I haven't had a great deal to say on the subject of Gordongate (An Edinburgh Waterstone's employee fired for making mildly disparaging remarks about his workplace in the context of an entry in his online diary), since everyone else got there long before me. Joe Gordon was in charge of the sf section of his bookshop, and was apparently extremely diligent both in promoting the genre to customers and via occasional interviews on local radio, where he was generally presented as a Waterstone's employee.

I have some considerable sympathy for Joe's dilemma, which has generated a thousand times more bad publicity for Waterstone's than they could possibly have anticipated. The general feeling is that at the very most he deserved a slap on the wrist, rather than being fired and escorted from the building, particularly given his considerable beyond-the-call-of-duty efforts for the company he gave eleven years of his life to. Much of that sympathy arises from my own short experience of working for the rival store Borders some years ago, when it opened an enormous multi-level store in the centre of Glasgow. Like Joe, I ran the sf section. Unlike Joe, I had no intention of sticking around for as much as a year, if I could avoid it, let alone eleven.

If I had any advice for Joe, it would be to look on the loss of his livelihood as having a distinctly silver lining: now he can hopefully get a job not only more suited to his talents, but also one that pays rather better than a bookseller might be expected to receive. Enthusiasm, I'm afraid, in the modern high-speed world of bookselling, is rarely appreciated. It smacks of dangerous individualism and the forming of personal opinions, traits clearly incompatible with the modern world of shareholders and profit maximisation.

Some of his experiences sound depressingly familiar, particularly his reference to an 'escape committee'. On the other hand, he did have the advantage of having a 'union rep' on hand during the meeting that led to his being fired. Unions, of course, are not allowed by Borders, a fact which remains to my mind both scandalous and disturbing.

Joe sounds like the kind of guy who is enthusiastic about the books he was employed to sell, and is filled with the commendable desire to share that enthusiasm. He is also, I suspect, intelligent and well-read enough to have opinions and be prepared to share them. These are not necessarily qualities to endear employers like Waterstones: although they would like to be seen to reflect the liberal/ intellectual qualities deemed desirable by their core customers, this doesn't mean they genuinely share those values beyond the point where such an appearance generates a substantial profit.

This dichotomy between what many companies make themselves appear to be, and what they actually are, only becomes clear when you're in the fortunate or unfortunate position of working for them. I decided to leave Borders, at least in part, because for all my engagement with the books I sold and the customers I sold them to, I might as well have been working in a supermarket, stacking tins of beans.

If you're thinking of getting a job in a place like Waterstone's or Borders, here's my advice: think of it as a temporary gig, unless you have serious managerial aspirations, in which case an enthusiasm for books is (I suspect) neither required nor even necessarily desirable. Otherwise, do it for the summer, or between jobs, and then get out and find something better. I left because I was literally going stir crazy. The hours were unbelievable, I could hardly stay awake even on my days off, and the longer I was there the more I spent my waking hours in a kind of numbed haze.

And if you still think working in a bookshop would be cool, then I agree wholeheartedly. But remember: Borders and Waterstone's aren't bookshops, they're supermarkets that happen to sell books. 'Real' bookshops, unfortunately, are becoming a thing of the past in many ways.

But then, what do I care about Borders or Waterstones? I don't buy my books there, I just browse them - then go straight to Amazon and get them sent to my front door.


Connie said...

I've been very happy with Amazon for numerious things such as out of print books and CDs too.

Anonymous said...

sorry, no blog to link to :). Loved your comment re supermarkets that sell books - struck such a cord! I'd never thought of it quite like that but it's absolutely true!

taleswapper said...

Looks like the guy got a job with Forbidden Planet (he said on 5 Feb). In the long run, he might be happier in the new place.

Anonymous said...

Hey--looks like he wants to be a bookseller. Some people actually want to do that kind of work. Even if you don't, doesn't mean it's not valuable work!