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I believe that divine love, incarnate and indwelling in the world, summons the world always toward wholeness..."

~ Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace

The deepest vocational question is not, "What ought I to do with my life?" but "Who am I? What is my nature?"

~ Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Voice Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation

I started a job in a Barnes & Noble bookstore a few months ago. If you walk through the front doors with me, there are several ways we can go…

Straight ahead are New Releases and Bestsellers, to the right are Bargains, Calendars, Cards and Journals.

If we go left, the first section is Religion, Inspiration, Bibles, and Commentaries, where we might read this...

A double-minded man – literally, one who has two souls. Someone who perpetually disagrees with himself.” ~ Wesley

Our culture encourages it and we call it different things—multi-tasking, wearing many hats, post-modernism. But you can only split your soul, your heart, your attention so many times before it starts to affect you and the people around you. I’ve felt that way in my life more times than I’d like to admit—multi-souled. Fragmented.

But not lately. Not since I started this job, and it’s weird, because I don’t think there are many personality tests that would suggest retail is my thing. Unlike my boss over there (the one on the left), Tamara Hallowell, who was born with sales in her veins.

Here she comes. Stand up straight and try to make a good impression.

“So true,” Tamara says. “When I was a kid I spent a lot of summers in California with my cousins. They were all a lot older than me, and one of my cousins managed this store called Camp Beverly Hills. She would bring me into work with her, and I loved it. I was maybe seven years old. I would walk up to people and ask if there was anything I could do to help them.”

She laughs. “I always knew working in retail was what I wanted to do when I grew up… It’s figuring out how to do that well, while also doing home and family well that can leave me feeling conflicted.”

We walk past the back corner where customers are sprawled in huge chairs, sampling books and magazines like kids trying out every flavor in an ice cream shop… Or kicked back, waiting for a spouse or a child and making use of the floor to ceiling windows that surround them to ponder clouds passing by in the wide, blue, Idaho sky.

We make our way through History, Politics, venture toward World Affairs, and I ask, “So how do you do that? How do you stay whole, bouncing between those spheres of home and work?”

She shrugs. “I wish I could get it right all the time. I don’t.” Then Tamara says something that every successful female professional I’ve interviewed to-date has echoed— “But I have a partner who helps me, I love what I do, and I have a great team to work with. ” Those three things, she says, are what makes her life possible and brings everything together.

We pass Sociology, and you can’t help but notice the stack of bright orange covers at the end of a shelf. It occurs to me that David Brooks’ Road to Character bears a lot of responsibility for adding the title, “Part-time Bookseller,” into my already busy writer/mom/wife/consultant life.

“The key debate now is between those who feel the tailwinds of globalization and meritocracy at their back, pushing them forward toward opportunity, and those who feel the headwinds in their face, destroying their communities.”

~ David Brooks

Road to Character has a lot to say about integrity, which is an interesting, “wholeness” word. I’ll show you when we get to the other side of the store, in Reference…

It was hearing Brooks speak when he came to Boise a few months back that had an impact on me. He talked about the increasing divide between people in our culture.

He asked, “How can we combat this deeply felt sense of division and social isolation?” For one thing, he said, we each have a responsibility to become involved and build relationships with people different from those we’ve known all our lives—people in different spheres than we normally inhabit. “Embracing people across lines—it really is the only way out.”

Those ideas resonated with me, a writer who’d been looking to grow personally and professionally, appeal to a larger audience. So when the opportunity came to take a job completely different than any I’d ever done, I walked through that door.

As if she's reading my mind, Tamara says, “So much of this is about cultivating relationships and community.” She talks about reaching out to the community and how that relates to changes she’s seen in the book industry in the decade she’s worked for Barnes & Noble.

“Borders folded when digital was exploding, so we didn’t really see a big increase in customers at that time—that was about people moving to digital and on-line ordering. But lately, it seems like people are coming back, starting to realize they like holding a book in their hands and being with other book lovers.”

