Bookstore Musings

When I first started working in the bookstore, I had the strange sensation of turning the clock back to pre-marriage, pre-motherhood days. Time has caught up with me of late, however, as the impact of additional hours out of my schedule has begun to make itself felt. I am behind on everything, and I owe a big apology to all the people who are waiting to hear from me by email. It’s just that life has been excessively busy (by my standards at least), what with a large number of hours spent recently on university business, and visits to and from people. I’m feeling really tired, because I’m used to having what Thoreau termed ‘wide margins’ to my day, times to process and reflect and simmer down; without them, life suffers from a sort of pixillated effect, all speeded up jump cuts from one thing to the next.

But the bookstore is a lot of fun. I’ve worked three sessions there now, and have settled into a regular Monday slot. We are busier than I’d imagined we might be, although as always the customers come in batches, with stretches of empty, dreaming space between. It’s quite rare, though that the shop is without someone browsing the shelves. The first hurdle was the till, which looked a formidable opponent when I first arrived. The cash drawer shoots out unexpectedly fast and can catch you a swift blow to the ribs if you’re not careful, and I dread the day that the float runs out when I’m the only staff in sight and the extra cash is kept in a safe place somewhere else altogether. I’m still at the stage when I don’t know the answers to customer questions. Do we have a political theory section? Do we? I’ve no idea. Why hasn’t a poster advertising a local musical event been displayed? It was a very handsome young man asking that question, so I didn’t mind in the least chewing the problem over with him, although I’d no idea what the real answer was. But I’ve moved swiftly back into customer service mode, like I was never away, and I can clean and mark up a second-hand book and shelve it more or less correctly, so I’m learning.

The best bit is working with my manager again. She is so lovely and funny and the focal point of the store. All the volunteers gravitate around her, like little satellites, and when they’re not working, they walk past and wave in the window at her. Next week I’m alone in the store because she’ll be on holiday – help! The window cleaner might turn up, apparently, and I can’t remember what I’m supposed to do if he does, and the recycling man, who may be alarming because he looks like a Viking and has a tendency to stride purposefully towards the back of the shop without stating his business. Okay, well, I’ll recognise him if he turns up, at least. When books are too old or scruffy to be sold, they get sent out back to The Hut for recycling, which also brings us a little money. Getting out the back gate with the recycling involves the most complicated arrangement of keys and bolts, however, that I’ve ever seen. Can I recall now the sequence involved to unlock them all? Ummm….

It’s funny that this lack of knowledge bothers me far more now than it did when I was twenty and learning the ropes of a new job. In fact, I can’t remember ever being fazed back then by something I couldn’t do. I just figured I’d figure it out. Sometimes when I’m in the shop, and it’s quiet, and I’m just sitting on the stool by the till holding the fort, I can feel the quiet vibrations of my nerves. This is the problem for anyone who’s had a long term illness – it really undermines your confidence in your ability just to be. I’m not sure what’s normal any more – is it normal to be anxious about a new job that’s basically very easy? Is it normal to feel tired after doing something new?

But this brings me to something rather fascinating I was reading about in psychotherapist Neville Symington’s The Analytic Experience: Lectures From The Tavistock, about the reluctance we feel in learning from experience. He recounts an anecdote about a group of prisoners he began working with. When offered their files, he declined, saying he’d rather find out about them in the group meetings. When he attended the meeting, the prisoners wanted to know if he’d read their files. At first he wouldn’t say, but when they pressed him for an answer and he admitted he hadn’t, they were up in arms. He clearly wasn’t serious about his job! They didn’t want to have to tell him things that were all explained in the files. They simply couldn’t believe that they would be knowable, or understandable, just as they were, in the moment. Symington tells another story, about a female client who kept asking him lots of questions. When he turned the questions back on her, asking her what she felt about them, she always came up with answers, but they would be preceded by her sighing and saying, did she really have to? Going through the process of working out an answer didn’t appeal at all.

The issue Symington is interested in, like most psychotherapists, is how do we become ourselves? How do we ever find out who we really are? And he looks at this question through the lens of these stories, and the theories of Wilfred Bion. Bion was interested in what he called alpha functioning, which is a basic form of creativity, whereby we come to process ideas and feelings and events and stimuli to the point where we fully possess them inside ourselves. What we take in from the outside world, and what we experience, if we don’t do anything with it but just store it undigested, remains what Bion termed ‘beta elements’. If someone explodes in an outburst of rage or tears over you, you’ll have experienced raw beta elements. If you’ve sat listening to a lecture or a presentation and been really confused about what the person talking is trying to say, you’re listening to beta elements. If that angry person had stated firmly and clearly the source of their upset, then you’d be witnessing the results of alpha functioning. If the lecture had been clear and insightful and given you a startling new perspective, then you’d be the recipient of that alpha functioning. But to get that alpha function to work, we have to sit still and quiet and concentrated on what has happened to us. We have to be open to not knowing in advance what we think and feel, but to listen out instead to what we really think and feel.

