious at everyone else for not seeing how angry I was.

It would be nice to learn how to tell people to slow their roll when they’re triggering my stuff in a way that isn’t aggressive or critical or whatever confrontational and judgmental words my therapist’s using this week that make me feel like a bad person who needs to shut the fuck up.  (And yes, I need to tell her that her choice of language is making me feel self-hateful.  I need to talk to her about how it’s important that we discuss perception versus intention.  I need to talk to her about how her vagueness bugs the shit out of me, because I feel like I’m answering wrong, and that can’t be right, because it’s my goddamned therapy.  I haven’t gotten there yet.)

It would be nice to learn to not be triggered at all, to be more zen about stuff and not take things so personally, to just have fewer extraneous feelings in general– but I know that this is a hope, not an absolute likelihood, and that while there are some things I’ll find my zen about, some day, and therefore won’t overreact when someone hurts my (at last not too many) feelings, so that I can make the decision of whether to be diplomatic at all and say nothing, or find a clear way to say– “That bothered me, even if you didn’t intend it that way.”

My parental emotional modeling pinballed between silent sulking after explosive rages at whatever some other had done wrong to hurt, to perform badly, to reflect poorly, to just not do something timely, to fail to anticipate some unarticulated demand for something a child shouldn’t have had to ever have guessed.  I understand that, on a theoretical basis.  I resent the hell out of the fact that all criticism is inherently destructive to me because being valedictorian was a given and an A was greeted with “Why didn’t you get an A+?”  I will probably never forgive that even though I was relieved as hell that my mother moved to California because she is exhausting even over the phone, the explicit reason she did it was because I wasn’t going to give her grandchildren.  (Oh, yes she did.)

I know I need profuse recognition and thanks to a ridiculous degree– and that when it’s given, I don’t believe it, because it wasn’t given to me when I was small, and if the people who were supposed to love me before I ever could have fucked anything up didn’t love me, give me those things, then clearly, there’s some flaw in me that everyone else just hasn’t seen yet.  I believe I am not worthy of love, because I couldn’t fix the people who should have loved be first, best, most.  I can’t accept praise, because I am waiting for everyone to see whatever else will happen when the other shoe drops and I screw something up.  And then I screw something up, because I can’t stand waiting, and I am so angry that they haven’t given me praise so far for not fucking up that I get depressed and angry and anxious and cease to function– and all the while, can’t just say “I need an attagirl for doing stupid, basic adult things today, please.”

(Although, I did try, with my husband.  He thought it was stupid to need validation for accomplishing basic shit he himself was erratic at doing, and he didn’t/couldn’t hear the underlying message I couldn’t say/didn’t understand yet, which was that I was drowning and basic things were what kept my head above water.  And he thought I was wrong to be angry about the things I was angry about, even never having experienced them for himself.  I was angry for being told that my feelings were wrong and too much and that I was a bad person for thinking that way.  I may have overreacted to his failure to empathize with me, but at least I tried to tell him, unlike my parents, who never fucking listened in the first place and still can’t hear me, and so we will always have distance between us because I am not going to try to bridge it.  I will not get burnt trying to cross it again.)

I’ve been working my way around trying to figure out what to say, what to think, about this work thing.  Because I opened my mouth about my boss not knowing her job, and now I’m being punished.  Because I took a week’s vacation and the store went to shit.  Because I came back and did what I always did, and now, of course, grapevine says for 2000, Alex, that the boss thinks I’m “doing better” which is either code for regretting getting into it with a lawyer who said “Fuck you, prove it, write it all down” and now she doesn’t have anything to write down, or she realized the place will burn down the minute I leave.  (Clue, I am leaving, as soon as I can.)

I had a panic attack yesterday, pretty bad, brought on in the short term by my dad’s bitching at me about driving in the snow– because of course, I’m an idiot who crashes her cars on a regular basis and maims drivers on the road left and right and can’t shovel for shit.  (Here’s a clue.  No, to all of these things.)  Of course, the panic attack in the long run was about two things.  The first was about said boss’ silence/failure to give “feedback” now that I’d been back a few days and busted out projects the same way I always did and wondering whether I was going to walk into a shitstorm of “Hey, you still suck” today.  (I didn’t, and she couldn’t even have the conversation about me doing a good job with me, either; it was held indirectly through her favorite lackey, instead, which lends credence to the hohfuck, what did I get myself into theory, and lends credence to my opinion that this is all punitive shit.)

