I was what I would be if I wasn't a writer: a clerk in a used-bookstore. No other possibility. I worked in eight bookstores in fifteen years, five years during high school and college, then ten years straight after that. Shelving, running registers, re-alphabetizing sections, learning the arcana. I was bitter, intense, typical, believing myself superior to customers who could afford the best items I could only cherish in passing, part of a great clerkly tradition. I was certainly aware of the tradition. I still repair broken alphabetical runs and straighten piles on tables, absently, despite myself, whenever I'm in stores. It calms me during booktours. The last five years I worked at one of the best stores in the country. I was becoming an expert in the books I cared about most, modern first editions and rare paperbacks. In, say, another fifteen years of apprenticeship - a trifle in antiquariania, as with any serious guild - I might have been one of the top rare lit men in the world.
Or it might have all gone south. Some clerks never make it, end up burnt out, start stealing books, like cops gone bad. They get hooked on tea, next thing they know they end up in a card game. Then a crap game. Then they wake up in a pool hall. Then this big Mexican lady drags them off to Philadelphia. They get a job as a "before" in a Charles Atlas ad. Then the big Mexican lady burns the house down and the next thing they know they're in Omaha. They move in with a high school teacher who does a little plumbing on the side, who's not much to look at but who's built a special kind of refrigerator that can turn newspaper into lettuce. Then these clerks settle in, start scheming. Using the high school teacher's know-how they begin printing up samidzat Gold Medal paperback originals by fake noir authors with names like Orphus Blurt and Crash Burnstein and Walter Girlfriend. You see those books come floating across the buying counter and you just grin: you know a haywire clerk's out there, flaming like a shred of Korean barbecue. I think that's probably the kind of clerk I would've become, after a while.