I tell her about my librarian son’s boss. He told me recently that books are the foundation, but libraries are increasingly places where people are able to come out from their isolation, be themselves and pursue their interests, while also being part of an accepting community. Libraries are becoming “community centers” in the truest sense.

Tamara agrees. “Barnes & Noble, especially in this last year, has focused even more on reaching out to the community—and on hospitality, even in the small stuff. For example, we used to have a sign in the café that said something about the seating being only for café customers, and we got rid of that.”

As we near the café, the source of the comforting and storewide aroma of espresso and warm chocolate chip cookies, we run into a couple of store regulars.

Addie, a poet/photographer/bank teller-by-day and Sam, a student at Boise State University. They mention the recent closure of Hastings, a book and video rental store that operated throughout much of the western U.S.

“If Barnes & Noble closed, I don’t know what we would do,” Addie says. “Where would we be able to meet up like this?”

Sam, an avid RPG player, adds, “I’m in here about once a week buying stuff, meeting friends. There’s nowhere else like it.”

Another nearby customer chimes in. “I used to live just up the street, and I always thought of this as my Barnes & Noble. I moved to California for a while and just recently moved back. When I left, there were all these stores--Borders, more Barnes & Noble stores, Hastings. So many of them are gone now.” She smiles. “I was so happy when I pulled up and my Barnes & Noble was still here.”

We move on through Fiction and Literature, and Tamara talks about her first few months at B&N. “When I first started here, it struck me how many regulars we have that really think of this place as ‘theirs’.”

“We, as booksellers, are able to have these conversations with customers, who by the way, are here because they want to be here. They’re here because they have a desire for something, even if they don’t always know exactly what that is. We just need to find that thing for them that fits—whether it’s a great author, or a product that we know their kids will love—and then it becomes less like selling and more like sharing something we love with a friend.”

Working in retail may come naturally to Tamara, but it wasn't easy getting to the place she is now.

“No one in my family had ever gone to college, and getting my Psychology degree was important to me. To make that happen, from the time I was in high school and through college, every spare moment, I was working. Of course, there was never time to read for pleasure, and I just got out of the habit. When I came here, there were all these people who loved books. So I started reading again, and I remembered how much I loved it. But my kids were tiny, my daughter wasn’t born yet, and my husband wasn't reading what I was. I wanted to talk and share with someone about all these great books and amazing authors I was reading and I get to do that here. It’s my job!”

She smiles, “In many ways, I think of this place as an extension of my home. The people, both the customers and employees, often feel like family. Selling is easier when you love what you do, you focus on relationships and you’re surrounded by great product.”

What I mean is... maybe it's only us...”

~ William Golding, Lord of the Flies

We pass by a stack of Lord of the Flies, a classic novel about human beings failing in their relationships with each other and the cultural disaster that ensues. The store had a recent run on the book when one of the local high schools made it a reading assignment, and for a while we ran out. Before the next order came in, we had a lot of desperate-looking parents and students in the store.

I mention how surprised I was. I wondered why people didn’t just download the novel, but for whatever reason, that wasn’t realistic for many families. We talk about how many families increasingly choose to limit the technology in their homes, or don’t have the resources or access to the technology that many take for granted.

One mass market paperback is a lot cheaper and more accessible than an e-reader or a tablet.

“That really hit me recently, all the work that Barnes & Noble does to provide educational resources,” Tamara says. “It’s almost inconceivable--the idea that bookstores like Barnes & Noble won't survive. The community aspect is important, but imagine having to go on-line for every single textbook, and the difference between holding it in your hand, taking notes in the margin, versus reading on a screen.” (Read about Screens vs. Paper among Millennials, here.)

We pass by Parenting and Juvenile Literature next, with the sound of children’s laughter and a parent’s voice reading in the background. The conversation turns to how Tamara limits technology with her own children.

