Working the Dream

I’ve been lucky to work in three of my dream jobs and the second of these was in my late twenties.

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A bookshop you could fall in love with.

The dream job in question was at least fifteen years out of date. It was: bookseller. Like any book nerd, I’d read, thought and fantasised a whole lot about bookshops; been lost in, got high on, felt horribly lonely in, been intimidated by bookshops. I’d even fallen in love inside them – with books, of course. And Joe from The Magic Faraway Tree, Jim from Trixie Belden (amiright, girls?), probably some lame-o guy from Sweet Valley High, Rochester, Darcy – and, more importantly, with heroines like Jo March, Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennet, and so on.

Then recently I’d read this quote (yup, in a book):

. . . I liked the idea of living in a big city – any city, especially a strange one – liked the thought of traffic and crowds, of working in a bookstore, waiting tables in a coffee shop, who knew what kind of odd, solitary life I might slip into? Meals alone, walking the dogs in the evenings, and nobody knowing who I was.

What a romantic idea. I wanted to move to the big smoke and become a painter and work in a bookshop. LIVING THE DREAM. What a newb I was, both at cities and at working in bookshops.

But I made the big move to the Outer-Inner West of Sydney and I painted – if, by painting, I mean set up a little studio at our new urban flat and then procrastinated and, instead of painting, spent great swathes of time watching Six Feet Under (I had a lot to catch up on and it was very important that I did) and getting slightly (understandably) depressed. I didn’t have a job at first. For only, like, a few weeks, but at the time it was long enough to feel like I was chronically unemployed and unemployable, only boasting skills such as daydreaming and dabbling, and mostly only good for plonking down for a few hours in front of HBO’s most favourite funeral parlour family ever to grace our TVs.

But in reality I landed my dream bookshop job pretty quickly. The interview consisted of me, wide-eyed, sitting with the very poised bookshop manager in the food court that butted up against the shop, answering a handful of very easy questions about my employment experience – me thinking Wow, this is amaazing!, her thinking Wow, this overqualified person would be great as basically a second manager who I only have to pay as a retail assistant!

And then, suddenly, I  had my dream job. Well, my new dream job. Discounted books! Witty repartee with colleagues and customers! Reading and reading and yet more reading. Reading at work. Amazing author events. Meeting some of my heroes. Those are things that mostly didn’t happen.

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An absolutely beautiful bookshop. At which I did not work.

This is what mostly happened:

  • I learnt how to use retail software, a book database, Eftpos and a pricing gun. Look out, world!
  • I vacuumed. (An unwelcome surprise, as I’d recently been an ‘accommodation assistant’ in an Irish hotel; when I left that job I’d thought if I ever saw another vacuum cleaner again I’d set it on fire and kick it out into the street.)
  • Balancing the books at the end of the day. (Me, doing accounts. How did that happen and how did anyone trust me with maths and, in turn, their business?)
  • Asking a hundred times a day, ‘Is that on credit?’
  • Telling many, many customers that we didn’t have that book they wanted but we could order it in. (Or they could go to nearby Kmart and get it 20% cheaper, is something I didn’t say. Unless my boss had annoyed me.) Like we were basically a hole in the wall where you could order books online. ‘Cos we kinda were.
  • Telling teenage girls that sorry, we’d run out of Twilight again but were ordering more copies in asap. ASAP. ASAP I promise, god!
  • Hearing ‘What do you feel like, what do you feel like, feel like a king, Donut Kiiiiing?!!’ piped into the shopping centre over and over to the point where hell yeah, I decided I was the Donut King.
  • ‘I’m looking for a book. Oh, what was it called? I don’t know who it was by. All I know is it was on Oprah.’
  • Watching events of Shakespearean proportions unfold in the foodcourt.
  • Starting to feel like I was going dyslexic or mad from poisons pumped through the terrible air con. Fearing Legionnaires’ disease like it was 1989.
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Sadly, we did not have a handsome book cat.
  • Unpacking endless boxes of books until I started hallucinating about diving into the styrofoam packaging and swimming through it to Narnia.
  • Being a captive audience for local colourful characters who had interesting ideas about the lack of sex in the Harry Potter books (!), or who ran laps of the bookshop while coming down off their drug of choice, or who hid from their wife behind the shelves as she roamed the food court, calling his name.
  • Staring down would-be shoplifters (yep, that’s a bit rich for me).
  • Needing to go to the toilet the minute my manager left for the day. And then having to look after the shop another two hours. On my own.
  • Having two four-year-old girls feel sorry for me and come and help me pack up the sales tables at the end of the day. (Okay, that was pretty cute.)

You might be thinking, so what you’re saying is dream jobs are a total waste of time and impossible to achieve and why bother? Okay, it turned out it wasn’t quite a dream but I don’t regret it at all. I’d say to you that if you want to pursue a dream job, you should do it as soon as possible. Only months after I left the bookshop, the GFC hit – the shop was sold and last I saw had become a bargain basement clothing shop of the worst kind. That whole suburb is now lacking a bookshop. There are currently around 200 less ‘bricks and mortar’ bookshops in Australia than when I was recommending The Time Traveller’s Wife to every second person to tread our worn but beautifully vacuumed carpet. If I hadn’t had that dream job then, I might never have at all.

I read the most books in those eighteen months that I think I’ve ever read (though sadly not at work). In amongst all the banal chitchat about Oprah books and undeserved bestsellers and . . . Twilight . . . there were numerous book recommendations made and received, and much appreciated. I met several local authors who were customers, I got to help out at author events; hell, I had my photo taken with the Cat in the Hat. And, in the end, that job led me semi-directly into a career in book publishing.

Also, I could visit the Donut King whenever I wanted. For my inner fifteen-year-old, it really was a dream job come true.