bookshops

For Love or Money

So even though when I started at our indie bookstore a month ago I was told that full time was very unlikely, possibly not until over a year from now, if ever, I’ve been offered full time. When the boss sent a message on Sunday asking if I could meet her in a couple of hours for a chat (and was kind enough to include in her email that it wasn’t anything bad), I suspected the offer, though I don’t know why. Just an exciting thought.

And when she put it to me, saying she couldn’t afford to hire me full time but she also couldn’t afford not to, in light of what I can and am contributing, in light of the fact that we are short-staffed, I wanted to interrupt her by shrieking YES! But she knew that, of course. She put up her finger and said, “I want you to promise me you’ll go home and think about this. That you’ll talk to your hubby about it.”

Yes, yes. I needed to consider several things: one, I would be taking a major paycut and making minimum wage, about a hundred bucks less per cheque. Since we’re both practically working for peanuts already, we really can’t afford this. And working 40 hours, I wouldn’t have much time for freelance copyediting for more money. I also needed to consider that I would be leaving what is a relatively secure job for a totally insecure one. The store is currently surviving pretty much on school purchases alone. It’s the same story as everywhere else: bookshops are in jeopardy. It could close in a few months, and then where would I be?

And so on.

I dutifully and then seriously hemmed and hawed, then. When C asked me over supper what I preferred, to be happy in a job or to have money, I actually struggled with the question. We’ve been through financial hell and are slowly coming back. Sort of. And while I would be working at a bookstore, would I be able to afford buying books anymore?

The thing is, while fear grips my heart about losing our small but beloved house, about having to cut out yet more things, if possible, about perhaps losing the job and trying to find another one in this crappy town (it took C almost two years after being laid off); while the (purported?) threat of all bookstores being inevitably doomed grows in my mind, what keeps overriding that is how I feel when I’m at the store now, how I feel in comparison to how I’ve felt at all my other jobs…possibly ever (and I’ve had a ton of jobs).

Matilda. ©Quentin Blake

I’m very happy at the store, surrounded by books, overwhelmed by books, to be honest. I love browsing the shelves, meeting and chatting with people who are buying or searching for something new. People who read excite me. I love seeing what’s coming out, what’s going back. I want to know, to absorb everything, all the knowledge and know-how. I want to constantly be enveloped by the fragrance of books. Even in a bookshop I’m called weird. I am like a dog—I sniff every book upon greeting, with various reactions. But they also call me Matilda, after Roald Dahl‘s spunky young bookworm. (Previously unbeknown to them, I use a Quentin Blake Matilda bookmark, so this new nickname makes me doubly happy.)

Being happy, not noticing the hours, not wanting to leave, not wanting to miss a day, being really good at what I do, and fitting in with confidence, finally—that all counts for something huge, in my mind.

And if you’ve read my about page, you already know that having my own shop is my goal. I’ve tried Chapters, the library, publishing. I wasn’t happy in those jobs for various reasons. Until I started working at the indie, I truly thought that maybe I was wrong in thinking I wanted a career in books. Maybe I was simply supposed to buy and read and collect them and then have something boring to do for 8 hours a day, five days a week. Believe it or not, I’ve actually been told as much. But that’s depressing! I refuse to believe it. So I started my blog, just to have something more to do with books, and I attended more author signings (and that’s how I got the job at the indie!). I don’t want to separate passion and work. I want work to be less…work.

I’ve been at our indie now almost two months and I’m surprised to find myself still smiling and happy no matter what time of day it is there. I’m not disenchanted, not bored. True, I work there only two days a week. But I simply seem incapable of being unhappy around books. If there’s a person who’s tiresome or a coworker in a bad mood, I have those books. They’re like…better than people.

