News & Politics

Saved by Books

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

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.

Senior Managing Editor

Bill O’Sullivan is senior managing editor; from 1999 to 2007, he was a features editor. In another lifetime, he was assistant managing editor. Somewhere in the middle, he was managing editor of Common Boundary magazine and senior editor at the Center for Public Integrity. His personal essays have been cited three times among the notable essays of the year in The Best American Essays. He teaches at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda.