I’m Haunted By Joe’s Stupid Little Bookselling Apron
Joe from the hit Netflix You is a disturbing guy. He’s a stalker, a serial killer, and most disturbing to me personally, he’s a bookseller wearing an apron. I have been a bookseller for almost five years and have never worn an apron once, and I have never seen another bookseller wearing one unless they duplicate work as a barista. It’s hard to say how consuming this TV wardrobe choice remains, how confusing, how horribly disturbing my life is. Is it because he works with rare books? Is it because he restores them? I could live with that, restoring anything old naturally feels messy. But one of Joe’s coworkers, Ethan, also wears an apron and he does not restore books. In Season 2, Joe works at a health food store as the manager of his little books section and he always wears an apron. I am very excited for Season 3 and it is clear from the trailers that Joe is no longer a bookseller and therefore is no longer professionally “obligated” to wear one, but that doesn’t have to be. ‘importance to me, I’m going to think about it anyway. The apron is almost brilliant in his calculated misunderstanding of what selling books looks like or even what he needs. I don’t care if there is a well-documented production reason for its existence. As well as being visual proof of a troubled mind, it distills the aesthetic, slightly professional, and easy-going assumptions most people have about working in a bookstore.
To be fair, “It sounds easy” is how a lot of people start if they are hired. Before I worked in my bookstore, I hung out there because I had nothing better to do. I thought the job looked simple. It’s not like books have to be fed. It’s not like there is danger. Joe from You tends to a huge, remarkably empty place on the Upper East Side, coming and going as it pleases. Meg Ryan flies the Upper West Side in a blissful haze with endless optimism for most You’ve got mail, her character’s quaint children’s bookstore, the epitome of what every ordinary person assumes a bookstore is. It’s all about love, connection and community. Those photos you see in cafes and on Instagram, of people sitting between piles, hunched over a headline, smiling, showing goodwill towards all men, etc. Believe me, I wish.
The truth is, it’s rare to be inactive while working in a bookstore, let alone remain romantic about it. Someone leaves a used handkerchief on the handrail, folded over and folded back on itself like a sick tie. UPS just delivered a ton of shipments and half of them are either torn or full of titles you didn’t order. The book you love and constantly try to push onto customers hasn’t left the shelves in weeks. During this time, you need to check if there is a stock of The alchemist because for some reason we are still selling The alchemist. And The four chords. And The myth of Sisyphus. And, oddly, the fifth My battle book (just the fifth).
Obviously that wouldn’t make a very convincing TV, which is good. Viewers prefer to see Penn Badgley, with his beautiful sculpted face and insane, incomprehensible apron, lazily put a few books on a shelf or call the strange tourist. But it annoys me endlessly. If anyone has to go out, it’s for a light hunt, not for running to the bank. No one lifts heavy furniture or rearranges shelves. No one ships orders. Nobody sets up book displays. No one even orders their books. At one point You, Joe is shown opening a box of books that appear to have been teleported to him by God before putting them directly on the shelves. Questions abound. Why is there only one box? Why doesn’t he drown under the weight of at least ten others? Doesn’t he want to at least label the merchandise first?
At the very least, on-screen booksellers should be tired. Or stressed, or upset, or shown doing something they don’t have time for. The toilets must be cleaned. There’s an old man on line 1 who wants to know why we don’t sell a book he doesn’t remember the title of but remembers seeing in a window once in 1998. This part of You’ve got mail when Tom Hanks’ Joe Fox is shopping at Kathleen Kelly’s store and balks at full price? Yeah, that part, always, forever. Honda-san skull bookstore, a manga and anime featuring Japanese booksellers wearing armored helmets and plague doctor masks, is perhaps the only truly accurate description of bookstore life. Interactions with clients are stressful, everything breaks, everything is heavy, there is no room to take out the books, there is both too much and not enough time.
The only trope more common than the perfect little bookstore is the bookstore that’s about to close. People wearing shirts that say something like “My Life is Better with Books” remind you that this book, every book, is much cheaper on Amazon and e-readers are more convenient. It all sounds like a bookseller (me, I’m the bookseller), which is why there is something funny and a little awful about people like Joe from You or Bernard Black from the British sitcom Black books, who owns and manages the incumbent store. Joe dominates his pretentious literary authority over foreigners. “These books are more alive, more worthy than anyone I know,” he says, the world’s most inept serial killer, television’s most negligent bookstore manager. Meanwhile, Bernard is constantly trying to get people to outside from his store. In one episode, a customer walks in during office hours and Bernard shouts to his colleague, “Why didn’t you lock the door ?!
Booksellers as pretentious as Joe exist and other people with even bigger egos work in the publishing industry; they’re too embarrassing to think about and there are a lot more of them than you might think possible. Sometimes, or if you’re me, all the time, you can’t help but judge what people are buying, despite the fact that they are doing a good thing by buying it from an independent bookstore. And sometimes you really, really can’t wait to lock the door and shut it for the day. Would I kill someone for this? Probably not. But I sometimes understand this approach to conflict resolution.
Something about books, or the way we talk about books, stuns people in obnoxious reverence for all the places that sell or borrow them. As my friend, who used to be a librarian and is now a bestselling author, recently told me, “Working in a library is like working in a cafe and people don’t see you that much like that. they don’t need anything. from you and then they ask for a sip from your cup.
In every Instagram photo of a stack of brightly lit books by the sun labeled “a good bookstore is my happy place”, there is someone who is extremely undercompensated just out of the frame while waiting to put the titles back on the shelf. that they used for props. Bernard Black says: “The pay is not great, but the work is hard. Sometimes you meet nice people, sometimes you put a book in the hands of someone who changes their life for a little while. You will probably never know if or how. You probably won’t have a fulfilling interaction like this for several weeks or months! Again, there is always more work to be done. Like explaining to people that the new James Bond isn’t based on a novel or why we don’t have an edition of Dune with Timothée Chalamet’s face on it.
Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.