So. I am surrounded by books, I get to talk about books, and I like my coworkers. Now, too, I’m beginning to recognize regulars, the ones who come in for their daily paper or the mom and tot who kill time but always buy or order something. People are starting to come to me for suggestions, to trust me even though I’m the newbie. Giant points for that. I am content being in an indie selling books freely without people breathing down my neck about what I can and can’t do. If I want to change a display that’s been around for a while and that isn’t selling, I can. If I want to be creative, host an event, try something new, all I need do is ask, and the idea will be considered and usually simply given the go-ahead. It’s all confirming that, yes, ideally I would like to have my own bookshop. I still dream of Biblio all the time. I LOVE that place in my head. I always see myself milling about with customers, discussing their choices, pouring their tea, suggesting what to read next and placing books in their hands, making up gift baskets of tea matched with books, sponsoring events, comparing notes with customers, making them happy. I am always grinning ear to ear. At the end of a busy day, I’m sitting at the staff room table, cupping a mug of tea and feeling utterly content.

Idealist? Of course it is. Of course I am. Of course I’m also afraid I’m setting myself up for disappointment. I’m afraid that it’s not feasible. If bookstores are not going to survive, my life might as well be over. I have no other desire, no other ideas. As drama queen as that sounds. I mean, I don’t know. Maybe I could move to the country and open an animal sanctuary or something. Animals are my second love. Maybe I could move to Yorkshire and tend pigs and horses and sheep.

Books make me happy. This one came from England as a b-day gift from my sister: a boxed Pippi Longstocking, illustrated by Lauren Child.

If my goal is to open my own shop one day, then this experience is perfect for me. It’s good training. In five years, say, or less, I want to be an expert on books and their publishers, on ordering and receiving, on knowing how an indie works as opposed to how a library or Chapters works. I want to be on a first-name friendly basis with publicists and the rest of the industry people an indie deals with. I want events to be plentiful, teeming with delighted people. I want to keep the paper book culture alive—not only alive but kicking. I want success. And mostly, I think, I want to be where I fit, doing what I do best.

So I’m saying yes to full time at the indie in spite of the things that niggle at me: the money issue, the security issue, the horrible dread of telling my current boss at the clinic. Maybe something will happen where money isn’t so much an issue. Maybe the store, which will celebrate it’s 30th year in a couple of m0nths, will surge forward and prove everyone wrong. And my current boss will get over me.

I’m saying yes because I’m tired of choosing based on money. Because being me I have to choose passion and potential and ultimately hope (mainly that bookstores will prevail) over everything else in order to feel some sense of fulfillment. Love over money. I know it’s horribly romantic. But it also makes sense considering what my goals are and what I’d face otherwise—stagnation, dreary days of laundry, booking appointments, listening to patients go on about their ailments, etc.

The thought of taking such a leap, the sense of feeling I’m finally starting life (at age 36 no less), is weighted with the thrill of risk, but also the promise of potential, achievement, experience, and, most of all, joy.

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20 Comments

  1. Ah, this post made me so happy! I know deciding between money and happiness can be a huge issue. When I decided to try to give freelance writing a go I was scared out of my wits. Two years later I’m still not making much and often make the decision to go back to retail. Luckily the hubs put a stop to that every time, reminding me how unhappy I was.

    My motto is this: While we need money to survive, there’s no sense having it if that’s all were doing, surviving. Really living life with less money is so much better.

    Hugs

    Reply
  2. YAYY!!!

    Good for you! You’ve found something you’re passionate about. And you get to do it full-time! Not too many people get to say that.

    Sure, it doesn’t pay much. But job satisfaction like that is priceless!

    I think you’re gonna love it.

    (Well, I think you already do…!) :-)

    Reply
  3. JK

    You went for it! I’m so happy and so proud that you took this huge leap. I can imagine it’s terrifying, but it’ll be wonderful. And heaven knows the store has a better chance at hanging on now with a new, full time superstar employee! Congrats, Steph!

    Reply
  4. Steph Author

    Oh you guys. I don’t know if I’m just becoming a softie in my ancient years or it’s just really your kind and supportive words, but TEARS!

    THANK YOU.

