A Week in the Life of an Independent Bookseller

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A Week in the Life of an Independent Bookseller

By Liz Mason, manager of Quimby's Bookstore, originally published in Punk Planet #75 / September and October 2006.


Even though we don’t open until noon, I come in at 10:00 a.m. to do paperwork in the dark, pay consignors, answer e-mails, use carpet cleaner to cleanup a dachshund vomit stain in front of the chap books—standard office procedures in the world of an independent bookstore.

The computer at the front counter (which also doubles as register and my main office work space) is still acting funny. In the middle of working, it will suddenly go to sleep. It won’t freeze and you won’t lose any of your work, but the screen will turn black, and the iTunes will turn off until you rattle the mouse or hit the space bar. It’s almost like it ate a big meal and then decided to take a nap. The theory my two co-workers and I have accepted is that it happens when it gets too hot in the store, so we have to keep it cold to keep the computer awake.

Just like the Lettermen studio audience.

A man with an unruly beard pounds on the door at 11:04 a.m. and thrusts 10 copies of Paranoia zine at me. “I don’t want any money. Just make sure they’re on display,” he growls. Then he tells me the story of solar power.

When I open the store, the phone is alive. A reporter from the Washington Post wants to talk about “that new graphic novel A Scanner Darkly.” A giggly girl wants to confirm we sell various issues of Housewives At Play. An angry publisher demands a check for $2.70 worth of sold zines. A pushy woman from a movie promotion company demands that we hang a poster in the window for that Al Gore environmental movie. She asks me my name and then starts using it in sentences, which always stinks to me of in your face sales pitches. She is so aggressive that it makes me scrunch my nose like something smells. I tell her that we don’t have enough window space right now since we reserve it for flyers for in-store events.

My first customers of the day are a young couple with a baby. The dad heads straight for the newest issue of Tape Op. The mom and baby stroller head for the new table. I open iTunes to the random function. It greets the shoppers with Blowfly’s “Too Fat to Fuck.”

Today’s mail highlight: a personal check mail order for one mini comic ($.50) and postage ($6.00).


Overnight there has been street art action: someone has spray-painted four stenciled razorblades on the outside of the building below the window next to the door. Each blade has a heart in it, and it actually looks sort of cool but I dread pointing it out to the owner. Someone else has adhered a sticker to the bricks below the front window that says “BULL.” A Night Court fan?

A store regular and consignor accompanies her parents to the store. She points to her publication in the local zine area.

“That’s great, honey!” Mom gushes. Two gentlemen wearing white belts and reading Chunklet look up.

“Shhhh!” her daughter reprimands, wincing, petting the air with her hands.

The cell phone of a man thumbing through Feminine Anarchy rings, and as he walks outside, he says to the caller “Oh not much. Lookin’ at a book about broads pissin’ in public.”

As I am assembling a monthly finance report on the front computer, a man enters the store and asks for me specifically. He has arrived with a poster to hang in our window. It is for the Al Gore environmental movie. The poster has a penguin on it. I do not allow the man to hang the poster. He fidgets at the counter in front of me, hovering and swaying with a strange deliberation and then finally shuffles out. Minutes later, I answer the phone. The same man asks for me. He says, “You will kill all the penguins!” and hangs up.

Every few transactions, I notice that the receipt printer periodically refuses to print unless you restart it. It is an old printer; I have been here for five years, and this receipt printer was here before me. Every time it completes a printout, you have to manually roll up the duplicate yellow in-store tape roll so that it does not spill over the counter. It is the bane of my existence. This receipt printer and I hate each other. I am perpetually rolling up the damn receipt tape all damn day until I have tendinitis.

Today’s mail highlight: a letter requesting tickets to our next taping of the Jerry Springer Show. We tape the letter on the mail art wall next to the jackalope head.


The caller wanted to know if we taxidermize cats.
—Liz Mason

One of my co-workers has made a sign the night before and posted it in the free area that reads, “dude, we are out of Vice.”