Bion’s point was that we are all inclined to reach out for ready-made thoughts and responses, rather than organically develop our own. Our minds are full of images of how people should behave, how they should react, how they ought to be, images that come from stories, of course, but also from the pervading cultural climate, and from family narratives. We spend far more time trying to bend ourselves out of shape to fit these patterns, than we do actually listening to the small inner voice of experience. I know I struggle with alpha functioning because I have so many pre-existing concepts and standards for myself and I don’t think it’s permissible to go along with how I feel in an unjustified sort of way. And I can see how tempting it is not to pay attention to how I feel now, but to try to force myself into the shape of the person I was when I was last in a bookstore. There’s a ready-made identity calling me, if ever I saw one. Thanks to Symington’s brilliant lecture, I realise I need to find some time and space to process my experiences and see what I really feel about them, this time around.


19 thoughts on “Bookstore Musings

  1. I can see how this experience would highlight how you’ve changed since you were in your twenties, but it’s so insightful of you to also realize that one possible coping strategy might be to become that person again. I very much like the idea of not deciding right away how one fits and what one thinks about an experience. And I’m glad you’re paying attention to how you’re feeling — the bookstore sounds like good fun and stimulating, and yet it has the potential to also wear you out! Thanks for this update — I was wondering how it was going. xoxo

  2. I sit in this hospital room… 15th day of the vigil.. .processing… processing

    thank you for this beautiful post

  3. Learning something new, whether it’s a task or an insight about oneself, is both exhausting and frightening. As I sit here at home on my first week of officially “not working” I’m already thinking about what I might do next, thoughts which require me to face the prospect of learning new skills at my rather advanced age, and also to consider who I really am in terms of the types of things I want to do with the rest of my life.

    Just the thought of thinking about it is daunting!

  4. Pingback: Working (or not) « Becca's Byline

  5. I think I would love working in a bookstore; but, the cash register might get me kerfuffled. The last time I operated one I was in high school and worked in a candy store. It had keys like an old Royal typewriter. Punch in the keys and – pling – the drawer opened up. I see they are far more high tech these days – electronic and fully-brained. Self knowledge comes slowly and with age, I’m afraid. I don’t think there is an easy way. Oh, LL, your archived posts are such a treasure trove! I am reading The Turn Of The Screw for the first time, and came across your post from years ago. As always, I learned much from it.

  6. I need processing time too…I hope one day when my teaching career is over, I’ll find myself in a bookstore or library…volunteer or retired part-timer…either is ok with me. I don’t want any keys though 😉

  7. It sounds like an interesting book–and an interesting take on it. My first reaction before I got to yours was that it explained the appeal of cliches. No need to think. But you took it to a more profound place.

  8. What a wonderful post Litlove! I share your fears and forgetfulness of what is normal (I’ve been ill since I was 15, which is a decade now: this shocks me), although I don’t think I have anything to add. Just wanted to let you know what a lovely read this was. 🙂

  9. I would love to work in a bookstore or a library. Though most of my reading is done with ebooks now-a-days, I still enjoy just being in the presence of a lot of books..

  10. So glad the bookstore gig is going well even if you do feel a bit lost and uncertain at times. It is only natural when you start a new job to feel that way, and yes, to fee tired too, even if it is something you have experience doing. But in a month or two you will realize that somewhere along the line you mastered it without even realizing it. The Symington book sounds interesting. Culturally we aren’t really encouraged to spend time quietly thinking about ourselves which is a shame.

  11. Mmmm, time and space…I too work better with wide margins to my day. But, your bookstore sounds worthy of margin intrusion, especially as it comes with recycling Vikings; and I have to agree, I am much more easily fazed these days than 10 or 12 years ago; I think it has to do with an increasing sense of responsibility and/or empathy, not necessarily self-doubt. Well, not all the time anyway.

  12. What’s a margin in a day? I’m not good without them but need to live without for the time being. Somewhat difficult … There is always something I think important that I have to cut out. And I’m not talking about doing, yes, just time to process.The topic of ready-made identities is fascinating. They are so limiting. I try to fight this every day but it is so easy to just give in sometimes.

  13. That anecdote about the prisoners is fascinating.

    Time to process is essential. Yet I often feel oddly guilty about explicitly making time for it in my day (rather than, say, going out with friends when invited). I seem to remember that Hemingway is not your favorite, but I often think about his writing on the difficulty of remaining open to, and identifying, what one REALLY feels or thinks about a situation, rather than simply what one thinks one OUGHT to think or feel. Maintaining that openness is hard work!

    On a less post-specific note, I’ve really enjoyed catching up on all your back posts from when I was in France. Love your blog, lady!

  14. Bloglily – I’ve been wanting to post about the bookstore but was sort of hanging on until I’d been there enough times to have a real feel for it. It’s fun, though – and once I’ve settled in a bit more I’m sure it will be rewarding.

    jacob – I’m so sorry to hear that you are in hospital! Let me know how you get on.

