A Day in the Life of an Independent Bookstore

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On a Thursday morning a couple of weeks ago, I strolled into Parnassus Books with a cup of coffee and my laptop, ready to meet with Niki Castle, the marketing director, about this site. I figured midmorning on a weekday would be a slow time, perfect for sitting around a computer.

Not so much.

In the back, staff members sliced open boxes of books and carried them by the armload out to the shelves. Up front, booksellers filled shopping bags for customers. In the aisles, visitors wandered from section to section. It was hoppin’ in here.

Every time we got settled at her desk, Niki’s customer-radar would go off. “Wait,” she’d say. “I think somebody needs something.” Sure enough, a guy would want help choosing a gift for his ladyfriend; or a girl would be trying to select books for her book club; or a grandmother would be looking for suggestions in the children’s area.

Everyone has a job to do, even the shop dogs.
Everyone has a job to do, even the shop dogs.

Hours passed like this. I played with the store dogs and browsed for something to read and gathered up a basketful of presents for my kids. I went to the wrapping station and wrapped some books for customers. Morning turned into afternoon. Niki’s lunch sat uneaten on her desk. My laptop battery ran down. Andy, the manager, asked if I had time to help him with some “flapping.” I was hooking my thumbs under my armpits and preparing to do my best chicken dance when the assistant manager, my friend Sissy, breezed by on her way to a customer: “He means folding book flaps to the right pages for the signing tonight.” (Doris Kearns Goodwin was arriving any minute for an author event.) Right! Of course. That kind of flapping. Got it. I flapped for an hour.

Our meeting got pushed later and later. But come on — I’d be pulling a Brer Rabbit in the briar patch if I were to complain about being “stuck” in a bookstore for a whole day. Are you kidding me? It was great. I had nowhere else to be. Besides, I was in heaven.

ParnassusHeadshotWhat I learned that day was this: Nothing comes before customers at Parnassus. Running a bookstore is a business of busy-ness – it’s never still, never totally quiet. But no matter what the staff are doing, they will drop it in a second to talk books with a visitor.

Parnassus Books holds a special place in my heart. I’ve spent hours browsing in here. I’ve bought gifts for people I love off these shelves. It’s where my co-author and I held our book launch party last summer and where I’ll launch my first solo book next year. I’ve been hanging around so much, I guess Karen and Ann finally felt like they had to give me a job – it was either that or give me a little red collar and make me an official store dog. I couldn’t be more delighted that it turned out this way. (I don’t like collars.)

Thank you for having me.

Mary Laura Philpott
Editor of Musing