My Second Job: Things I Learned From Working In A Christian Bookstore

My first job working for a catering company lasted one summer, but my second job lasted three years.

The summer before my senior year of high school, my folks encouraged me to get a job with more consistent hours before I went to college.

I remember wandering the malls asking for and completing paper applications. Even then, jobs were scarce. I had no previous work experience and would have been thankful for anyone willing to give me a chance. Fortunately, the manager of the local Christian bookstore gave me an interview and I got a job as a sales associate.

Culture
Christan bookstores have their own unique culture.

We prayed during staff meetings and customers expressed disappointment when corporate decided to open the store on Sundays. They weren’t so disappointed, though, that they didn’t still shop there after church.

Our store was as large as a Barnes & Noble and sold a wide array of product. Some included the expected such as Bibles, books, jewelry, and picture frames while others seemed more unusual. For example, we sold an array of Christian-themed breath mints in many flavors, energy bars, chocolate-mint truffles (my favorite), bumper stickers, boardgames and spiritual armour costumes for kids. I felt like the inventory jumped the shark with the arrival of a new line of leather shoes. To each his or her own, I guess.

At that time, I knew the Christian music industry like the back of my hand and the release date of the next Veggie Tales DVD along with its corresponding toys and video games.

Sometimes I’d find gems in the bookshelves that made me giggle. A particular coworker and I made a game of pulling interesting books from the shelves and placing them in each other’s lockers. One evening I was greeted by a huge, Ronald Reagan coffee table book and I remember feeling shocked upon finding a counter terrorism handbook in our inventory. One evening when the supervisors weren’t looking, I screamed when someone flashed me with an illustration from a children’s book explaining s-e-x. Mature, I know.

Some authors cultivated vast inventory empires. I watched some books blossom into versions for mothers,  fathers, teachers, students, pet owners, etc. Then came the corresponding study guides, books on tape, journals, bible studies and devotionals. They also came in shades of large print and miniature gift versions. There were themed pens and pencils, sticky notes, and flashcards. It was really quite something to watch them evolve.

There were always lots of life-sized cardboard
cutouts. Sometimes you could take them home.
Posing with Michael W. Smith.

During the summer of 2004, Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ was about to be released on DVD. Someone from corporate thought it would be a great idea to host midnight release parties at the stores. The employees would serve popcorn and play the film on the background televisions and big screens. That is, until someone pointed out that the movie is rated R for graphic violence. Would we card young customers to ensure they were 18? Would it be weird to munch on popcorn while watching the crucifixion? Would you even want to? The release party ended up getting nixed and we took preorders, instead.

Perks
As perks, we got a significant discount of product and occasional concert tickets. There were lovely staff parties and flexible, monthly scheduling.

We had a little coffee shop that was closed after I left. Working in the cafe was a privilege and it was the most coveted position at the store. As a culinary-minded individual, I loved learning how to make espresso beverages and smoothies. Coffee connoisseurs might cringe to learn we made espresso with prepackaged pods instead of freshly-ground beans.

Employees were given one free drink a shift and we knew how to make them count. One of the staff favorites was called a “White Glacier.” This sticky sweet smoothie which blended bagged yogurt, white chocolate syrup, and sweet powdered mix, all topped with whipped cream and a fancy cookie stick. No other drinks got the fancy cookie stick.

Other coffee cafe perks included getting to choose the background music, keeping tips, and reading books if it was really slow. The store booked local singers in the coffee shop and working these events was a nice detour from the ordinary.

By far, the best part of my job was my coworkers. We were a close knit staff with little turnover. Our store manager treated everyone with respect and staff stayed there for years. The older adults treated us young people with a special regard. I remember often feeling less overwhelmed when I got home from work than when I had arrived.

Challenges
The most challenging part of the job was navigating unusual customers.

During the years that I worked at the bookstore, it was also not atypical to file restraining orders against abusive customers and call the police when people violated their restraining orders or serially shoplifted. One woman threw a CD at an employee and even waited until the police came because she was convinced she was in the right. The most unusual memo I recall warned us to watch for a customer who had been making rounds at the stores turning all of the crosses upside down.

Like every retail store, we dealt with shoplifters and you may be surprised to learn the most commonly stolen items were Bibles. I remember a surprisingly organized effort that targeted all of the stores in our company. Hundreds of dollars of Bibles were stolen. We reviewed the latest scams during staff meetings and tried to discreetly call our manager if we recognized someone matching the description of the suspect(s).

When the bookstore no longer needed me on breaks home from college, I worked at a major clothing company at the Mall of America. On my first day, I remember trying to locate a certain item for a customer and not being able to find it. I let the customer know it wasn’t currently in stock and apologized profusely. “Ok, cool. Thanks for looking,” he replied and waved goodbye.

I stood there in shock! I continued to feel surprised when this occurred because of the extent to which we routinely went for customers to find product and the reactions that ensued when things weren’t in stock.

“Do You Receive Our Coupons & Catalogs?”
During those three years, I only received one thirty cent raise because I was terrible at convincing people to give me their phone numbers. Our corporate office rolled out an aggressive marketing campaign in which we were supposed to ask every customer for their phone number and to sign up for the mailing list (not unlike most major retailers).

We were tracked according to the percentage of phone numbers we were able to collect and given opportunities for raises only if we hit the bench mark of around 75%. The phone number was only counted if the customer was already registered for the mailing list. Otherwise, the it counted against us unless we could convince them to sign up for the mailing list. We always knew our status because the store posted a color coated list displaying all of our names and percentages in the staff lounge on a weekly basis. Oh, the shame! It’s no wonder I’ve never pursued a career in sales.

In Conclusion. . .
I learned that business is business and the bottom line rules, regardless if it’s religious or secular in nature.

Even so, I’ll always have a special regard for my second job. I liked the people I worked with and I felt safe there; my manager and coworkers treated me like they had my best interest in mind. The store was like my second home and family.

I learned basic retail and barista skills and I had a lot of fun. Because the customers demanded a high level of service, I was accustomed to providing it and it became my default. Despite the aspects of the job I didn’t love, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Well, except for one thing. I would have been a lot more aggressive about asking for those phone numbers.

2 Comments

  1. Relate to so many of these memories! Great job at balancing the good with the bad of working at a Christian bookstore.

  2. Wow, this brought back some memories, good and bad! I guess the shoe thing happened after I left. Have you been in there since it became Lifeway? It’s so small now!

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