    Becca – well it’s comforting to me to know you feel similarly, but I also think that you are so brave and so right to take this time for yourself now to change directions and explore your options. From my privileged position as spectator, I’m looking forward to hearing about your new adventures!

    Grad – funnily enough, the till at the bookstore is a very old-fashioned model and probably a bit less sophisticated than the ones I used the first time around! I’m so glad you’re reading Turn of the Screw, such an intriguing book, and delighted that I could provide some more information about it!

    Patti – what is it about keys? I always struggle with locks! And I can certainly recommend bookstore work – it combines both interesting customers and hanging out with books, and I like both those things. 🙂

    Lilian – but the idea about cliches is a good one, too. I hadn’t thought of that at all, but it makes a lot of sense.

    Eva – thank you, that’s so nice. I didn’t realise you’d been poorly so long – you poor thing. It really must mess with your sense of what it’s ‘right’ to feel. It’s such an advantage of blogging that we get to support each other through these difficult things.

    ruthiella – and it’s very reassuring to hear that – thank you!

    celawerd – I always feel happy when there are books around me, and the more books the better. So a bookstore definitely works for me.

    Stefanie – I think that culturally, we are encouraged to buy things, and to do things, and sometimes to be things to be happy. What we really are, and a sense of fulfilment in ourselves is simply overlooked, not least because we don’t have to pay for it. It really is a shame. I like the thought that I’ll master this while looking in the other direction, as it were – that’s encouraging!

    Ella – I was just thinking of you the other day because I’ve been getting so much out of reiki recently and I think you were the first person to mention it to me (Charlotte was right there with it as a suggestion, too). Yes, I do think that more empathy and more responsibility make it easier to worry about things, and having a better idea of all that can go wrong doesn’t help, either. But as someone encouragingly told me the other day, it doesn’t matter at the store if I make a mistake because we’re all volunteers just doing the best we can to make a bit of money for charity – no corporate pressure! I liked the sound of that.

    Caroline – I think our sense of identity is always alternating between fixity and a range of possible roles, possible metamorphoses. It’s uncomfortable to think how easy it is for us to put on different masks, although some writers, like Colette, see it as our saving grace. A way to rest and to play at the same time. But much as I like that idea, I also feel better if I give myself time to find out what I really think about things. For me it’s the most important thing to do at present, but it isn’t that way all the time, of course.

    Emily – I had no idea that that Hemingway was interested in such issues. That comes of hardly reading any of his work! To be fair, I did enjoy A Movable Feast, so I really ought to give him a proper try! And it’s lovely to have you back home. I had the best vicarious holiday ever reading all your posts from France! 🙂

  15. I love the idea of alpha functioning, and thinking of it as a form of creativity is fascinating. We really are creating something new in ourselves when we fully respond to something. I would find it hard to start a new job, even a relatively simple one, and even one I enjoyed. I stress out over those little things like what to do when the recycling guy comes. It sounds perfectly normal to me! 🙂

  16. I hope all went well on your first day alone! When I think back to some of the things I did when I was 20 I amaze myself as I think now I would never have the courage, so you are certainly not alone. I’m not sure how good I am at sitting still and listening for those alpha moments, but it is certainly something to work on. And I could use some of those wide margins–maybe that’s part of my problem these days.

  17. Great post. I loved the part about Neville Symington’s ideas and what you made of them. And Bion’s alpha/beta concepts as well. As for the bookshop, I’m impressed that you are taking the time to come up with a considered, felt response to being there instead of going with the ready response. Sounds like a fun and worthwhile place to work as well (and once a week sounds often enough). I heard a good quote today that “the book is the most important cultural artefact that humanity has produced”. That one brought a tear to my eye (but it might also have been the soundtrack from Il Postino playing in the background).

  18. Dorothy – oh bless you, you’re so kind! I’m glad not to be the only one who finds these sorts of things a stress. In the end, it was fine. The recycling man didn’t turn up, although the window cleaner did, and fortunately it was sort of obvious how to pay him with petty cash. Sitting in a chair and thinking about alpha functioning is more the sort of thing I readily do! 🙂

    Danielle – I am a firm believer that everyone needs some margins to their day, and being without time for oneself is always tough. It was easier when we were 20 though, wasn’t it! I know – I lived in another country and travelled around the UK all the time, neither of which I have any urge to do now. But I like thinking of things like alpha functioning. Yesterday went okay, thankfully – at least until the end of my shift when the next person didn’t turn up to take over… that was exciting for a moment. I had to do a bit of ringing around, but happily one of the other volunteers could cover for a bit. Honestly, these things are never exactly smooth!

    Pete – lol! Yes, it’s a tough call as to which would be more moving, the sound track or the quote. The shop is great – really good selection of books, and at least it’s teaching me some restraint as I can’t come out every time I work there with more books…I wondered if you’d read the Neville Symington. If you can get hold of it, DO, it’s wonderful.

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