I am exhausted. The security system service called me at 4:30 this morning to tell me the store alarm was going off, that they detected a disturbance in the matrix that is the back of the store where we used to keep the porn, until we moved the porn to the front of the store so we could make sure nobody was shoving it down their pants. (The porn’s new location is accompanied by a sign that announces people must be fully clothed, due to a series of unfortunate real-life events involving a man in very short shorts.) Now the photo, film and art books are in the back. I arrive at the store on my bike five minutes before the cops do. Together we investigate to find that it was a false alarm. All five cops are intrigued by the photo book Bubble Bath Girls.

By mid-afternoon I have sent out the monthly e-mail about in-store events and notable new books to our e-mail subscriber list, assembled magazine returns, sorted invoices for the owner to pay tomorrow, met with a sales rep from the company that sells T-bone scented air fresheners, and changed the prices on our web site of a zine about urban spelunking to reflect a price increase from $1.00 to $2.00.

It is time for a break. When I get back from watching the dogs in the doggie park, my co-worker shows me that the receipt printer is not working at all. I call the receipt printer company for technical assistance but they are closed for the day. (It will be more than a week until we get the receipt printer situation all sorted, since it seems that there’s only one guy in the whole country who repairs this model. We opt for a new printer instead, one that manually spools the in-store duplicate tape. There’s also a cutter on the machine that rips the receipts for you. When the receipt printer finally arrives I lavish it with kisses.)

The new issue of McSweeney's arrives. Somehow, instead of 40 copies, 200 are delivered. This has happened for the past five issues. Each time the distributor promises it will not happen again.

Today’s mail highlight: a zine has come in for consignment consisting of only black and white drawings of grass.


We are out of Crispin Hellion Glover books again. My co-worker volunteers to place the order, which entails calling a quiet elderly woman who we think is his mom. She is very nice, and we picture her feeding Crispin Glover tomato soup and petting his head.

My other co-worker answers the ringing phone, and when he hangs it up he laughs. He tells me that the caller wanted to know if we taxidermize cats.

A long-haired greasy gentleman with a sour smell continually glances at me, and as I catch his eye, he stacks up works by Hakim Bey, Edward Said, and Guy Debord in a pile and settles in to the back couch. He furrows his brow and makes loud “Mmmph!” noises indicating condemnation of the status quo. I walk by to fax an order to a publisher, and I see that he is using the Situationist Handbook to cover what he is really reading: Bondage Fairie Fetish, Volume 2.

Today’s mail highlight: a catalog for renaissance faire clothing! Also, porn film stills from the editor of Cinema Sewer!


Whoever said that print is dead has surely never been greeted outside the front door with towering stacks of the Monthly Aspectarian, the Chicago Reader, and the Auto Times as I am today. Everything is soggy because of last night’s rain. There is also half a red Gatorade thoughtfully left for me on the ground, in case I get thirsty lugging in wet newspapers.

A local author does a scheduled reading from his new book of short stories at 7:30 p.m. His only attendees are his (much younger) girlfriend and two shoppers we convinced to stay so that he would not feel bad. He finishes at 8:16. “And now for a question and answer session!” he declares. “How do you like my work?!”

Today’s mail highlight: a Quill catalog. Office supply porn! I fantasize about labeling purple file folders.


Today is the big day! It’s an in-store signing with a famous alternative comics artist known for his work about an adult man with stunted emotional development. The crowd is composed of among others, local minicomics artists who write about being an adult male with stunted emotional development. The line to have the artist sign books extends from the back of the store to the front door, but nobody is actually buying any of his books, since they’re fans that have brought their own copies. Unfortunately, in my anticipation of looking unprepared for the event, I have ordered way too many books. I hope our sister store will take some off our hands so we don’t have to pay a ton to ship them back to the distributor.

Today’s mail highlight: a letter from an incarcerated gentleman who has taken a liking to zine reviewers in our catalog. He offers detailed descriptions of what sexual acts he prefers to perform on each writer.


One of my co-workers calls me at home to tell me that the computer totally died, that it won’t even turn on. Tomorrow morning I’ll have to take it to the Apple store and pray that they can get it turned on to save everything. The last time I backed it up was before the weekend, so at least we have the important stuff. •

© 2006 Punk Planet | Punk Planet is a project of Independents' Day Media