    Colleen: Your motto is perfect. I too had a supportive hubs when I decided to quit my job and freelance edit. Because it’s not a regular paycheque, I’ve gone back to work full-time and done the editing on the side. But there was one time when I decided to go back to full-time editing, after the library, and he supported me, even though I was plunging into inconstant pay and inconsistent work and leaving one of the best-paying jobs in Belleville. An unhappy wife is an unhappy hubs. :) I LOVE your motto. So true.

    Friar: DUDE! I didn’t know you were still reading here. Cool! I’ll have to read something you’d actually like and review it! Haha! Thanks, bud, for being so supportive. I appreciate it. I know how you in particular feel about job satisfaction. :) And yes, I do love it.

    Jen: You’re awesome! Thank you for your high praise. I’m blushing! I hope I can really do the store a service, and yes, it is terrifying but fun at the same time! LOL! Thank you for being proud of me. It means much.

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  5. Brett Legree

    I am so happy for you, Steph – you are truly doing the right thing. There are many things I could have chosen to do earlier in my life that would have led to happiness over money, but I chose money.

    Even so… with a bit of faith, which you have, it will all work out regardless of when we start. I don’t think it is ever too late.

    The best “job” I ever had also paid the least – about 1/3 of what I make now, actually. But you know, it didn’t matter…

    Reply
  6. Steph Author

    Hi Brett! Thank you.

    And that’s the thing: when you’re having fun and feeling pretty fulfilled you can put aside the rest of the stuff. My hairdresser said to me today: “Love what you do and the money will follow.”

    Yeah!!

    Reply
  7. Brett Legree

    Hey, I’m right here cheering you on – because I know this works.

    I have a pretty bad cold today, and yet, I still got up at 3:30 to work on my business – registered it – then worked out before going to work, because these are two things I love doing.

    The money will definitely follow, but in the mean time, I plan to have fun, as you are doing. Setting this up is much more interesting to me than random internet/channel surfing…

    Reply
  8. Steph Author

    3:30?! Okay, no. 7:30 is hell for me. 3:30?? How do you get any sleep, enough sleep?

    You’ve got your priorities straight, anyway. I admire that immensely. I know there are some changes I need to make yet. I’ve started walking more but I need to also take time for shutting down my mind and doing nothing at all, so I can focus and stop being so busy and overwhelmed. I like a sense of control, not the struggle for it.

    Reply
  9. Brett Legree

    :)

    I simply go to bed when I’m tired and don’t worry too much about what time it is at night when I do – and I time shift everything.

    Anything that I would watch on TV, I can record it or “find it somewhere else” (*arrr!*) – I can then watch it on the weekend during the day or early in the evenings before I go to bed – or even early in the morning, I’ve done that too. But I am choosy…

    So it gives me a lot of time other people might not have. Same thing with reading, I read in the morning sometimes.

    And yes, walking is a real gift for sure – usually that is one of the last things I do every day, and most days one of the first too – it clears the mind and I get a lot of my best ideas while I am walking.

    I suppose you’ve hit upon the most important reason why I keep such an early wake time – control.

    I give the very best part of myself to “me first”, not to my employer. I’m not sure that they would agree with this, but I don’t care.

    I found it was too difficult for me to get much done of any significance by getting up, “working for the man”, then coming home and being a husband and a dad to four kids, then trying to work on my own personal projects.

    So I work on them first thing every day, before I do much else.

    (Today being Saturday I took the time to respond here first while waiting for my tea to steep!)

    Reply
  10. Liz

    Congratulations on your decision to do full time at the book store. Finding that kind of happiness at a job can be rare, and I truly believe that it’s more valuable than the money you’ll make doing it.

    All the best.

