What Working at a Used Bookstore Taught Me About Literary Rejection
“Try this. If you don’t like it, I’ve got more.”
I think every aspiring writer should work in a used bookstore. For a little while, at least. If nothing else, the ego death is electric.
I am lucky. A fellowship after my MFA has left me with all kinds of time to write and live out this romantic dream job. Ensconced in an Ann Arbor institution, The Dawn Treader Book Shop, I happily Sisyphus stacks of dusty secondhand books. There are whole swaths of the store’s floor I’ve never seen, buried since I started. Always more shelving to do.
“We get new books every day,” I tell people, disappointed they can’t find exactly what they want. At least once a week someone asks for Beloved, Dune, or The Secret History. They’re impressed when I say I know we don’t have those. Since everyone’s looking for the same books, I’ve already checked.
To best enjoy yourself, I recommend you treat a used bookstore like a flea market or Target. The place tells you what you want.
A couple customers encounter our glut of Dave Eggers paperbacks.
“I had to read that in high school,” one tells the other. “I hated it.”
Is there a German word for being surrounded by stacks of once-feted, now forgotten novels piled in a deeply haunted basement wondering, “What if this is where my book ends up?”
Three years of German in high school didn’t offer an ample enough vocabulary. Thankfully, English has a word for this: sadness.
A customer demands a book recommendation. “Something good.”
“Sorry,” I joke. “Fresh out.”I find a book by my undergrad professor. It’s inscribed with a lovely personal note to someone named Katherine. I guess she didn’t want it anymore.
They’ve never read Toni Morrison, but we rarely have her in stock. The late great’s works rightfully take flight whenever one finds its way to our store.
“She’s fantastic,” I say. “Won the Nobel Prize in ’93.”
The customer dismisses this. “The Nobel Prize,” they say, “is for all those fascists and pedophiles.”
I assure them Morrison was neither.
In the basement there are oodles of Andre Gidé (pedophile), and no shortage of Knut Hamsun (fascist). No one has ever asked me for either.
Which books end up at used bookstores? It’s an interesting equation. Many are stamped with Oprah’s insignia, bedecked in “Finalist” stickers, or slathered in shiny blurbs. Popular or lauded enough to be distributed widely enough to be beloved by some and rejected by indifferent others.
A used bookstore deals in extremes: the dollar Dover Thrift Dickens to be skimmed before a Literature 101 exam and the prohibitively expensive artifacts (say, a $7,500 first-edition Tibetan Book of the Dead). Glass cases house the latter under lock and key. As used booksellers, we’re used to treating books as bricks—very pretty, sometimes sentimentally valuable bricks. To be disappointingly mercenary, we’re not in the business of getting people to read books, rather getting people to buy books.
When acquiring for the store, I eliminate the shoddily self-published, the waterlogged, the violently bigoted, the umpteenth Joyce Carol Oates. We’re looking for something someone might someday cherish, but someone else needs to give it up first.
My agent and I agreed: don’t tell me anything until the book sells.
After months of waiting, I asked for the answer I already knew.
The book did not sell.
I listened to “I Wanna Get Better” by Bleachers 17 times in a row.
I was getting ahead of myself there, wasn’t I? Imagining my little debut perched precariously between John Irving’s minor works and mountains of Thomas Mann.
The bookstore acquires a signed first edition of a friend’s debut, complete with slipcase. I whisk it home, afraid he might drop by the store and see it priced below MSRP. I can’t ask him how it would feel to see his book there. I don’t know where it came from. It appears unread. I read it. It makes me cry.
I find a book by my undergrad professor. It’s inscribed with a lovely personal note to someone named Katherine. I guess she didn’t want it anymore. I tell myself maybe she died, but that doesn’t make me feel any better.
My favorite customer comes in each week looking for her next read. While we really do get more books every day—college kids selling back their assigned readings, the morose middle-aged donating the libraries of their parents recently passed—seldom do I find something I know she’ll love, or even something I’ve read.
“Oh, thank god,” I say aloud, unearthing a battered copy of Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day from the bottom of a box of civil war histories and Bill O’Reilly. I hide it behind the register for that desperate moment when a customer asks, “Got any recommendations?” and my mind goes as empty as my inbox.
What am I doing? My boss estimates there are 100,000 books in the store, including all the duplicates in the basement. I’m baffled to see folks leave empty-handed. There are more books here than there are people in this town, and you couldn’t find a single one to take home? Not that I’m apparently helping.
I decide to read every book in the store.
Instead, I look for books we have in spades. Something short, always in stock, and good enough to recommend without pandering or condescending. I’m surrounded by books I might love, each bedazzled with superlative praise, begging to be remembered and read.
The epiphany is almost embarrassing. I’ve been waiting for the familiar, the reliable to show up in the donation boxes, instead of seeking out the new-to-me within the old all around.All our “to read” stacks tower over us. How do we abolish the insistent march of time and forgetting?
I find rich veins of Fumiko Enchi’s Masks, a deposit of Sawako Ariyoshi’s The Doctor’s Wife.
I recommend them until we run out.
Jill McCorkle’s short stories, Alice McDermott’s Charming Billy, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony.
I sell the same book over and over. Now those are all gone too.
We have 58 copies of Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata, a Nobel laureate, blessedly neither a pedophile nor fascist. I’d never heard of him. His friend, and cosmic opposite, Yukio Mishima, enjoys more recollection and attention.
The world moves too fast, and reading is a slow pastime. All our “to read” stacks tower over us. How do we abolish the insistent march of time and forgetting? I imagine myself moving through the slow-motion memory of Alexandria’s burning, weighed down with an armload of old books you just have to read.
Okay. It’s not that romantic.
100,000 books is, perhaps, I’m sad to say, too many books.
The endless options leave one overwhelmed and indecisive.
“Here,” I tell the beleaguered would-be book buyer. “Try this. If you don’t like it, I’ve got more.”
I wrote another book. My agent tells me she can’t sell this manuscript. It’s too much like the last one. She’s right, of course. I write the same book over and over.
Have you read Snow Country?
You should. It’s good.
It’s a love story. Sort of.
We’re down to 40 copies, though a couple fell apart in my hands.
The book is an uncanny object.
The lucky ones outlive their authors. The luckier ones outlive their original owners too. A secondhand book, whether it falls off the shelf into your lap, or is thrust upon you by the kid crouched behind the counter, lives a second life.
I listen to “It’ll All Work Out” by Phoebe Bridgers 31 times in a row.
I start writing another book.