Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Christian Bookstore

I wonder how many people start working in retail and decide to make a career out of it.  It certainly wasn't my intention when I was hired at The Christian Bookstore the summer before my senior year but I ended up working there for 7 and a half years.  Previously, I'd been working at a local pharmacy where I was sexually harassed by a customer (another story for another time). While my boss dealt with the situation, I no longer felt safe working there.  My family and I had shopped at The Christian Bookstore ever since I was a little girl.  When I found out they were hiring, it seemed like such a God thing. 

I worked part-time during the school year, as well as one night a week at an allergist clinic.  I wonder now how I managed to work two part-time jobs, take advanced classes at school, and have an active social life. 

I started working at The Christian Bookstore with glowing expectations.  Christian products!  Christian bosses and coworkers!  Christian customers!  We'd all be happy in Christianland. 

Of course, I came to learn that just because a product is declared Christian doesn't mean it's theologically sound or worth selling.  A Christian boss will still make mistakes in how they lead.  Christian customers might yell at you and behave in very unChristian ways.

Yes, there was the drivel but there was also quality fiction, authentic artists that would otherwise be relegated to a corner, and books by authors that dared you to think outside the box. Working at TCB made me a more critical, sometimes cynical consumer of Christian products. The Jesus Junk is irritating for sure- but it sells.  You can't fault a store for selling what customers want to buy. 

While I could complain about those things with the best of them, I really enjoyed working there.  I excelled in that environment.  I made lifelong friends. I was promoted. I made improvements to the store and to our sales. I knew our products well- strangely, I still have much of the inventory (circa 1997-2005) memorized.  Just the other night, someone mentioned the book Love and Respect, which I've never read, but I easily recalled the author's last name and what the cover looked like. How's that for a party trick?

The bookstore was started by a husband and wife team in the late 1970s. Their son joined the business in the early 1990s and was largely in charge by the time I came on to the scene.  I considered all three to be my bosses, however, and worked for them in a variety of capacities.  They taught me much. While I didn't always agree with the son's managerial style, I owe much to him and TCB.

After my senior year of high school, I fell into a pattern of working full time during the summer and any college breaks.  I graduated college early and went straight back to work.  When graduate school started, I cut my hours to part-time.  After grad school ended and a social work job didn't instantly materialize, I worked part-time and babysat the rest of the time.  They always let me come back.

PhotobucketI started out as a sales associate.  About two years later, I was promoted to Senior Sales Associate: TCB's version of Assistant Manager.  By the end of my tenure there, I was in charge of scheduling, employee relations (an unofficial role consisting of decorating the staff room bulletin board and more), music displays, and floor displays.  For one of my first store displays, I used Father's Day signage to create a sailboat, complete with shining sun and gentle waves in a little used area.  It was well-received and fostered my confidence as an artist and saleswoman.

I received many, many shipments and played a variety of roles when it came to visiting authors and bands.  I knew how to imprint Bibles with the best of them.  I realized I paid great attention to detail as I inventoried books, Bibles, and CDs, somehow tracking down missing items.  I could probably still write up a special order and ring up a sale.  I dismantled outdated display cases and designated an area as the Teen Scene, which proved highly profitable.  In short, whatever I touched in that store, turned to gold.

The irony being that for much of the time that I worked there, I was apathetic toward God.  You can work at a Christian bookstore, you see, and not necessarily act like or be a Christian.  God had His hand even in this.  My coworkers Dave, Victoria, and Andy were instrumental in listening, challenging, and encouraging me as I made my way back to God.

Would it surprise you to know that we had a lot of fun working there?  I remember store closes where we'd blast whatever songs we were obsessed with at the moment as we powered down registers and tidied up.  There was the time I may or may not have danced on top of the customer service counter- a way of breaking it in, so to speak.   The all-night, all-day inventory weekend that led to delirium, many Phish CDs (unrelated to the delirium), and some of the best conversations of my life.  Meeting the authors and artists I'd admired and realizing they were genuinely nice people.

PhotobucketI got a book signed by Brock and Bodie Thoene who wrote one of my favorite series (Zion Covenant) after setting up the store for a book signing for them and a few other authors.  Taylor Sorensen was so impressed by the display I built showcasing his first CD that he took a picture of it.  I met Geoff Moore and took a picture with one of my favorite artists, Bebo Norman. I stood next to Max Lucado as he signed book after book and heard from person after person about how his writing changed their life.  He is the real deal.  I have a poster signed by the Supertones and a Kansas demo inked by Jennifer Knapp before everyone knew her name.

Not every artist was kind.  I met more than a few egos.  I was turned off by quite a few people that people continue to rave about.  If you only knew..., I think to myself.  It makes sense though.  Christians, no matter what they do, are imperfect people.

That's what I remember when I think of our crazy customers. Imperfect people who were maybe a little more imperfect when they shopped in our store.  The Lamb Lady, for instance, who would barge into the back room demanding her special order, in spite of the Employees Only sign.  The elderly woman who pooped in the middle of the store- then left, leaving an undesirable task for one of the sales associates to clean up.  People who demanded extra discounts because they were pastors, or missionaries, or lived on this street, or had eaten cereal for breakfast.  Creepy stalkers.  Con men.  An elaborate scheme involving Africa and a bunch of Bibles, which would have left us out of a lot of money if my boss hadn't been so wise.  You wouldn't believe some of the things customers would say or how they would treat our staff.

It didn't matter though.  I loved my job.  I loved how creative I could be with displays and promotions and taking care of staff.  I loved that I could direct a customer to exactly what they wanted based on a few words.  Book and CD recommendations were my forte, even if I didn't like the books or music myself.  I knew my customers and it was good.  I even won a gift card when a mystery shopper came by and gave me an excellent review!   Not only did this job help me pay for much of college and grad school, it helped build my sense of who I was.  Realizing that I was good at something.  Making peace with my faith. Forming life-changing friendships. I grew up in a lot of ways. When I got a "real" job, I was sad to close this chapter on my life.

Even sadder, TCB went out of business in the fall of 2008.  I stopped by one last time to see coworkers, hug the owners, and buy a book or two.  TCB fell prey to Amazon, Wal-mart, and all the other big book businesses that crowd out independent stores. No other Christian bookstore has measured up to the variety and quality found at TCB.   I'm thankful for the effect TCB had on my life.  I'm a more thoughtful consumer in many ways.  And I am always, always nice to whomever is helping me at a store. I like to think of it as reverse customer service.

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