Saturday Jobs and Childhood Dreams

Nicola here. My very first Saturday job, when I was sixteen years old, was in The Grove Bookshop in Ilkley, a town in Yorkshire where I grew up. (In the old photo, the shop is on the corner on the right.) In my youth the shop was owned by an impossibly glamorous lady called Audrey who was a friend of my mother. I was so excited to be allowed to work there and to spend entire days surrounded by books, selling them, talking about them. The memory is so happy and vivid for me that I can even remember what I wore as my shop “uniform”, a kilt and my best cream and blue jumper. I’m sure I looked very professional!

Over the following years I never lost my love of books and bookshops. I even worked as a volunteer in an antiquarian bookseller’s for a couple of years before the shop closed down, much to my disappointment. It was from there that some of the most prized obscure titles on my bookshelves came including “A Book of Naval Architecture,” “Minstrels from 1250” and “The History of Beards.”

Meanwhile I had another dream job, being a writer and a historian. But the dream of the bookshop never quite went away, especially the fantasy of running my own, combining it with a tea and cake shop! Such things aren’t practical when you have book deadlines and other demands on your time, but I could dream on. Fast forward to August of this year and I was at the opening of a new bookshop in my local town of Wantage. There was a good crowd of customers, authors, and industry professionals, and after we chatted, the owner asked if I had the time or inclination to do a few hours in the shop; they were looking for someone local with good historical knowledge to supplement their team. Well! I hadn’t even thought it would be an option or if my meagre shop experience would make me sufficiently qualified for the job. However, after several days of intensive training, I was all set to go.

When I unlocked the door of the shop on my first morning it felt magical. This was all mine to share with the world – on Saturdays at least! I fondly imagined I would have hours in which to get to know all the books on the shelves, re-arrange the history section, chat to customers about recommendations, theirs as well as mine… It didn’t quite work out like that. When I had my very first customer I was so terrified that I would use the till wrongly I was frozen to the spot for what felt like at least five minutes. At one point I accidentally rang up a total of 3 million, seventy five thousand pounds for someone and whilst I’m sure we’d all like to spend that much on books, I thought that was probably wrong. Then there were the enquiries: “I’m looking for a book, I don’t know the author or title but it’s about sparrows and it’s in French…” I love a good challenge and managed to hunt it down. There were children who gleefully demolished the book displays and adults who accidentally did the same. And what about those shelves of history books? They were not so easy to sort as I’d thought. Putting books in chronological order is all very well but what about books that cover the history of one particular topic (silk, for example) or historical biography? Shouldn’t that be alphabetical by the subject of the book rather than the author? Decisions, decisions. How do book tokens work? How does the loyalty points get on to customers’ cards? And when did my mental arithmetic get so bad? So many questions… There are books to re-order and phone and email requests to fulfil. There’s no time for reading!

After a month or two I have already discovered that people love to chat when they come into the shop. They love to browse as well, of course – an elderly gentleman with a beautifully-behaved Labrador comes in every week and spends about 45 minutes looking around, and it’s not a big shop. When I commented on how patient the dog was he simply said: “She enjoys books.” And so say all of us. But the shop is also like a mini community centre where friends bump into each other and stop to catch up on news and where complete strangers swap favourite authors. There’s plenty of research that says books and reading brings people together, and plenty of books and films that demonstrate that, but it’s lovely to see it in real life too. And the shelves change all the time. Lesser known titles mingle with bestsellers. Which books get to be on the spotlight tables, or face out? It’s not just about how striking a cover looks but that does make a difference.

The children’s section is probably the most popular on a Saturday. We have some comfy benches and soft toys for the adults to snuggle up with whilst the small children choose from amongst those impossibly brilliant picture and activity books. The young adult section is amazing – the stories are so exciting! But there’s space for the classics too. It’s a whole world of stories in one relatively-small space. Perhaps that’s why it feels so magical and full of possibilities.

