Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Shelf Life

I first read Shelf Life shortly after its initial publication and I remember being somewhat disappointed in it because it seemed to promise so much more than it delivered. I didn’t record my feelings about the book after finishing it that first time and, because the passage of time mellowed my disappointment in it to a large degree, when I stumbled upon it again last week in a box of old books I decided to give it another try. I just knew that it would work for me this time around.

I was wrong.

Like most bibliophiles, especially those fast approaching retirement age, I’ve often dreamed of working in a bookstore so that, for once in my life, I could get paid for doing something I love in an environment I enjoy. Suzanne Strempek Shea’s book recounting her first year’s worth of experiences as a novice bookstore clerk seems like a natural choice for anyone dreaming of living the same life for themselves one day. Unfortunately, however, Shelf Life is written in such a dry, rambling, and often obtuse style, that the author eventually had me wondering if I could possibly last a whole year in the boring job she describes.

Suzanne Strempek Shea, in the midst of recovering from cancer treatments and not yet up to working on her next novel, realized that she needed to shake up her life a bit before she would be ready to resume her writing routine. She needed something to take her mind off of her recovery and lack of physical stamina and when an opportunity to work at Edwards Books (Springfield, Massachusetts) came up, she jumped at it. As things turned out, she brought many skills and ideas to the bookstore and Edwards Books was as lucky to have her as she was to have walked into the job.

I have to suspect that working in an independent bookstore, or even one of the big box bookstores, for that matter, is a lot more interesting than Shea makes it sound. She does pass on some interesting insights into the inner workings of a bookstore regarding the ordering process, how returns and markdowns work, how to best handle incomplete customer queries, how the location of a book within a store directly impacts the number of copies it will sell, etc. But her tendency to include long lists of trivial detail or to go on and on about every holiday display she built for the store in her entire first year becomes very tedious and distracting reading.

Simply put, as much as I sympathized with Shea’s situation and envied her opportunity to work in a bookstore setting as she moved back into the world after her medical treatments, she never quite managed to breathe life into Edwards Books and its employees, something that still surprises me on this second reading, especially considering the fact that she is primarily known as a novelist.

Rated at: 3.0


  1. Oh dear how disappointing. I always wanted to work in a bookshop too. Actually no, I want to own one!

  2. A few years ago, I fulfilled my dream of working in a bookstore, a very busy indie. I had high hopes of helping people find books, discussing pros and cons of certain genres and authors.

    Well, in actuality, I worked a cash register. It was not unusual for there to be 75 people in the store at once, with a line at both registers! So much for my dreams.

  3. My brother worked in a book store for years. He did love it, but there are those pesky things called customers there all the time. Well, hopefully.

  4. That's my dream, too, Lynne, but it seems to be getting harder and harder to imagine that it might ever really happen.

  5. That's kind of what I'm afraid of, Joann. I know that's a huge part of the job but I'd hate to be tied to a register the bulk of the time in any retail job.

  6. Exactly, Carrie...can't live with them and can't live without them...