    Reply
  11. This isn’t the first time I’ve thought, “God, Steph could be my personality twin!” Everything you said makes such clear and perfect sense to me, like I would have said exactly the same if I were living your life. And, hey, I’m envious! I sometimes daydream about returning to Tassie and opening a book shop – probably with a cafe, because the combo works so well (but not a chain one!). I tried publishing for a year and I didn’t care for it either, but I got to work weekends in a second hand bookshop and that was great – there wasn’t a whole lot for me to do but it was so much fun when people came to me and asked for a book they couldn’t remember the name of, and I got to hunt it down online; or recommend similar books …

    I thought about applying for a job at Chapters every time I was unemployed, but the people at Chapters know bugger-all about books and they barely get paid minimum wage – which reminds me, your story about being out of work and financial woes, that could be our story as well. I mean, that is our story as well! We finally have semi-stable, reasonably well-paying jobs but we are so tired all the time, and they are so unfulfilling. We often have discussions about work satisfaction, about the economy and hell, the state of the human race! To have the opportunity to actually do something that makes you happy…!!! It’s becoming increasingly rare.

    So when I say I’m glad you decided to take the poorly-paying, unstable job at the book shop, I hope you know I totally get the thinking and concerns behind the decision and I think it was the right one.

    Plus, you’ve got so many great ideas for the shop, and can really draw people in. Themes! I come across plugs for indie book shops on other people’s blogs and they often talk about the displays of, say, Scandinavian literary murder mysteries – that one stuck in my head because it sounded so cool!

    Reply
  12. Steph Author

    Thank you very much, Liz!!

    Brett: You sound very much in charge, and I like it. Also, if an employee doesn’t realize or recognize the importance of employee me time, they’re stupid. Everyone knows a rested, happy employee is a more productive one. Working them to the bone or forcing them to make work their lives is simply counter-productive and unintelligent.

    Shannon: Your comment makes me very happy. Isn’t it amazing how people attract like people into their lives? It’s so satisfying to have others truly understand what’s going on, what I’m trying to communicate. I’m really glad I have that in you.

    You’d get tired of Chapters very quickly. It’s not challenging in the right sense and it’s too corporate and unbookshoplike these days. An indie is your best bet, if you can find one near that can hire. But I do understand the need for money and making decisions based on that. I guess I’ve just come to the point at which while it matters greatly, I don’t feel as though I’m progressing, which was the point, and that matters even more.

    I love the idea of you opening up shop and cafe! My focus will be tea but coffee will be served as well. I read somewhere too that people are still opening up bookshops but they’re making them boutiques: high end stores like Bookmarc, whose owner is fashion designer Marc Jacob. They’re combining books with other elements but not an overabundance of them and not kitschy stuff. I believe people still want books and will always want them; paper books, I mean.

    Reply
  13. bee

    I’m so excited for you, Steph. Reading how you feel about it, there was really no other option for you but to take the full-time job. It is where you are supposed to be right now. So many people spend their whole lives chasing a dream of being as happy at work as you are right now. Living on less money is difficult, but when you are doing what you are supposed to be doing in life, amazing opportunities always come from it. Who knows, this job may well be the lead up to Biblio. Try not to worry about it, and just enjoy it. The survival of indie bookshops depends on people like you! (Not to put too much pressure on you or anything.)
    By the way, I took a 65% pay cut when I came to work here in Canada, so I can understand your concerns about money. But when you’re happy, things have a way of working out.

    Reply
  14. Hey Bee,

    I’m writing from my sister’s, so even though it says Therese, it’s me, because I’m too lazy to type all the info for me!

    Thank you so much. Your words make me feel much more confident about my decision! I especially like that you said this is where I’m supposed to be.

    PS. 65%!!

    Reply
  15. “Jump and the Universe will catch you”. I have no idea who said that, but I like it.

    I also like what you’ve decided. To me, it seems like an obvious choice, but of course, I’m not the one taking the jump.

    Congratulations.

    Reply
  16. Em

    I’ve just started reading your blog and I love it…
    Congratulations! I think one makes the good choice when choosing happiness over money (and money becomes less of a problem when one is happy).
    Good luck in fulfilling your dreams!

    Reply

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