On the worst and best things I was asked to do during my summer at a Waldenbooks.
There are all sorts of reasons for those us who care about literature to resist creating or reinforcing any strict or clear dichotomy between “literary” (or “highbrow”) and popular literature, but perhaps the most significant is this: such a dichotomy simply doesn’t stand up to any knowledge of actual literary history. Some (if not indeed the vast majority) of the most consistently canonized and studied authors, those whom we most associate with “literature” itself—from Shakespeare to Dickens, Dante to Flaubert, Hawthorne to Faulkner—were deeply concerned with popular success and sales; even those authors who were more overtly and famously ambivalent about those questions, such as Emily Dickinson, tended (as did Dickinson) to hope for an audience, to work to find one, to seek publication. To write, in many ways, is quite fundamentally to entertain those hopes and goals (among many others, of course); and while they mean very different things for distinct authors, eras, genres, and situations, it’s simply inaccurate to suggest that they are relevant only to certain “popular” genres or authors.
Yet if you spend a few months working at a Waldenbooks, as I did in Lexington, Massachusetts in the summer after my junior year in college, you do come to see some of the least attractive sides to the business of popular literature. Waldenbooks, like its main competitor B. Dalton (both of which are no longer in business, forced out mostly by Amazon.com), was a prime example of what I would call “mall bookstores”—small stores designed not for browsing or discovering, and certainly not for reading or lingering, but for finding and buying the moment’s most popular books. And one of my weekly jobs at the store reflected those priorities with particular force—I was provided with a list of particular books to pull off and our shelves, those that were not selling well enough; and when it came to the mass market paperbacks on the list, I was asked moreover to tear over the covers, return only them, and throw the books themselves away, guaranteeing that they could never be legitimately re-sold. It was a genuinely painful thing for me to do, piling all those books in a giant trash bag each week—and it felt like the ultimate illustration of what a bottom-line mentality can mean for bookselling.
That mentality was clearly driving Waldenbooks as a corporation—hence my other least-favorite required role, asking every single customer if they wanted to buy one of our frequent buyer cards and being rewarded or penalized depending on how many I sold. But it didn’t necessarily drive my daily interactions in the store, my conversations with the customers, and in fact those interactions tell a very different story. Time and again I would be asked to recommend new authors or books, to build on an existing experience (“I really enjoyed book X,” “I’m a fan of Y,” and so on) and help a customer find new passions. The experience allowed me, after a few years of studying literature in an academic setting, to remember the core of the literary experience: pleasure reading, the enjoyment and power that creative works of all kinds can and do provide for us. And it reminded me that at the heart of popular literature is neither sales nor publishing, nor the bottom lines of corporations, but the enduring and vital nature of that experience, on an individual and a communal level. Sure, I would have loved to keep all those cover-less books and leave ‘em in boxes out front, to find new readers as well; but Waldenbooks renewed my faiths in reading and in books much more than it undermine them.
Final summer job connection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Jobs in and around the literary or writing worlds you’d highlight?
6/28 Memory Day nominee: Esther Forbes, the talented and prolific novelist whose children’s books, set both in her native Worcester (MA) and in some of the most significant eras of American history, won her numerous awards and have continued to find an audience into the 21st century.
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