THE INCREDIBLE HUMAN CULTURE FILTER
I started working in bookstores in the late '90s at age 19. The dean of the tiny liberal- arts college at which I began my undergraduate education had recently encouraged me to leave, due to my palpable apathy toward the classical curriculum as well as my being obviously stoned all the time. I decided to take a year off. To fill my days, I applied at the bookstore I had frequented in high school, the one at which my dorky friends and I had furtively perused oversized collections of nude portraiture and did not get in trouble for it.
Most of the other booksellers were my age or close to it. They either went to art school or to the local community college where I had enrolled in a word-processing class. There was a DJ, a poet, a white rapper, two illustrators, and a closeted LARPer. Together we fit into the definition Scott Timberg, writing last year in Salon, provides for the clerk class: "hard-working creative types — sometimes, though not always, lacking college degrees or professional connections . . . [who] filter the flow of culture, one customer at a time."
Consider what it really means to act as a culture filter, to serve as the human cheesecloth between literature and the eager masses. Consider culture in all its weight and turpitude, all the different ways tens of thousands of people in a busy tourist district in a large American city might apprehend it, how mad or delighted they'd be when they saw your sulky teenage face standing between them and the object of their worship/horror/spiritual fulfillment/insecurity/moral outrage/aspiration.
Sometimes my colleagues and I acted as physical filters: standing at the bookstore entrance with our arms folded in order to prevent latecomers from overcrowding an already-overcrowded David Sedaris appearance; ousting a kid trying to steal porn mags; chasing a mother trying to run away because her toddler had bescumbered the travel aisle.
Sometimes culture had nothing to do with it. We moved around the old men who smelled strongly of urine and had colonized the window seats in Fiction. We signaled frantically to each other every time we spotted the angry schizophrenic to whom we had given the inventive nickname Crazy George, the blowhard Porno Dave, and the cheerful old racist known as Dr. Mengele. For a period of months, a young mother left her five-year-old son next to the counter for hours at a time while she went into the adjacent office building, presumably to work. Our manager, the DJ's mom, bought him cheese fries every day and made sure nobody messed with him. (Will Amazon buy a hungry kid french fries?)
Much of the time, we were bored off our tits — you try doing an inventory of Personal Finance.
More often than not, though, we were filters of the Timberg variety, people in the strange position of knowing so much more than everyone around us while making a quarter more than minimum wage. Naturally, this made us insufferable. We'd snicker at the soccer moms who asked for Oprah's latest book, roll our eyes at the graphic-novel arrivistes buying Ghost World, sigh mournfully when hipsters couldn't remember the author of Motherless Brooklyn. We positively howled that time someone asked for a clarification of the difference between novels and biographies. In light of the indignities we suffered on an hourly basis, our condescension felt justified, righteous even. We made nothing, beans, and for these beans we were forced to interact with lunatics, drunks, and galoots.
Worst of all were the readers. No, certainly not all of them — I still remember with fondness the high-school English teacher who read everything I suggested because of how heartily he agreed with my staff recommendation of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. But most of them — ugh! The way they approached the counter, Sunday Book Review in hand, the way they asked for the latest National Book Award winner, or the latest Pulitzer winner, or that book by the author on yesterday's Fresh Air: in fear, in desperation, in smug triumph.
We loved books. We made six dollars an hour. Somehow, these doctors and lawyers and NGO-administrators in this affluent, liberal suburb had forced us into the role of their judges, their priests. More specifically — at least it always seemed to me — they used us as a bellwether for the opprobrium or scorn of the wider reading public. If, for instance, they were proud to have read the latest David Foster Wallace and felt this gave them entrée into an elite circle of readers of difficult fiction, they'd be sure to share this information with us when asking for a recommendation worthy of their time. If, however, they hadn't kept up with the New Yorker for a while and were just catching wind of a striking and popular new literary voice, they'd approach us hesitantly, voice atremble. Genre fans were a different story altogether, evenly divided between monomaniacs and those with a studied, wry indifference to any potential judgment of their tastes. Even in affluent suburbia, even in the '90s, readers were so spare and scattered that college kids seemed like the whole literary world.
How did this make us feel? Did I mention: we made six dollars an hour. We didn't own houses, and some of us didn't even have our own apartments. Our cars were shitty and we shopped at thrift stores. And yet, at least once a day, a real, self-actualized adult would come in and sigh wistfully about the joys of working in a bookstore. "How wonderful to be around all these books," they'd say, tears forming in the corners of their eyes. You don't know the half of it, you idiot, I'd think.
Try to imagine other wage slaves who might inspire respectable, well-paid professionals to fawn all over them. (Did you hear the one about the lawyer and the gas-station attendant? No?) Even though we were lowly cultural filters, our mere association with the literary sphere was enough to arouse envy. Clueless envy, envy entirely divorced from the banal reality of low-wage customer-service work, but envy nevertheless.
A year after my hire, I started making $6.25. More than a decade later, the bookstore has been replaced by a fast-food chain that serves sub sandwiches and milkshakes.