Which doesn’t make me feel badly, in general principle, for saying she sucked at her job.  Because it’s the truth.  And she wouldn’t have heard it except bluntly.  And she doesn’t intend to do anything about it, regardless, but I have no tolerance for people who prefer mediocrity to sharing information and developing people beneath them, and if that’s disdainful then, well, fine, it’s disdainful.  She’s not a bad person, but she wants things her way.  And I’m not trying to be mean, but I am trying to make things work the best way, and if the only way to get that message across is to be blunt, then if someone else interprets that as me being mean, well, it’s both our problems and it’s time for me to get the fuck out and find some coworkers who can handle the truth.

(I’m too idealistic.  I know.  Maybe I just need to start prefacing all my interviews and cover letters with “I’m radically honest” and see where it gets me.)

The second thing the panic attack was about was more complicated.  It was anticipatory, because I didn’t send out any applications while on vacation, and have only heard back from a few places where I wouldn’t want to work anyway.  I don’t know if it’s that my resume screams overqualified or boy is she burnt out or what, but the lack of responses to the dozen plus applications I’ve made has me feeling like– maybe my boss is right and I really do suck.  Even though I know that I don’t, and not just because I have pride and work my ass off, but because when I walked back in the door on Sunday, everyone in the store who wasn’t manager-class had something to say about thank all-fuck that I was back.

That doesn’t mean that I didn’t still feel hella anxious and procrastinatory about sending out more job applications, when I still have no idea what would be a good fit, I am on a deadline, I am still working my way back up to an effective dosage of meds, and other miscellaneous low level crap that all adds up to a heaping pile of hypervigilant crap to watch out for.  That doesn’t  mean I don’t feel panic at starting over and over and over again, and worry about taking the first half-decent offer, only to find myself in the position of needing to start all over again in another half-year or more.

All I can do is try and be obnoxiously loud about it to everyone, including me, from the start, and hope, over time, that I’ll learn to still say what I need, but just– pare it back to polite essentials.  Not silent ones, though.

Once again, into the med OD breach…

I’ve been having some… conflict… at work with my manager, such that it’s become clear to me that it’s time to get out, and not just because I’m being judged “lacking,” some of which may or may not have any merit since the industry’s shrinking, I have a big mouth when I’m displeased about stuff, and there’s no doubt in my mind that while our store will be fine, our state and our district is going to be impacted by recent sales trends, such that there will be extra managers with more seniority than me and not enough stores.  All of which is, more or less, objectively fine.

It’s even all well and good, because this job was one that I took to get me out of the house and over the hump of “I’m a complete failure because I had a nervous breakdown over being the wrong kind of litigation attorney and not being able to see a way out.”  I still feel like a failure, kind of, but I don’t have that same rush of blood to the face and faint feeling when I say, if people ask about what I did B.B. (Before Bookstore), that I’m a “burnt out trial attorney,” or something along those lines.  Burnout, nervous breakdown, complete misfit of sub-occupation with mental disorder– whatever.

Do I still have any idea what the hell I want to do next?


I’ve identified: work fewer nights & weekends.

The intimacy of bookselling to people with whom you can share knowledge and help, and the joys of working with fellow nerds all to the side, retail work sucks.  Retail management sucks even harder, because turnover’s a bitch, customers too, and you keep repeating the same patterns over and over again (also, the same displays of the same types of books.  Save me from the January displays of books featuring what I call “Brand Name Bookstore Thinks You’re Ugly, Needy and Fat.”)

I don’t know if it sucks more or less at a big or small store– at a small store, there’s fewer people to hate more intensely.  At a big store, there’s more people to be annoyed by and bitch about behind each others’ backs, all the while doing nothing to improve the overall situation and, you know, rise above mediocrity and mere corporate ISO.  Just do it the way the honcho above you wants it, that’s all.  Don’t, you know, think, or try to pay attention to other things.

So, yeah.  It’s time to get out.  And I know that.  That doesn’t mean that it isn’t stressful, or that I’m not incredibly anxious.  Because– while I have made a few thrashing motions toward a job search, none of them have been in earnest, and this has had to light a fire under my ass because– even if things work out under the “plan” my boss and I have come up with, there’s no goddamned way I am staying, because IMHO there were sneak-attack tactics involved because she doesn’t want 360-degree criticism from me about shit she’s supposed to be handling.  Nope.  I’m just supposed to be managing all of the things, and only be getting paid for 1/3.

