Excerpts from a Mini-ethnography of the Union Bookstore and workers
by David Smits

    My mini-ethnography is that of the Illini Union Bookstore, but more specifically the upper floor, dealing with general books. The reason is that the Union Bookstore is a gigantic and overwhelming building, and it is better that I focus on one area and get in depth than present a shallow overview of the entire building. The purpose of the research is to show how the residents of Champaign as well as the students of the University act and react within the confines of the upper floor, as well as how they interact with the workers there. The people who work on the upper floor are those who work at the General Book desk, which is where they help people find books, act as a register, and order special books for customers.

     As soon as you walk up the stairs you realize that the second floor is totally different than the first floor. It is a darker atmosphere, with areas of bright light illuminating certain sections of books and posters. It is nearly all wooden furniture and shelves, the floor is carpeted except for the landing at the top of the stairs. A multitude of chairs offer places to sit down and read for a while. The Help Desk is immediately in the middle of the floor, it is a wooden circle, painted dark green, and showcases certain popular books, most recently Michael Moore's Dude, Where's My Country. Above the stairs is a skylight that does not flood the store with light, even on brighter days. Past the Help Desk there is a round fenced hole that lets you observe the first floor from the second. The stacks of books are arranged by category. With subjects such as Philosophy and Psychology as well as Science Fiction. At the south end of the floor there is an electronics desk at which one person works about half the time according to my observations. The North end of the floor has a storeroom which is employees only, and the Northeast corner has a room called the Authors Corner, in which there are some books but is really a place to sit for a while and read, as it has two couches and multiple chairs, as well as lamps to read by, which provides good lighting for reading. The whole atmosphere seems rustic, as soft music plays in the background, usually classical, though sometimes very upbeat with trumpets, almost like big band music.

     The workers dress semi-formally, with dress pants or khakis and a dress shirt or blouse, or sweater. The students who work there dress up less for the job than the older workers, who tend to dress a lot more formally.

     When I began I sat on the stairs leading up to the second floor, but I could not really watch anyone on the floor except those coming up the stairs and only observing people who stayed on the main landing. I later changed my position to a number of chairs that overlooked the Help Desk, the poster rack, and the electronics desk. According to the workers of the help desk they usually were very busy in the earlier morning, but not so busy now. I observed that they didn't do very much restocking in the middle of the day, I assume they wait until close to restock so it can not be messed with and they would have to do it again at the end of the day.

     During my first visit I was to witness a miniature emergency as while I was sitting observing the power to the store went out and all the computers turned off. The workers, Juliet and Edna, did not panic but were a little bit confused. They tried to turn the computers back on manually, but that did not work for five minutes, and they just looked around at the customers and other workers instead of trying more ways of fixing the problem. The manager responded very quickly, and the power came back and they resumed to the usual business. They usually talked small talk, many references to recent books they had read, to funny interactions with customers. At one point they laughed about how a customer needed a book on Zambia, but could find nothing but books on Zimbabwe. They talk about these things because people are around so they can not speak or other more personal things, and they always talk a little bit quieter if someone is walking by.

     The interaction between the Help Desk and the customers is what it is meant to do, to help people find books. The customers who need help locating a book come to the desk and usually right away the workers are able to find the book that they are looking for. Edna, when approached with a book that she didn't know, responded "I thought I had them all memorized".

     The poster rack is a point at which many people stop to look at the pictures. Hardly anyone buys a poster, but many people stop at the rack and page through each poster. Some do it with slow concentrated looks at each of the posters, while others do it quickly, barely looking at each poster before moving on to the next one, never stopping but trying to take everything in at the same rate at which their hand can flip the pages. Perhaps the time for buying posters is over because people have already decorated their dorms and don't need any more posters, or perhaps none of the posters seem very striking to them. They are trying to find something that really makes them think, a piece of art that they understand. When they flip through them, they don't really concentrate, so even if there was a great piece of art there, they would not have the time to appreciate it, and thus nothing ever seems to be good to them.

     The Help Desk is a position of authority us it provides the workers with a place where they are out of the general floor and seem to have power that the ordinary customer does not have. They have access to the inventory from the computer and a register at which they take the money in exchange for the books. The workers usually don't like to be caught outside of the Desk, it is like a castle which provides them with security and power. They seem more comfortable inside the Help Desk because otherwise they look just like a customer who likes books.

     The atmosphere of the floor encourages customers to sit down and read a book, there are always open chairs to sit in, scattered across the floor in locations where people don't feel like they are being watched at all, and they sit there for minutes, sometimes hours, just reading a book that has engrossed them. This is what the Bookstore wants, as if you get into a book but have to leave, you are more likely to buy it.

     Everybody gets a little happier on Friday, on the verge of the weekend. The workers at the Bookstore are no exception, as they seemed a little giddier on the last weekday. The general atmosphere of the working environment seemed lighter, they laughed more, even the manager showed a little more tolerance for lightheartedness, when she came up and made some small talk with the Help Desk workers instead of telling them to get back to work. The workers try to socialize a little more with the customers, as they make small talk. Juliet tells a customer that "Everybody loves this book". "The drawings in this book are just so funny" Juliet tells Edna, handing her the book. Edna doesn't laugh, just reads and smirks a little. She is trying to keep on task, but she is being distracted.

     The Help Desk is set up in such a way that the two computers that are most worked on are facing the same way, so when the two sit down to work they can socialize and work at the same time. This is key, because usually they talk face to face, so if they are sitting next to each other they can watch the screen they are working on as well as talking and not feel like they are talking to someone's back.

     The Bookstore offers an interesting variety of books, and has a little bit of something for everyone. They have a staff that loves the atmosphere they are put in, and who love to help customers find what they need. This makes the bookstore a very easy place in which everyone can find something interesting, and everyone is able to visit, but very few actually do.

Click to see David's field notes

Click to see a map of the bookstore