The Transience of Life: Lessons in Letting Go

We had a work experience student at the bookshop a little while ago. She seemed a nice, switched-on kid with the brightness of eye and bushiness of tail only visible in the young and uninitiated. She was eager to please and had, to her complete credit, a flair for visual merchandising. She put together an impressive display of Harry Potter memorabilia: there were towers of books with turrets of character figurines, a moat of mugs with a drawbridge of key rings… Ok I may have taken some creative liberties here, but you get the general idea. It looked great.

A little later on, I bore witness to the first death of a little piece of her soul. Some other task had taken her away from her display, and on her return half an hour or so later, the whole thing was a shambles. You could see that it had once been striking, but its former glory was a mere memory. We stood back and surveyed the damage. I reassured her that it still looked very good indeed but that there was no point in trying to resurrect it: you pick your battles, and she’d be fighting a losing one here. You turn your back for five minutes and this is what happens. She’d have to stand guard all day if she wanted to protect it from the hands of customers, and even though she wasn’t being paid for it, her time was more valuable than that. She accepted my observation, looking deflated and wan with her shoulders slumped as she let out a sigh.

“Think of it as a lesson in the transience of life,” I told her sagely.
“What does that mean?” she asked.
“It means nothing lasts forever. Working in retail is one long process of letting go. Make sure you put that in your report.”

I’d like to think I came across as wise and philosophical, but that seems generous and unlikely when my deeper nature is far more cynical. Realising that her work experience had now taken a decidedly negative turn, I changed the subject.

“So do you know what you want to do after you finish school?”
“Yeah, I think I want to be an architect.”
“Oh that’s cool. Then your constructions might last a little longer than that display.”
“Uhhh yeah, I guess that’s the hope.”
“Don’t stress about it though, having to figure out your whole life after high school. I spent four years studying media & communications. That was years ago, and while I have no regrets, it’s only recently, at the age of 29, that I’ve figured out what I want to do when I grow up.”
“Sell books? And wow, I didn’t realise you were that old.”
“Thanks? And no, not sell books. I mean I like working here and all, but I’m studying to be a librarian.”
“Oh cool, what made you decide to do that?”
“I figured the best job in the world would be to sit in a room full of books and tell people to be quiet.”

In hindsight, I may have scared the poor girl a little. I don’t think she quite knew how to take my deadpan delivery. As an aside, let the record show that being a librarian is a little more involved than shushing people all day. I also believe libraries provide a vital service, and information and research opportunities should be available to anyone with enough curiosity to acquire a card. Libraries are a wonderful equaliser, and no matter who you are, just about all the world’s collective knowledge is available if you know where to look.

Additionally, there’s more to retail than learning to watch your efforts go unappreciated, although that’s a big part of it. I’m good at my job and nearly always polite and helpful to customers. At worst, I’m helpful without being rude. (Please don’t laugh too hard at this, especially if you’ve had to encounter me first thing in the morning at exam/Christmas time before I’ve had my bucket of coffee. Remember: I’m being paid to be nice to people at work.) Unfortunately, this is not a secret to customers, many of whom realise they can take their bad mood out on sales assistants and there’s not a whole lot that can be done in return. Or maybe I’m over-thinking it and they just don’t care.

Which is why, I think, it’s important to take the small victories where you can. My favourite part of my job as a bookseller is sending someone away with a book I just know they’ll love, even if I know it’s unlikely I’ll ever see them again to confirm it. It’s like I’m in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to find this person exactly what they need but didn’t know it. (For more on this, see this post.) And very occasionally, I get the feeling the customer knows this too. Maybe my enthusiasm towards particular titles is so obvious as to be catching, and of course it’s very possible that I’m attributing too much power to my humble recommendations, but it gets me through the day.

The other day I was in a bit of a funk at work for no particular reason. I probably hadn’t had enough coffee. But my shift was totally turned around by a customer telling me I obviously just love books and will make a great librarian, thanking me with sincere appreciation and then buying a book on my recommendation. I really hope she likes it. Obviously I think she will. I rode on that compliment for days.

So surviving in retail isn’t just about learning to let go, you have to figure out what to hold on to as well. Take whatever small victories you can get, and when someone yells that they’re never shopping here again, just think: you’ll never have to see them again and they’re probably miserable and don’t have as many friends as you anyway.

That’s it, that’s my optimism exhausted. And having said all this I will probably have lost all trace of it by the time the next customer loses their cool with me for not knowing which book they’re after when they don’t know the title, author or content except that it had a blue cover. But it’s nice to know that I held it for a time, and having let it go, it’s out there for someone else to pick up.

Here endeth the lesson.