Thursday, May 14, 2009

12,000 Hours

“The hours we pass with happy prospects in view are more pleasing than those crowded with fruition.” - Oliver Goldsmith

It has been a busy time. Spring in Seattle is a visually glorious thing, full of flowers and flowering trees, intensely green leaves and grass and lichen, huge sprays of purple, white, reds, pinks, yellows. The air is crisp and clean when it isn't sopping wet. It often is wet, of course. It is raining, though just a little, even as I write, as it has been, on and off, all day, not so hard that I can hear it but just enough to keep the stones in the walk to the mailbox wet, to mist my glasses, to make the bills soft in my hand. For whatever reason this Spring, we have been exceptionally busy at the buying desk. It does not matter that the stoutest boxes coming in have had to have covers improvised out of plastic shopping bags, that paper towels have to be kept at hand to wipe down the top three books in every bag, that the traffic has been difficult in the neighborhood of the store. None of that seems to have much mattered. Spring in Seattle is was it is and is likely always to be so, so that April is much as May; a time when the wind is still quite cold and still blowing, the sky the color of smoke all day, and everything, even what we buy at the Used Books desk, gets just a little wet.

At the desk yesterday, S. from the Personnel Office came up to the desk grinning.

"You've worked 12,000 hours. Congratulations. Here's you're new card."

The percentage of our employee discount goes up over time where I work. The discount goes up slowly, very slowly, at least so far as to books. I've never worked in a bookstore where the employee discount was so low to start. This comes of the bookstore being more than a bookstore, with all sorts of merchandise unrelated to books and sold on a more narrow margin. I understand the policy. When I was hired, I admit, I incredulous. The idea that a new employee, meaning meself, would only be getting twenty percent off on books struck me as absurd, even insulting. People work in bookstores for wages. If lucky, as we've been so far, there are health benefits, insurance, paid vacation and the like. And then there is access to books. Books can be borrowed and read. Books, in most bookstores, even in the corporate chains, can be purchased by employees at something close to cost. It is widely understood in the industry that encouraging employees in this way, to not only read, but to own books, ultimately results in further sales, fostering as it does an atmosphere of not just intellectual but proprietary interest in the business as well as in the new books. Books, for most of us, are why we are in the business we're in.

Having worked in this bookstore now for something like six years, or 12,000 hours, my discount has at last gone up to -- still less than it was when I was, briefly, a part-time employee at Crown Books. Never the less, it has at last gone up. Here at last is a horse, if not of an entirely different color, at least of a slightly deeper hue, a gift horse, I know, so I will stop now staring into it's maw.

"Thank you, very much" I said, taking my new discount card.

Twelve thousand hours! I can't quite take that in as a measure of time. As an hourly worker nearly all my adult life, I've come to appreciate an eight hour day, a real hour for lunch, a thing rarer in retail than it ought to be, a forty hour week. Those are all increments with which I am comfortable and for which I am grateful, specially now , in the midst of an "economic down-turn." But twelve thousand hours? That I can not picture.

I've worked in a number of bookstores, selling new and used books. The longest I've worked for any one of these companies was at Stacey's, in San Francisco, though not always in the same store, for a round total of a dozen years. (How many hours was that? Twenty four thousand? More? Less?) The store where I work now is the store from which I fully intend some distant day to retire, if I'm allowed. (God willing, and the creek don't rise.) How many hours will that be? If I work for at least another twenty years, as I will have to, how many hours will I then have worked at this bookstore? How many hours will I have worked in bookstores when, and if, I stop?

I dislike those statistical inserts boxed in magazine articles, detailing how many hours in an average lifetime one will have spent brushing one's teeth, sitting in traffic, eating. Why would I want to know these numbers? What possible purpose do such things serve? Will I brush my teeth less? Drive less or move to Montana where the highway opens endlessly before me -- not a lot of bookstore work, in Montana -- will I eat less for knowing how much time I will have spent eating when I drop me down to die?

Knowing that I've already spent 12,000 hours at this job tells me nothing but that I've earned a bump in my employee discount. The number tells me nothing else. Those hours simply do not matter in any other way to me. How many minutes of laughing with coworkers and customers are contained in all those hours? How many phone calls have I answered? How many books have I sold in that time, recommended, hunted, returned, bought, priced, carted? Doesn't much matter. I'm not specially curious to know. It matters that we laugh. It matters that people buy books, that we sold them their books, that they, presumably read the books we sold them. However long all of that took matters less than nothing. It matters that it happens. It matters that this is what I do and that, with infrequent lapses, I've enjoyed doing it. The books matter. My friends, on either side of the sales desk, matter. That matters to me. So long as it does, and I can't imagine it not, I will be a bookseller. God willing, and the creek don't rise.

No comments:

Post a Comment