“In our home, we have one really old computer. We don’t have WiFi, we don’t have cable… I don’t know, call me old-fashioned. My son recently started asking me if he could have a phone. I don’t see the need. He’s twelve, and there are so many better things to occupy his time. All the stuff that being online gives them access to that they aren’t ready for…I want to protect them for a little longer.”

She and her children read together. “We read Island of the Blue Dolphins together and now we’re reading The Diary of Anne Frank. I can’t wait to finish that, and go visit the memorial when we’re done.” (Click here to read about the Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial)

“One thing I’ve learned," Tamara says. "There is no one way. I had these ideas that there were certain things I had to do as a parent to give my children the right start. But I wasn’t able to do all those things, either because I was working or because I couldn’t afford them. And everything’s turning out fine. They’re doing great and I’m so proud of them both.”

We pass through Reference…

The word integrity evolved from the Latin adjective integer, meaning whole or complete. In this context, integrity is the inner sense of "wholeness." The quality or state of being… undivided.

~ Merriam Webster

We wander through the Newsstand, Graphic Novels and Comics, Science Fiction and Teen Fiction, and we talk about the surprising amount of symmetry I’ve found between life in my bibliophile family, my writing, and now working in a bookstore. While I had friends who thought I was sort of crazy to take this job, I shelve great authors' books and talk with customers about them all day, which inspires me to go home and write my own. I meet and work with people I probably wouldn’t have otherwise ever known, and I’m busier (and more tired) than ever... and there is a wholeness to this life that is unexpected.

We head toward Business and Finance, discussing the value of taking risks along the way.

“The greatest fear people have is that of being themselves… They do what everyone else does even if it doesn’t fit where and who they are. But you get nowhere that way...”

~ 50 Cent and Robert Green, The 50th Law

Tamara talks about the time she picked The 50th Law to be the latest read for her managers’ group. The whole endeavor has become legendary among the managers in the store, so much so that they recently threw her a 50 Cent-themed birthday party. The party was a week ago and the 50 Cent banner remains up in Tamara’s office. It doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.

“People thought it was weird, that I wanted to read this book. But we read these things…for a couple reasons. One, so we can recommend great management books to our customers, but also to gain different perspectives, to spark inspiration and creativity and get some new ideas about how to do what we do. I wanted to know why this business writer would partner with a rapper to write a mastery book.”

The answer to that question? Tamara laughs. “Well, the book didn’t really answer that for me. But what did strike me was 50 Cent’s bravery and especially his willingness to take risks. I understand there’s gray, but I tend toward abiding by all the policies, following the rules. It’s sometimes difficult for me to take risks, but you have to do it. You have to be brave.”

“At the end of the day, I know this is a job, and if my husband or kids need me, I’m there, no hesitation. I vowed before I had kids that I would give my children the kind of stable childhood I always wished I had, but didn't. At the same time, I know I was never meant to be a stay-at-home mom. My husband is the stay-at-home parent, and he’s always there for our kids. So sometimes I miss out on family times, milestones, events—and that’s not easy. But I love what I do, so we make it work.”

As we come to the end of our tour, Tamara pulls out a piece of paper to read, a note from her daughter that she always keeps with her.

“Like I said, I don’t have this all figured out. I don’t get it right every time, and a lot of times I have misgivings about the decisions I make, in my professional life and my personal life. But I know that we have to embrace who we are, and not be afraid, and that’s why I love this note.”

I love you with all my heart. You are a great, most talented girl... I hope you have a great time everywhere you go. Take pictures…. I love you, don’t be afraid because you don’t have to be because you’re so awesome. Thank you for being my mom and the best you can be.”

Takeaways from Tamara Hallowell:

  1. Read a book, preferably one you get at Barnes & Noble!

  2. It’s not about what others think you should do. Find work you’re passionate about because that makes everything easier.

  3. Embrace who you are and don’t be afraid. Take risks.

  4. Life is about relationships. Love your job. Love your family.

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