October 08, 2013
I haven’t worked full-time in over two years, so my response to the title of this essay is very simple: I need the money, and of the thirty-six resumes and vitas I recently sent out online or hand-delivered, a chain bookstore was the only place that responded. Prior to this, I was a full-time seminary student working toward national ordination in my faith. Before that, I was a part-time seminary student and full-time college teacher. Then, in 2011, shortly before I was to be granted tenure, I was informed, owing to precipitous drops in enrollment, that my contract would not be renewed for a crucial final semester. After eleven years of teaching for the state, collecting awards, certificates, and the friendship of many students, I was being let go.
Friends ask if I think it was personal. My teaching style, while effective, is a little unorthodox, so there is some cause for the question. But I don’t think so. At least twenty of us at the same institution were let go that semester, and enrollment is down, so I’m inclined to believe it came down to simple dollars and cents. Management decided to downsize before its costs became too burdensome.
This recession works differently than others. Officially, it ended in 2009, but many of us continue to live with its effects, be it a 10 percent unemployment rate, or the massive rise in McJobs. In earlier recessions, community colleges were havens for work because everyone went back to school to improve their education. Teaching English as I did was a hedge against unemployment—everyone has to take English. But again, this recession is not like others. Industries are imploding, businesses are closing shop, and old standards no longer apply.
A return to academia would, for me, require a return to graduate school for a PhD (my MFA, though a legitimate terminal degree, is snubbed by Human Resource Managers, who are up to their eyeballs in doctorate applicants). And even if I do get my doctorate, I’m likely to have no greater promise of work than before. And even if I do get work, my salary is likely to remain the same as it was before.
At the time of my lay-off, I was already in the midst of a career change to ministry. My wife convinced me to take classes full-time and work odd jobs in order to finish. I graduated with a Master of Divinity degree this past May. But my faith has also experienced congregational downsizing for years, and though I’ve been locally ordained by congregations that I’ve served in the past and can legitimately call myself “Reverend,” the all-important national recognition requires a year’s internship at a church under an older (and presumably wiser) minister. Most of these positions, owing to the shrinking of congregations, are unpaid. I can’t rationalize my wife subsidizing a yearlong unpaid internship, so I need to return to full-time employment. But so far, part-time employment is all that has presented itself.
There is an unacknowledged component to the popular do-what-you-love movement: a lot of necessary work exists—from gutting still-warm chickens on an assembly line to microwaving fast food patties to cleaning public toilets— that nobody loves. With this in mind, I feel fortunate that what I’m doing now is something I actually enjoy, and have done before. In fact, I worked for this same chain bookstore a decade-and-a-half ago, and over the years have worked for six different bookstores, total. So I know my way around books. Even so, my current employer has determined that I’m worth exactly the same as someone with zero experience. I am now paid minimum wage, which in my marginally more progressive state is slightly higher than the national average. But it is minimum wage nonetheless.
Here I am, in my mid-fifties, the holder of a terminal degree, two advanced degrees, ordination, over a decade of teaching experience, and nearly a decade of experience working in the bookselling industry, and I’m making less now, in real wages and current pay, than I did when I joined this same company sixteen years ago.
But of course bookstores are dying and no matter how big they are, they are dying at the same (and possibly greater) rate than their smaller competitors. Of the six bookstores I worked at previously, I helped close three of them. And my current employer is also, rumor has it, imperiled. That bookstores are dying isn’t news to anyone who cares about books. The difficulties of this business are right in line with those of ministry, social services, education, and other occupations in the personal sector: everybody wants to make use of these services and almost no one wants to pay for them. The contemporary bookstore as it has been constituted for the last century—an open space where customers can meander for something new or different to examine at leisure—is increasingly a place of entitlement. Most customers are preoccupied with efficiency and disinterested in taking chances. They want the book that they want, and if you haven’t got it, well, Amazon can get it. The sense of discovery, of the hunt, of the thrill one experiences upon finding just the right book, has become the activity of an increasingly privileged group of eccentrics.
But here’s what leaves me optimistic. In the short time that I’ve been at this new job I’ve had a conversation about maddening freeway detours with a retired truck driver; I’ve listened to older people worry aloud about visiting Las Vegas and navigating The Strip, and I’ve directed them to websites devoted to their questions; I’ve made an older, bereaved woman, searching for books about grief and recovery, laugh a real, full, belly laugh.
One afternoon when I was feeling particularly depressed about my age and low wage, I was approached at the register by a woman and her two children. The girl had gotten a fortune cookie with her Chinese lunch that said “Treat yourself to something you’ll enjoy”—and that turned out to be a book. They were younger kids, perhaps four and six, judging by the titles they chose. They were learning, their mom said, to pay on their own, and had crumpled bills and pockets full of pennies.
A short line formed while I helped them smooth out each bill and count their coins, but no one in line seemed annoyed. I took an extra three minutes to check them out separately so each could experience the accomplishment of buying his and her own book. I cannot explain or emphasize enough how good—how like ministering to them—this act felt to me. It was communion in the form of commerce, if there is such thing in retail. For me it was a holy-seeming act, and one that gave me hope.