Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Typical Shelver: Stereotypes Vs. Reality

I feel perfectly okay in my decision
to run from this guy.
Everyone has stereotypes, right? Sure you do. It's a basic survival tactic employed by our brains to categorize the world around us. Your brain takes everything and puts all the information into neat, clearly labeled Tupperware bins for easy sorting. Sometimes stereotypes and generalizations are good (guessing that dark alley + guy with a knife walking toward you = run away), sometimes they're bad (guessing that guy walking toward you in park is black + no other negative information = run away).

People make all sorts of guesses about other people based on their age, their race, their gender, their socioeconomic status, their education level, and, of course, their place of employment. Right? Right. You know you do. People who work at Home Depot are outdoorsy, hands-on people; baristas at little cafes are artsy-fartsy and probably stoners; people who work at vitamin and organic whole food shops are hippie, Mother Earth types.

Well, what about shelvers? I don't know what commonly held stereotypes/generalizations you were working with, but I can tell you what I gleaned from my own biases and from pop culture. And I can tell you what we're REALLY like... at least in my store.
Stereotype: Shelvers are usually girls. After all, girls read more. Girls are more flowery and literary, whereas guys work with their hands and with numbers.

Reality: Okay, so that whole literature vs. numbers thing regarding the sexes... I'm not even going to touch that, it's so bogus. But that's sometimes the unspoken rationale when assuming that most shelvers are female. It's true, by my count there are more females than males in my store, but that doesn't mean there are NO boys. At the moment, we have four males in staff at my store, one who happens to be an assistant manager. So yes, the majority of the staff is female, but we love our guys. (Also, they're really handy when moving shipment.)

Stereotype: Shelvers are usually really old (or really young). The age stereotype usually veers to one extreme or the other. Either shelvers are retired old people (like Walmart greeter old) or students in need of a summer job.

Reality: We actually have a really nice spread in our store. Corporate requires that an employee be at least eighteen before being hired, so we don't have any high school students, but we do have a sturdy group of college-age and 20-somethings. Two of our managers are in their 40's, and then the rest of the employees are 55+. This works because different customers trust different employees. I'm most often approached by relatives looking for a book for a niece or nephew or grandkid. After all, I'm young, so I should know what's cool. However, some older people wouldn't trust me to pick out their latest romance novel or bar mitzvah gift.

Stereotype: Shelvers are poor, or at least poorer than the typical middle-class worker.

Reality: Okay, this one is pretty true. It's not like we all sit around comparing monthly expenses or anything, but we're only paid the federal minimum wage. That's not much. According to one of my coworkers, even managers are only paid what amounts to $14/hr. And for all the work we do, that really sucks! On top of that, Corporate strongly discourages hiring employees full-time so that the store doesn't have to pay benefits. When we're hired, our manager encourages that we look for a second part-time job, and most of us, especially the younger, unmarried ones, do. So yeah, we're not exactly rolling in dough.

Stereotype: Shelvers are uber-nerds! Because only nerds read books or something.

Reality: I think everyone is a bit obsessed with something (sports, romance novels, etc.), but only a few of the employees are nerd-nerds. Of course, I'm one of the nerds. I'm not a super-nerd, but I've picked up enough pop culture references here and there to sound intelligent. There's one semi-goth girl (big boots, piercings, crazy hair) who can talk about pretty much every sci-fi movie ever made. I feel like I know more than I ever wanted to about the Alien franchise thanks to her. Another guy, though, is like the King of All Sci-Fi/Nerd Knowledge. He can talk about franchises I love and franchises I've never even heard of with ease. He even keeps pace with Red Dwarf Fan Guy, which is extremely impressive. Still, not everyone at my store is a nerd and some have even been vocal about the need to hire fewer nerds.

Stereotype: Shelvers work in retail. People who work in retail are there because they're high-school dropouts or unmotivated morons. Therefore, shelvers are high-school dropouts or unmotivated morons.

Reality: Pffffth! I raspberry you soundly, sir/ma'am, you and your entire retail stereotype. Yes, some people who work in retail don't have a high school diploma. So what? We're an upwardly mobile group in my store. Nobody, as far as I know, is the stereotypical slacker type. The older bunch is either working in the store as a career (the managers) or is using the job to fill their hours now that the kids are gone. The younger bunch is either using the paycheck to pay for college or working in hopes of leveraging the experience into a career in the publishing industry (me!).

Stereotype: Shelvers know everything there is to know about every book in every section in the entire store.

Reality: This one's more of a desperate fantasy, I think. In a store the size of mine with literally thousands of titles, there's no way to know about every single book. It just can't be done. And while it'd be nice if we could at least make intelligent recommendations for each section without checking the computer, that won't happen either. Shelvers are people, too. We each have our own favorite sections that we adore more than others. I personally know absolutely zip about the erotica section and the nature section. Zippo. However, I claim the YA section as my domain and will gladly skip over to the kids and Christian fiction sections, too. The King of All Sci-Fi/New Knowledge that I talked about earlier, of course, is the guy we turn to for sci-fi/fantasy recs, but he's also surprisingly helpful with adult paranormal romances. One of our managers is uncomfortably familiar with the erotica section, our cafe guy is a history major, and we have one brilliant woman who knows every single book in the kids section. Fiction and non-fiction! So yes, we're not individual bastions of knowledge, but we're awfully clever when put together.

Stereotype: Shelvers are weird. That could mean socially awkward or having a radical worldview or just generally weird.

Reality: Okay, we're weird. I'll cop to that one. We have a children's specialist who hates children, a cafe worker whose nametag reads "The Lorax," and another guy who looks like Frankenstein because of the scars all over his head. We have atheists, agnostics, Christians, and at least one Buddhist. There are regular back-room conversations centered around alcohol. And yes, some of my coworkers are a bit socially out on the edge and could use a refresher people skills course.

Stereotype: Shelvers are liberal hippie freaks.

Reality: This one probably varies a lot more depending on what area said shelvers live and work in, but at my store, it really isn't so bad. We don't really chat about politics too often at the store (BIG relief), but I do know that we have several conservatives/Republicans. Also, the liberals/Democrats that are around aren't obnoxious and therefore shouldn't really be given the derogative label "hippie freaks."

What stereotypes do you have/have you heard about shelvers?

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