Heather Hill: Not Your Average Hollywood Bookseller: My Time at Changing Hands Bookstore

Bookselling is often portrayed as a romantic job. Often, movies and television scenes involving a bookstore will cut to a cute but quirky girl in a store with a book propped open in front of her. You can’t smell through the screen, but you somehow know the scent of old books fills the air, giving the shop a trademark scent. Every so often, the chime rings on the door as a customer comes in to browse the shelves, but they leave the girl alone for the most part because they know she’s reading. Once the customer finds what they are looking for, this bookstore girl might have to ring up a sale now and again. Despite the minor interruption, she still gets to finish that dog-eared paperback with the severely cracked spine for the one-hundredth time.

Au contraire, Hollywood. The real scene is just a bit different.

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Photo by The State Press

Fast forward to Tuesday, July
31st, in Tempe, Arizona. It’s raining and humid; the start of the monsoon season has arrived. Approximately eighteen hundred people are standing outside Changing Hands Bookstore—another five hundred are inside—to meet former President Jimmy Carter. The store’s usual event ticketing system has been amended by none other than the Secret Service, and their guidelines seem to change almost as fast as bookstore staff can update the large crowd outside.

Sound chaotic? It’s just another day as a Changing Hands bookseller, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Books have always been a big part of my life.

Both my mother and father are educators, and they instilled a love of reading very early on in my life. Throughout my education, I read voraciously, devouring just about any book I could get my hands on, required reading or not.

Although I didn’t realize it when I was younger, hindsight tells me that I was destined for a career working with and around books.

Around January of 2014, I heard that my favorite independent bookstore was opening a second location in Phoenix closer to where I lived. As soon as I got the news, I immediately filled out an application and set out to Tempe. The proverbial train to my then unknown destiny was rolling.

Despite my passion for books, I was doubtful I’d ever get hired at an Arizona institution like Changing Hands. They’d been in business for nearly forty years at the time the new store was announced, and I knew hundreds of people were applying for only a handful of positions.

When I handed in my application, the woman that took it asked me if I had ever worked in a bookstore. I told her I had no bookselling experience, but I had worked in retail for a long time and that I adored books. She thanked me for the application and I left the store.

A few weeks went by, and since I was busy working at two other jobs, my thoughts about working at Changing Hands were pushed to the back-burner, until I received a call to interview. I couldn’t believe it; I had a chance at a job!

As happy as I was to receive an interview, I was as dejected when I walked out of it. In my head, I had blown the interview. If you were to ask me, I had babbled too much and things I had said felt like a far cry from interview-worthy.

Another few weeks went by with no phone call, convincing me even more that I had left a bad impression with the group that interviewed me.

One day—I was in the car with my family on our way out to see my grandparents—a number popped up on my phone that I didn’t recognize. When I answered the call, it was none other than one of the store owners calling to offer me a full time job as a bookseller. I was so ecstatic. I nearly dropped my phone. I immediately thanked her and told her I would be exceptionally pleased to take the position.

I’ve never looked back since.

One of the duties of my job is hosting author events. I initially asked to be trained as an event host because I liked the idea of the challenge it presented and saw it as a way to help combat my social anxiety by facing it head on. Event hosts have to be quick on their feet, patient, adaptable, and have an affinity for managing crowds. They also have to be social beings to a certain extent, interacting with the authors that visit the store and the people that are there to visit those authors.

I’ve been lucky to have helped host some wonderful authors throughout my first year at Changing Hands, including Chris Colfer, Jen Lancaster, David Levithan, and many, many more. My favorite, however, has to be Chuck Palahniuk.

Photo by Heather Hill

Mr. Palahniuk came through Arizona in October 2014 during his tour for his book Beautiful You, and that event was unlike any other I have ever witnessed. To give some perspective, staff had to open a thousand packets containing clear beach balls for people to toss around at Mr. Palahniuk’s cues. Attendees were asked to dress in pajamas (and many did, including myself). Occasionally during the event, Palahniuk would stop, and he, his publicist, and I threw prizes into the audience, which included bags of candy and fake arms tattooed with Palahniuk’s signature that looked like they had been sawed off a human being as a form of torture.

In what other job can you possibly say you’ve thrown fake, dismembered arms with an author’s signature scrawled across them, while dressed in flannel pajama pants?

It’s not just the author events that make my job fun. I get to spend roughly eight hours a day, five days a week around books and the people that love them. My coworkers are all just as passionate about books as I am, and the customers that come through our doors are the best in the business. I get to chat with them about what they like and dislike, along with whatever book news is going around. I get to put books in the hands of people young and old, with a range of likes and dislikes.

Book people are my people, and I can hardly believe I get paid to do the job I do.

Although a bookselling position can be crazy at times and stressful at others, I can truly say I’ve never felt more at home. I love what I do. Being able to bring people and books together is an experience that is like no other. Putting a book that may potentially change someone’s life in their hands is like nothing I’ve done before in a career, nor will I again. I’d much rather be the bookseller I am now, rather than that stereotypical bookseller in the movies or on TV.

Eat your heart out, Hollywood. Changing Hands Bookstore is the place to be.