When the clock strikes five I turn the sign to “closed” and set about tidying up all ready for the Sunday opening. The bookshop settles down for the night and as I lock the door behind me I wonder fancifully if, when I’m gone, the characters do all emerge from the pages and mingle and chat, just like the customers do during the day.

What was your first job? Did you have a dream about following any particular career or has life taken you in a variety of different directions? And do you still have a bucket list and dreams to fulfil? Let us know!

 

24 thoughts on “Saturday Jobs and Childhood Dreams”

  1. That is fabulous, Nicola. I love it that our passions will out, regardless, and that paths wander but return to cross again, and circles like to close. Someone like you is the best kind of bookshop owner/worker and I bet your help and advice – and your own many wonderful books – have changed lives, if only to make them just a bit happier

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    • Thank you, Jane, what a lovely comment. It is indeed very special how we can sometimes come full circle with a dream or ambition. I suppose the takeaway is never give up on your dreams!

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  2. Nicola, what a wonderful, magical tale of dreams fulfilled–and then grounded some by the reality of book displays being knocked over! But what a perfect place for you, and how lucky the store is to have you!

    I grew up on a farm and there weren’t really any job possibilities for a kid except for baby sitting. (At which I was not brilliant, but at least I was reliable and no kids would be burned alive on my watch!) So I suppose my first real job was when I went to college and worked part time–at the university library, of course!

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    • LOL, Mary Jo! I think a lot of us did the baby-sitting thing. It sounds as though you were better at that than I was; I had to call my mother in to help with a particularly difficult child and that was the end of my career! Working in a library is wonderful, just like being in a book store!

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  3. What a wonderful post. I have always thought that owning a book shop and living behind the non fiction section would be wonderful. (OK, maybe not living in the shop, but it would be difficult to leave it at night.)
    My first real job was working in a Woolworth’s Five and Dime store. I loved it. I realize it was not anything spectacular but it was fun for me. And it gave me a big shot of confidence because I could speak to everyone and not stand like a lump. At that point in my life, I think I wanted to be a vet. But, alas, life has a way of going in new directions and of course that is as it should be. Thanks for the post and a reminder that the best place in the world is a place filled wtih books.

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    • Exactly, Annette! It’s very hard to tear yourself away when closing time comes! Working in Woolworth’s sounds great. I don’t really mind what sort of shop it is – meeting and chatting to people is the thing, and helping them find the things they want. I’m sorry the vet plan didn’t work out but hope the other directions were fulfilling!

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  4. I don’t think I really had a part time job when I was younger except babysitting. Otherwise I just played the piano & sang. My parents seemed to be okay with that & I certainly was. Lol. I love the thought of the bookstore but if you worked there maybe it would be less joyous. Maybe not – it didn’t for you Nicola!

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    • We all took a turn at babysitting, I think, Jeanne! it felt like a good way to make a bit of spare cash but it could be a challenge! It’s hard work in the bookstore, no doubt about it, but worth every minute.

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  5. Nicola I would have loved a job like that!! Books were and still are my life. I couldn’t do without them. I had my first part time job when I was thirteen. It was in a butchers/grocers shop in the village three miles from where I lived. I HATED it! I cried every morning walking in the road. I think some of my dreams died with that job. My life didn’t turn out as I hoped but it hasn’t been too bad all the same.
    I enjoyed your post very much.

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    • Oh Teresa, I’m so sorry your first part time job wasn’t enjoyable. It’s tough when you are stuck with something you hate. I spent one holiday from college sticking price tags on training shoes. The same thing for 9 hours a day for 7 weeks. It was soul-destroying!

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  6. In Junior high I spent both years helping in the library. It must have been a study hall kind of thing because I remember going regularly during the school day at least once a week. But not during HS. In fact, I have no memory of the HS library which is kind of odd.

    I did the babysitting thing all through high school. It was always assumed I’d be good at it since I had 4 younger siblings. Grin. Which I was since as Mary Jo says, no child was harmed on my watch.