Which is all a long way of saying I’ve been anxious as hell, loading up on my prn anxiety meds a little more than I ought during the day so I don’t burst into tears at work, sending out applications like woah (and getting the beginnings of responses, which is hopeful) and otherwise just feeling like SHIT, I NEED TO GET A MOVE ON.  And, y’know, not sleeping and feeling like physical crap.

Which is hard to distinguish from an impending overdose on a medication, which is something I figured out I think I’m having this morning.  It’s been a few years, but you don’t just get unexplained neck/jaw/shoulder muscle tension and clenching, on top of the lack of sleep, general anxious/snappish/labile feeling and that elephant sitting on top of my chest– that muscle clenching is a symptom of psychotropics– and one I’ve had before, though it’s been almost four years since the last time.

It’s not a symptom of an OD anti-anxiety med, thank the gods of medication and whiskey.  But it is a side effect of the SSRI, and I’m hesitant to continue taking it in a half-dose or at all because I remember my OD on lithium and abilify as being very,  very distressing– borderline suicidal– and really quite physically painful as the meds continued to build up in my system.  I left a message with my shrink, who hasn’t called me back yet, but on my own initiative I’ve upped the anti-epileptic I take as an adjunct to the SSRI and skipped the SSRI tonight, in the hopes it’ll get some of the muscle tension and drug out of my system.  I can always take the anti-anxiety drug if I’m feeling angry/weepy– but I remember feeling on the border of hallucinations/paranoia and the closest I’ve come to psychosis with the lithium OD (stuff at the edges of my vision) and that’s something I don’t want to repeat.

Not when my boss is already looking to boot me out the door.

It never rains but it pours, and whether the stress from work triggered a mental state that made the meds stop working, or something vice versa, I so don’t need this ourobouros conundrum right now.

The one blessing in all of this, hah, if it can be seen as such– my dad had a bipolar girlfriend who was way more crazy than I’ve ever been.  I have been on an off schedule from my dad the last couple of days, but I can tell him tomorrow that I’m a little bit worried about how crazy I am at the moment, and can he please give me reality checks– and I can trust that he will, unlike my husband, who was either afraid to confront me or didn’t really understand what was going on with me until it was too late and I was deep in a bad place.  Dad, at least, while a little more likely to be over-critical, is at least willing to say I’m being nuts.  I don’t always agree, but at least he tells me– and if I ask him for help, I think he’ll listen.



ETA, the following morning– even crazy-people instincts are good ones.  One night off the drug and I already feel far less stiff.

Some days it works out alright…

I’ve worked in a bookstore long enough that I could write a whole parodic blog called “If Customers Organized Bookstores.”

There would be an “It was on NPR” table, a “Oprah Wrote It, It’s Called Tale of Two   Cities” table, a “My Daughter Saw It Up Front Two Months Ago, It Was Blue,” table, a table that ran the whole length of the store that’s called “It’s a true story, it got a good review in one of the papers a few weeks ago,” and a “Where’s the travel section” neon sign.  Also, I’d get rid of the bathroom, and there would be, at the very, very front of the store, the only store-directed table.  It would be full of pens and paper and books explaining how to use the texting and camera functions on one’s cellphone/blackberry/competitor e-reader product.  It would have a sign that read “Notes, jerkwads, learn to make them.”

But occasionally a lovely 80-something grandmother comes in, like one did last week, and wants something new for her granddaughter.  Then, I get to recommend the Sisters Grimm series and D’Aulaire’s Norse Myths to a woman who’s delighted that I suggested nothing with cliques, or makeup, or what was popular this month, or what we just had the most of, but instead listened to her say that the girl loved Percy Jackson and Nancy Drew, but that her parents weren’t big into buying her books.

Today, she came back with the granddaughter to get more D’Aulaire’s– and the rest of the Sisters Grimm books.  And then I got to make them a pile of all my favorite books that a smart eight-year-old-girl could probably handle, and the girl went hog-wild over the basket we built her and spent all her gift cards on books.  (And all she’d asked for for her birthday was gift cards.  For books.  A kid after my own heart, I tell you.)

That’s when I am tempted to write a blog called The Radical Intimacy of Bookselling, because sharing what you think someone might like and having it work– or having it help, if that’s the problem?

It’s worth all the requests for that blue book with the dog on the cover, no, not that one, the other one, no, the other other one.  (For the record, there are at least four in stock in our store.)  And by the way, the bathroom’s disgusting.  Clearly, the employees are at fault.