The Mixed Up Feelings of a Former Bookseller: On Oprah

 It seems like everyone is rediscovering what a cultural giant Oprah Winfrey is as a result of the Harry and Meghan interview. Part of this is surely generational, but for those of us who were in the trenches of the book industry in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Oprah stirs up some complicated feelings. 

She's a wonderful interviewer. She's always been fabulous at that. She has the journalism creds. She's built a multi-billion dollar empire. You don't do that by accident. There's plenty to admire about her, but as a new college grad selling books at Barnes and Noble, I kinda hated her. 

The vast majority of people who gravitate to work at a place like Barnes and Noble are readers. It's been underpaid for decades. People make consistently more working at fast food chains. You go in with naive expectations of being surrounded by books, which you would think would be heaven. And it can be. But you also have things called customers, and THOSE can be the absolute worst. Entitled, snooty, rude, abusive... And some of the very worst, the Karens before we had Karens, were the women who came in looking for the newest book in the Oprah Book Club. 

I admire the hell out of how many books and careers Oprah helped launch. I do. She and JK Rowling (love them or hate them) dominated the book scene for decades. And they got people reading. And they sold so so so many books. But woe be unto you if your store happened to be out of the newest pick. Eventually, they started releasing print runs specifically for Oprah's announcements...and even still, there were times we couldn't get the book out of receiving and onto the floor fast enough. I cannot count the number of times I had to explain that we didn't have an Oprah section (until we did) and that explaining the plot when you didn't have a title didn't help us all that much since the plot lines of her books were so incredibly similar they all kind of ran together.

I also felt a little squicked out by how cult-like so many of those readers were. It wasn't that they were excited to read the books so much as that they were desperate to be part of the cultural conversation. It wasn't so much about exploring different stories as it was finding an excuse to drink wine. Which is fine, but as someone who genuinely loves books, I wish she had found a wider variety of stories to highlight. I wish we had seen some genuine depth in those clubs. And I wish the people who clamored for those books weren't so goddamn awful to the people who had to deal with them.