    In college my part time job was working in the college library at the circulation desk on the weekends for 3 years – both Sat and Sun all day. The college I went to was pretty much a commuter college so most of the time it was a slow, slow job. Luckily the other person who I worked with was fun to be with. One summer we spent the entire time playing cards – until I started winning all the time and he couldn’t stand it. Grin.

    Checking in books exposed me to a lot of books I would never have looked at or known about. That was a lot of fun.

    Later on in life I worked in the upscale version of Walden Books (Brentano’s) for a year. Loved that. Didn’t love the people who came in looking for the books with no title, no author name, etc. Hated the magazine section. But the rest of it was fun.

    I’ve worked Friends of the Library sales for many years and have always enjoyed helping people find the books/authors they were looking for. I also volunteer at my local library boxing up book donations and books culled from the shelves that are being stored for the next library sale. I always find amazing books.

    However, owning a bookstore has never been one of my dreams.

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    • What a wonderful story about your time in libraries and book stores, Vicki. It’s so true that dealing with a wide variety of different books can really expose you to lots of titles you would never find otherwise. It’s fascinating, and a way to find such interesting books.

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  7. What a very fun post, Nicola! I enjoyed learning about your past and current bookstore jobs.

    I was yet another who babysat. Though frankly I’m now amazed that someone would leave a three month old with a ten year old who had no idea what she was doing. Shall I confess my great secret? I was known to advance the clock so that it was “Bedtime!” I also got quite the education from reading adult magazines that I’d encounter while babysitting.

    My first bona fide job with a paycheck was making sandwiches in a small building on the tenth tee of a golf course at a country club. I was terrified of the mice there.

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    • LOL, Kareni! Neat trick advancing that clock! YOur comment about the adult magazines reminded me of all the weird stuff you could accidentally stumble across when babysitting! I also remember a lot of people left lovely treats for me to eat during the evening – and some didn’t!

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  8. I was a babysitter too, in northern Minnesota, where we lived on a lake. I got my haircuts free for babysitting, and financial advice from a local banker who paid twenty five cents an hour for three kids…but I loved it. My first real job was as a dental assistant, which did not encourage me to go into that profession! When I was nine, my dad brought home boxes of books from a library that closed, and I was in heaven!

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    • That’s a very neat system of exchange, Joyce, haircuts and financial advice for babysitting! Whenever I go to the dentist I wonder if the staff have a vocation for it – I’d rather work with books!

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  9. Thank you, Nicola, for such a lovely blog. Your love of books and people is very apparent. You have brought a joyous action into that bookshop for everyone who enters.

    For years, I got into a rut with secretarial jobs until the universe kicked my butt and sent me out of it into a deeper expression as a dance instructor in competitive Standard ballroom.

    The office work I did gave me experience in electronics, without which I would have no idea how to use a computer. It also gave me the ability to live in an apartment independently and release me from living with a parent any longer.

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    • Wow, Pat, what a fascinating career to be a dance instructor! I guess a lot of us go through a phase of doing less than inspiring jobs for practical reasons, but when you are able to follow your dream it is wonderful.

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  10. Joyce, my first babysitting jobs also paid 25¢ an hour. I was in Guam though rather than in Minnesota. I also babysat for a banker who had lived for a while at the hotel my father then managed. Curiously, the towels and dinnerware at the banker’s home looked strangely familiar….

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  11. Lovely post, Nicola! Bookshops are full of magic. Irresistible to those of us who love books. I think you’re very brave, though, to tackle the techy side, such as the till, loyalty program, credit cards, etc. Ringing up the 3+ million must’ve been a horror. Dear heavens! ((:O So I admire how you learned all that, and are now enjoying your time there. My first job was selling snowcones for 5 cents on my front lawn, or from a red wagon a friend and I pulled along the sidewalk, calling out, “Snowcones! Snowcones for sale!” I was 7 or 8. Later did pet-sitting, something I still do and enjoy. Dog-sitting tonight, in fact, as I type this.

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    • I love that you are still pet-sitting, Sue-Ellen, a while after you started! I think I’d have preferred that to babysitting. And snowcones! Now that sounds fun.

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