Joe from the Netflix hit You is a disturbing guy. He’s a stalker, a serial killer and, most unnerving to me personally, he’s a bookseller who wears an apron. I’ve been a bookseller for almost five years and I’ve never once worn an apron, nor have I seen another bookseller wear one unless they were pulling double duty as a barista. It’s difficult to convey how all-consuming this one TV wardrobe choice remains, how baffling, how horrifically disruptive to my life. Is it because he works with rare books? Is it because he restores them? I could live with that, restoring anything old seems understandably messy. But Joe’s one coworker, Ethan, also wears an apron and he doesn’t restore books. In season 2, Joe works at a health food store as the manager of its little books section and he still wears an apron. I’m very excited for season 3 and it’s been made clear from the trailers that Joe is no longer a bookseller and thus no longer professionally “required” to wear one, but that doesn’t matter to me, I’ll still think about it. The apron is almost genius in its calculated misunderstanding of what bookselling looks like or even requires. I don’t care if there’s a well-researched production reason for its existence. Besides being visual evidence of a disturbed mind, it distills the aesthetically pleasing, slightly workmanlike, easygoing assumptions most people have about working in a bookstore.
To be fair, “This seems easy” is how a lot of people start out if they get hired. Before I worked at my bookstore, I hung around there because I had nothing better to do. I thought the job looked simple. It’s not like books need to be fed. It’s not like there’s danger. Joe from You tends to a remarkably empty, huge place on the Upper East Side, coming and going as he likes. Meg Ryan flits around the Upper West Side in a blissful haze with unending optimism for most of You’ve Got Mail, her character’s quaint children’s bookstore the epitome of what every regular person assumes a bookstore is like. It’s all about love and connection and community. Those pictures you see in cafes and on Instagram, people sitting between the stacks, poring over a title, smiling, goodwill towards all men, etc etc. Trust me, I wish.
The truth is that it is rare to be idle working in a bookstore, let alone stay romantic about it. Someone leaves a used tissue on the handrail, folded over and tucked onto itself like a diseased cravat. UPS just delivered a ton of shipments and half of them are either torn open or full of titles you didn’t order. The book that you love that you constantly try to push on customers hasn’t moved off the shelf in weeks. Meanwhile, you have to check if there’s any backstock of The Alchemist because, for some reason, we’re always selling out of The Alchemist. And The Four Agreements. And The Myth of Sisyphus. And, weirdly, the fifth My Struggle book (just the fifth one).
Obviously this wouldn’t make for very compelling TV, which is fine. Viewers prefer to see Penn Badgley, with his handsome, sculpted face, and his insane, incomprehensible apron idly put a few books on a shelf or ring up the odd tourist. But it irks me to no end. If anyone has to pop out it’s for some light stalking, not a run to the bank. No one is lifting heavy pieces of furniture or rearranging shelves. No one ships out orders. No one sets up book displays. No one even orders their books. At one point in You, Joe is shown opening a box of books that seem to have been teleported to him by God before putting them out directly onto the shelves. Questions abound. Why is there only one box? Why isn’t he drowning under the weight of at least ten more? Doesn’t he want to at least label the merchandise first?
Onscreen booksellers should, at the very least, be tired. Or stressed out, or pissed off, or shown to be doing something that they don’t have time for. Toilets have to be cleaned. There’s an old man on Line 1 who wants to know why we don’t sell a book that he can’t recall the title of but remembers seeing in a window once in 1998. That part in You’ve Got Mail when Tom Hanks’ Joe Fox shops at Kathleen Kelly’s store and balks at the full price? Yeah, that part, always, forever. Skull-face Bookseller Honda-san, a manga and anime featuring Japanese booksellers wearing armored helmets and plague doctor masks, is perhaps the only truly accurate depiction of bookstore life. Customer interactions are stressful, everything breaks, everything is heavy, there’s no room to put books out, there’s both too much and not enough time.
The only trope more common than the perfect little bookstore is the bookstore that’s about to go out of business. People wearing shirts that say something like “My life is better with books” remind you that this book, every book, is much cheaper on Amazon and that e-readers are more convenient. All this can make a bookseller (me, I’m the bookseller) mean, which is why there is something recognizably funny and a little awful about people like Joe from You or Bernard Black from the British sitcom Black Books, who owns and runs the titular shop. Joe lords his pretentious literary authority over strangers. “These books are more alive, more worthy than anyone I know,” he says, the world’s most inept serial killer, television’s most negligent bookstore manager. Meanwhile, Bernard is constantly trying to get people out of his store. In one episode, a customer walks in during business hours and Bernard screams to his coworker, “Why didn’t you lock the door?!”
Booksellers as pretentious as Joe do exist and other people with even more inflated egos work in the publishing business; they’re too embarrassing to think about and there are way more of them than you’d think possible. Sometimes, or if you’re me, all the time, you can’t help but judge what people buy, despite the fact that they are doing a good thing by buying it at an independent bookstore. And sometimes you really, really cannot wait to lock the door and close up for the day. Would I murder someone over it? Probably not. But I do sometimes understand that approach to conflict resolution.
Something about books, or the way we talk about books, stuns people into an obnoxious reverence about all the places that sell or borrow them. As my friend, who used to be a librarian and is now a best-selling author, told me recently, “Working in a library is like working in a coffee shop and by that I mean people don’t see you until they need something from you and then they ask for a sip from your mug.”
In every Instagram photo of a perfectly sunlit stack of books labeled “a good bookstore is my happy place” there is someone who is extremely undercompensated just out of frame waiting to reshelve those titles they used for props. Bernard Black says, “The pay is not great, but the work is hard.” Sometimes you meet cool people, sometimes you get to push a book into someone’s hands that changes their life for a little while. You’ll likely never know if or how. You’ll likely not have a fulfilling interaction like that for many weeks or months! Then again, there’s always more work to do. Like explain to people that the new James Bond isn’t based on a novel or why we don’t have an edition of Dune with Timothee Chalamet’s face on it.
Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.