Saturday, December 10, 2011

You Can't Go Back

Ten years ago I worked at Scholastic Book Fairs. It was a dream job; I was a Field Rep who went to the schools and talked to the librarians, teachers, parents and kids about the books on the fair. It almost didn't seem like work, except for the few hours a week I had to spend in the office, where the managers didn't even like to read and couldn't have cared less about the books. They saw no value in the Field Reps reading the books or being knowledgeable about literature. Think about this: when we ran out of Harry Potters (which we did often, because it was all new then), they suggested we replace the title with old Magic Tree House books that we had in surplus.

The management there was terrible. They were dishonest, changed the sales figures so that they got bonuses and we didn't, and had little respect for their employees. I don't usually make disparaging remarks about specific people on this blog, but I have nothing nice to say about the management there. I left when they decided that Field Reps could work from the office instead of actually going to the schools. What was the point?

I stayed in touch with many of my friends there. In fact, we formed a book club and kept our friendship and common love of books alive for years. Working at Scholastic Books Fairs was a positive experience in my life. So when I saw an email looking for volunteers to work at the Warehouse Sale, I thought, why not? I had a few vacation days and thought it would be fun to revisit the warehouse shelves and see what was new in children's literature since I've lost touch since leaving. Plus, I'd earn some free books.

I pulled into the parking lot and smiled when I saw Clifford on the side of the trucks. It always makes me happy when I happen to see a Scholastic truck on the road or in front of a school. I loved the book fairs. I was as excited as a kid walking into the fair.

I parked my car and walked in. The smell of sawdust (pallets), cardboard, and books nearly overwhelmed me. I loved that smell. I was home.

I went into the conference room to await volunteer training and saw two red (Clifford-inspired) plush chairs and a shelf full of children's books. They'd made a reading nook in the corner. I wanted to go sit in those seats so badly. I wanted to run my finger along the spines of the books and sit down to read. Then I chuckled to myself and wondered what my old managers would have thought. They would have never let us take a break to sit and read. Time was money. Books were money. Everything was money.

I kept staring at the books on the shelves. I missed that job. If they would have walked in and offered me my old job back, I would have seriously considered it, even though it paid only half what I earn now. But instead, the volunteer coordinator walked in. I recognized her right away, though we'd never really worked together before. I was surprised that she was still there. I could tell she recognized me, too, but couldn't place me.

She assigned me to be a greeter. She handed three of us a "script" and told us where to stand. I never saw her again in the four hours I talked to every single person that walked in. In fact, when my time was up, I had to hunt her down to sign out and get my voucher. I guess "volunteer coordinator" had nothing to do with working with volunteers...

While I was there I did see other people I knew. There were half a dozen warehouse workers that I know have been there now for 20 or 30 years. They were fantastic people and workers back when I worked there. They were treated badly, and I'm surprised that they've stayed, but was glad to see them. I considered them something of survivors. They'd hung in, and hopefully things were better now.

Then the warehouse manager walked out. It was the same man! And behind him were the same verbally abusive and crooked managers that had been there all those years before. I couldn't believe it! And yet, I could. They kept rewarding themselves, so why would they leave? I shook my head and all the old, negative feelings came back. I knew I'd never volunteer there again.

And then I'd change my mind. School librarians walked in. Ones I remembered fondly. I could still picture their school libraries and the way the set up and decorated their book fairs. I was overcome with remembering how we'd talked about the books and the authors and what the kids were reading. I'd loved that job. They remembered me, too. It was a strange mix of emotions, standing there reminiscing about good old times with the librarians while over their shoulders I could see the managers who turned a dream job into nothing but sales numbers.

That's when I realized: you can't go back. I spent four hours on a rollercoaster of emotion and memory. Such highs and lows. So many contradictory sensory experiences there as I directed people to the books they wanted to find and watched the managers through the break room window, sitting with cups of coffee and snacks as they watched their employees on the floor for 2 1/2 hours straight.

Picking out books after my shift was bittersweet. I flipped the books over and read the back covers, choosing my books quickly yet carefully so that I could get out of there once and for all. I continued feeling high's and low's even after I got home and was disappointed with how the day had turned out. I won't volunteer at the warehouse sale again. I'll leave the volunteering to helping with the books fairs at schools. I've learned my lesson: you can't go back.


  1. Juliann, what a powerful story. It IS sad, when greed and power take over, and ruin things... (as in the political world!) I would've felt the same as you. I LOVE books and libraries and schools, etc. It's also sad to actually come to the conclusion that You Can't Go so many ways.

  2. Sigh... It's a shame to hear about the bad stuff, especially when I see what a strong pull the good stuff was for you, how much of a passion you carry for books and matching readers to them. Makes me want to tell you to quit your job and be a librarian yourself, or open an independent bookstore or something. (But I'm not actually advising that!!)

    Anyway. Thanks for sharing your memories, bittersweet though they may be.

  3. Thank you both for your comments. I actually did want to be a librarian, but they were all getting laid off.

    I'll just remember the good tines: All the good books and good friends I made. And I did connect children with books. Ah, it was a dream job....

  4. Wow...Scholastic memories. Me, too. I drove a Clifford truck when they had a warehouse in Louisville, KY. Ran parts of IN, KY, and WV. Loved every second of it. Louisville was kind to their drivers. I was treated very, very well there. They closed it and took it all to Regional at Cincinnati. They offered me and all the drivers to come up there, but my family didn't want to move. Best job I ever had. I still see the trucks and smile. I feel sorry for the drivers, though. They are running my old routes out of Cincy and can't make it back home before running out of hours. I was home almost every night. I still look at it fondly and still feel nostalgic when I see a Clifford truck on the road.