My first job was at The Book House in Rock Hill, Missouri. I was 14, and I had to write a report for algebra class: Interview someone who works in a field you’re interested in about how they use math in their day-to-day work.
I called The Book House and requested an interview with the owner. Michelle Barron sat with me on the front steps of The Book House and showed me the calculations she used when buying and selling books, calculating tax, and managing payroll. I hit her up for a job at the end of the interview (at my headhunter dad’s prompting) and was turned down; I gave her my number anyway.
Michelle called me on a Saturday morning a month or so later — someone had called in sick and she was in a bind. My mom drove me right up there and I worked at The Book House off and on for the next ten years. Michelle is still my fairy godmother — more on that later.
The people who worked at The Book House — especially John and Javier — taught me not only how to shelve (which in a hundred-year-old farmhouse full of used and rare books was no straightforward task) and run the desk, but also how to read. Outside my genre, outside my preferences, outside my 14-, 15-year-old sphere of influence in suburban St. Louis, Missouri. Spending two nights and one Saturday morning every week for my high school years did more to form my personality and preferences than any other experience I’ve had before or since.
I learned, for instance, that sci-fi readers can talk. And interior decorators don’t read (they like to buy books by the pound, or the foot, or the color — we had full permission to run them right out of the store). That erotica readers don’t talk, and should probably be supervised. That aging married dudes feel weirdly comfortable hitting on adolescent girls. That a lot of people want to believe in ghosts.
This was my introduction to the private world of readers: an invitation to reside in their safe place. It was a privilege and an honor, and neither Michelle nor I can believe she let me close the store alone when I was 15 years old.
Somewhere around 1998-99 I did some short stints at Barnes & Noble and Waldenbooks. The difference between working in those stores and in independent bookstores was enormous and sickening. That was the only time I have actually hated working around books. The shoppers were no picnic, either.
In 2000, two former employees of the Book House opened a store of their own: Subterranean Books. I showed up regularly to try to make myself useful and try to convince them to hire me. They didn’t want to, but I’m nothing if not persistent, and they finally did. That was a blast. Subterranean is in the St. Louis Loop, an active urban neighborhood with completely different reading preferences than the people who came to the Book House. I learned how to keep a small store tight and neat, to navigate the counterculture section without coming across like a total idiot, to process orders and deliveries of new books — and I fell in love with the ARC shelves in the office. Oh, the ARC shelves. They changed my life, too.
I worked at Subterranean until I moved to LA in 2004, and when I moved back to St. Louis in 2015, they invited me back to work Christmas hours. I figure I’ll just keep showing up until they stop letting me in the door.
In 2005, Los Angeles Unified School District hired me to teach English and Social Studies in a continuation high school. (I’ll save that story for another day, but it’s a good one.) I was completely unqualified for the job and I spent most of my time beefing up the “library” and trying to avoid the principal. I had a little bit of luck matching incalcitrant taggers and teenaged gangsters with novels they might actually love, but not much.
Teaching in a system that I swear to God is set up for failure taught me (reminded me?) that reading and writing are subversive acts. The right book, slipped silently to a kid who’s been a pain in the ass all semester, can simultaneously amaze the kid with the crazy shit people publish in actual books and give the rest of the class a break so you can cram some grammar into their heads for fifteen minutes. The right writing prompt, plus permission to tell the truth without risking any consequences, can change a kid’s life. Or at least their school day. They didn’t tell me a whole lot about what happened when they left school property; if they did, they might have had to kill me.
In 2009, I launched My Two Cents Editing in an effort to never have to deal with a principal again. See Our Startup Story to pick up from there.