I recently discovered that my grandfather, a Seattle native, learned to sew while he was a draft-dodging hobo, riding the rails in Eastern Washington. I never met him, but suffice it to say that I don’t feel the same weight of ancestral disappointment in my accomplishments that might sit heavily on the brows of many my own age. I live well in comparison to my storied forbear; I’ve never gone hungry, my hours are more leisure than labor, I am over-educated and warmly dressed.
When he was not much older than I am now, my hobo grandfather had two daughters and had become the first mayor of a newly formed Alaskan town. Whatever else might be said about him, the man knew how to make something of himself. When I have doubts about my own ability to succeed, I wonder if this is what afflicts the recession generation: the crippling suspicion that ours will not be a tale of triumphant progression, that due to implacable forces of global finance we will live out lives of unending gentle defeat.
I work in a store that sells used books. Bookselling is a noble profession, with a laudable history of promoting literacy and good-natured snobbery. It enables my compulsion to buy quantities of books in magnitudes greater than I will ever be able to consume. It is not a growth industry. Like record and video stores before them, bookstores are fighting a battle with technology, the result of which is a foregone conclusion. Kindles and iPads and their ilk will supplant the printing press and books will come to be as vinyl records are now: collectible to those few who still cherish the physical experience of an object.
Those few collectors will forever be in the minority compared to the multitudes of families selling their personal libraries, accumulated across decades. They quip in chipper voices about their libraries of electronic literature, woefully unaware of their audience. The books arrive in such obscene quantities that they begin to stack up, piles of them rising above eye level. In the back room employees move along ravines scored into mountain ranges made of paper, a landscape of increasing supply and dwindling demand.
As demand shrinks for printed books so too does demand shrink for those who sell them. Booksellers are, on average, vastly overqualified to perform their jobs. This is in part because of our current economic troubles, but perhaps also because it is an ideal job for a great mind at rest; the surroundings are lousy with stimulating ideas and nothing is ever truly at stake. There are ongoing debates about the arrangement of the biographies of the English noblesse, whether by name of biographer, of subject, or of royal house. There are heated discussions about Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem and the inability of various philosophical systems to justify themselves. I once provided an impassioned defense to my line of reasoning on why, in combat, Barack Obama would be able to defeat The Wolverine (who I assume is a Libertarian).
Perhaps none of this is the most profitable use of our energies, but for those of us who graduated from university right as the world stopped hiring, what else is there to do? If an entry-level position requires three years of experience and a work portfolio, what employer will be impressed by hyper-literacy and my insistence on organizing my overstuffed bookshelves by publisher?
To put myself through college I worked in the food service industry, and when I quit I swore I’d turn to a life of crime before waiting tables again. By comparison a bookstore gig is about as swell as you could hope. It’s not quite what I would call a living wage, but I can opt in to low-end health insurance, I get some vacation days, and cheap books to read. What frightens me is that this could be it. At the age of 27 I have professionally plateaued in a doomed retail sector. I respect my colleagues who have worked at the bookstore for more than 20 years, but I can’t stand the thought of working there that long, even if selling used books remains an economic viability two decades hence. But if I can’t stay here, where will I go? As enticing as that life of crime might sound, I have it on authority that it doesn’t pay.
In point of fact, I interact with the bottom rungs of the criminal element on a daily basis. Book thieves are a contemptible lot, and book thieving the supreme depth of petty offenses. No one steals a book they want to read (unless it’s pornographic, but there a different reasoning is at play). No one steals Joyce or Burroughs or Eldridge Cleaver, because those books are devoid of resale value. Thieves want books that can be converted easily into cash: graphic novels, roleplaying manuals, and current textbooks, and no one in the history of science has ever stolen a biology textbook because they were fascinated by but fiscally unable to explore the intricacies of zoological nomenclature.
If the store pays cash for used books, addicts will attempt to fence books for money. I try not to take the ineptitude of the thieves personally. I’ve been in the neighborhood for a long time, and if someone has offered to sell me drugs at a bus stop, then I will not believe him when he claims that the University Book Store will not refund the $200 he paid for that still-shrink-wrapped textbook on medieval textile studies. Especially if I didn’t even think he was trying to sell me real drugs.
I cannot deny that there might be a part of me that enjoys dealing with these different sordid personalities; they provide color to otherwise mundane routines. But when I interact with one of my many local thieves, I know that no variety of economic disaster will ever debase me in the same way. No, for the most part these souls are the result of a failed drug war and much else that is beyond my current purview.
The economic recession didn’t drop the floor out from beneath a generation of college grads; we won’t plummet to the depths of poverty; freight trains will never be our preferred method of transportation. It’s more like the ceiling has begun to descend, pressing us down, bowing our heads lower and lower. Life’s peaks appear flattened in the distance, and all that remains is a long, level march.
I may not have started out as a hobo, but I’m not going to end up as the mayor. Maybe it’s unreasonable to expect one’s life to follow a proper dramatic arc. As long as I’m healthy and show up to work I will never starve, but it’s a real possibility that I will never retire.
I would like to think that my generation will be one that ably shoulders its inherited debt and leaves something sustainable in its place. But it’s hard to see what that might be from within a used bookstore, beneath the mountains of discarded books, hardcover monuments to progress.