In honor of Labor Day, a short work history

The magic elixir getting many an office dweller through the afternoon

So, it’s Labor Day weekend. A holiday celebrating the American worker for his or her contributions to our wonderful nation.

And you know what that means . . . three day weekend! (Actually, four in my case. Not to brag.)

I got my first job at a craft store the summer before I started college, ringing up skeins of yarn and picture frames and artificial flowers to the tune of a sweet $6.50 an hour. It’s funny to think of that now, remembering how I’d be on my feet for eight hours and earn only $52 before taxes.

That was lots of work for not lots of cash, but it felt like tons of money to a kid who’d never earned her own.

It was a fun job. A crazy job. A silly job. A job at which I once accidentally smashed a glass shelf and saw my life flash before my eyes, and a place that kept me buying so many stickers and cupcake liners that I basically worked for free. (The same was true at Borders only, you know, books.)

My time at Michael’s stretched on for years, mostly part-time, as I got an internship at the newspaper where I now work and beyond. I was logging some serious days, though “serious” meant something different to me at 20 than it does at 28. (And, I’d imagine, what it will at 30 or 40.)

I finally quit the craft store because I got an internship in D.C., and my summers were filled with reading Jonathan Safran Foer on long commutes and impromptu phone interviews that made my stomach hurt and seeing the city and walking unsteadily in heels. And trying to be a grown-up. And not quite succeeding.

Though I was only there three months, my time with the Washington Examiner — now shuttered, sadly — was one of those nebulous “formative experiences” you don’t appreciate at the time . . . but when you’re looking back, wondering how you ended up where you are, it comes rushing back. Those were days that mattered. They taught you something.

At the end of my summer internship, I jumped to Borders. I was there for years, reading and assisting and stocking. That was an awesome job.

And for a while, I worked two jobs. I started as an assistant editor at the paper where I’ve worked full time since college graduation, once spending my days laying out editorial and nights working part-time at Borders’ information desk. I probably would have gone on that way, working two jobs and running like a madwoman, except I got promoted to editor at the paper and we got a new manager at Borders. And he wasn’t too impressive. And he kept messing up my schedule.

All in all, I’ve been a member of the work force for a decade. Ten years of my life spent behind cash registers or information desks, computers and notepads. I’m fortunate to say that I love what I do each day and am continually thankful for the opportunities I’ve been given but, well . . . let’s just say Labor Day comes at a good time.

And what have I learned through it all?

Working — especially in an office — gives you experience with, um, varying personalities. To survive, you master the art of diplomacy . . . and frequently get used to biting your tongue. For office dwellers such as myself, you keep a schedule. You stick to the schedule. You get organized, keep track of deadlines. In time, you decipher the vague requests and commands of superiors to get the job done right and quickly.

You develop habits, like afternoon coffee (or tea — a must!) with coworkers, or slipping out for your lunch break at 12:15 sharp. If you weren’t a creature of habit before, you may find yourself slipping into unalterable routines and like things “done a certain way.” I’m so particular about my desk — and my computer — that I can tell if a single pen has been used or misplaced, or if my stapler is at an odd angle.

Silly things. Dumb things that happen when you’re seated in the same spot for eight hours a day.

Or maybe it’s just my OCD typing.

But really, I like my job. I like working. I love having somewhere to go, people that depend on me, a feeling of accomplishment when a reader drops me an email or says hi at a coffee shop. Despite growing up in the same town in which I still live, I didn’t feel a great sense of community until I started work at the community newspaper. It’s given me a sense of belonging — of acceptance — I might not have otherwise discovered.

There are bad days, of course. Rough days. Insanely frustrating days. But on the whole? Since money is necessary and all, I feel fortunate to work with great people doing a job I enjoy . . . and hope to have the ability to do so for a long time to come. (Or roughly 30-ish more years. I’m on the 2045 retirement plan! [Imagine the fun of seeing that on your 401(k). Only three-plus decades to go!])

