Saved by Books

Working in a bookstore didn't make me rich, but it brought me back to life.

By: William O'Sullivan

Eleven years ago, I Accidentally started a second career. Few people know how important it was to me--after all, it was only temporary. Even I'm surprised at my fondness for it, given how difficult my life was then. But that's the funny part about hard times: What you remember later are the things that kept you afloat.

I'd just finished graduate school, assuming I'd return to the magazine-editing career I'd put on hold. Unfortunately, the economy had its own plans. No one was hiring.

I was knee-deep in student loans, I was borrowing rent money from my brother, my résumés filled the recyclers at every magazine in town, and I had writer's block. I was so depressed that I watched Thirtysomething to cheer up.

Thank goodness for bookstores, the last refuge of the overeducated down-and-out. One day I saw a help-wanted sign at Chuck & Dave's, a bookstore in Takoma Park. I'd always fantasized about working in a bookstore. I could live my dream for a few months until an editorial job came along.

I stayed two and a half years.


At 28, when friends were well into lucrative careers, I was making $5 an hour. But I spent my days around books and people who loved them.

Customers came in looking as though they were straining to identify a face in a crowd. "I'm trying to find a book . . ." they'd start. "It's got an orange cover. It's about some tragedy--a shipwreck or a train accident? Maybe an epidemic."

It usually turned out to be a purple book about a malpractice suit or a beige one about a family reunion--"That's what I meant!"--but when I found it, I felt like a matchmaker at a wedding.

I loved unpacking shipments. There was nothing like a book before anyone else had touched it: the jacket's waxy finish, the knuckle crack of the spine, the surprise of a new title by a favorite author, a brilliant opening line by an unknown.

My job was status-free, but it had some power: selecting books to display among the new arrivals or putting up my staff suggestions. Jamaica Kincaid's blistering book-length essay A Small Place, Dennis McFarland's sad and loving novel The Music Room, Bill Bryson's hilarious travelogue Neither Here Nor There--I wanted others to experience what it was like to lose myself in them.

I enjoyed mornings when I opened the store--vacuuming the floor, setting up the register, greeting the pizzeria manager next door. And shutting down--waving goodbye to the last customer leaving with a birthday card for a party that night or a book she'd been waiting for all week. I felt like a small-town merchant from another time and place. Only this was a small town; I was a merchant. It was real life.

I became so attached to my new identity that when I was offered a higher-paying but short-term job that would have left me unemployed after six weeks, I stuck with the bookstore. I could barely pay my bills and got pitying looks from successful friends, but I felt oddly secure. And I was smiling again.


I left when I got a job processing special orders at a Borders store. I worked there for another year and was thinking about abandoning journalism when a magazine position opened up and I was hired.

Today when I tell some colleagues I worked as a bookstore clerk as late as my thirties, they change the subject, as if I must be embarrassed: my skid off the career track. What they don't know is that I'm proud of my days putting books into people's hands. It's a noble profession, and like a good book, it lingers.

This article appears in the December 2000 issue of The Washingtonian.