So happy Labor Day, friends! Whether you’re off on a long weekend or still hitting the salt mines, keep being awesome you.

I’m off for a short vacation and my bridal shower in New York, armed with my camera and fiance! We’re on the road and (hopefully) loving life right about now. Hope everyone enjoys their official end-of-summer soiree, and I’ll see you next week.

With a pumpkin spice latte, of course. It’s time!

A changed, once-sacred space

{Working at Borders, 2006}

My local bookstore just reopened. After losing our Borders last summer, we were without a local hang-out until Books-A-Million took over the former space. We rejoiced! I vowed to actually put my money where my typing is and shop there. (Despite the fact that I buy basically everything online, I’ve tried hard to purchase books only in “real” stores. Corporate or no.)

And then something weird happened.

Despite working for a newspaper, I can be surprisingly slow to learn local news — but the store closed again. Temporarily, I heard. It was something with the roof? A leak? I don’t know. Anyway, it closed for weeks. Seeing the chaos through the plate-glass windows and the dark exterior sign was pretty depressing, honestly. It was PTSD — Borders-style.

But the light shone again. We popped in Tuesday for the first time since BAM! re-opened. I bought Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl because you crazies have been talking about it everywhere, and I can’t stand being out of the In Club. Also, I read 14 pages in what felt like one breath, so.

While waiting for my mother and boyfriend to finish making their rounds of all the usual genres, I found myself . . . lingering. By the displays. Having worked at Borders for years in college, I’m drawn to the familiar fixtures. When BAM! purchased Borders’ old space, the shelves and signage seemed to come with it. Though Spence bought many of Borders’ bookcases for his place, I guess they replaced them? Because the store looks exactly the same.

Entering is always a time-warp. One minute I’m Megan, intrepid 27-year-old columnist, and the next I’m Megan, 21-year-old English major shamelessly draining her bank account on paperbacks with her employee discount. I used to love coming to work — seriously. As much as anyone can love working retail and dealing with the general public, I adored that place. I made so many friends there — people I still think about, people I still miss. The regular customers morphed from strangers to acquaintances, and then to chatty pals. I knew their spouses, their children. Their favorite authors. The way they liked their coffee. By the time I left in 2008, I knew most of their names — and they knew mine.

There was a warmth, a camaraderie. A sense that you were somewhere people met and mingled. Where ideas happened.

It was a really happy place. And time.

Part of my attachment to that job is undoubtedly due to it coinciding with a particular era of my life. I will never again be a freshly-christened college graduate. I will never be 21, or 22, or 23. It will never again be 2006, John Mayer’s just-released “Continuum” on repeat through our faulty speaker system. I will never again feel that untarnished, undecided — and free.

Most days, that’s okay. Good, even. But other times, it stings. Like peroxide. Like salt. Sometimes I want to cry, thinking about that former life — a time when that bookstore was just about my world.

On Tuesday night, the store was deserted. Booksellers milled about with piles of bargain books in their arms, rearranging displays and looking vacantly at their watches. The café was empty save one family in a corner, most of them thumbing away at iPhones. Spencer and I grabbed seats at a rickety table and read for a bit, but it was strange to be in a silent place that was once so teeming with life — one that now sits quiet, neglected. When I worked at Borders, we couldn’t get people out of the café. During holiday hours? We’d have fools camped out until midnight, nursing a single stale cup of coffee from hours before, walled in by stacks of unclaimed books.

Is this how it feels to desperately love something everyone else has abandoned?

The bookseller in me couldn’t help but neaten the displays, aligning edges and straightening stacks. Grabbing books that were tossed aside, patiently walking them back to their proper sections. Spencer once asked me why I do that — “You’re not getting a paycheck anymore” — but I just smiled, shrugged.

“I like it,” I said, and it was true.

Earning a paycheck hadn’t felt like earning a paycheck. It didn’t feel like work.

And I really miss it. More than I ever thought I could.