Commodifying respectability: distinctions at work in the bookshop

Wright, David (2005). Commodifying respectability: distinctions at work in the bookshop. Journal of Consumer Culture, 5(3) pp. 295–314.



This article argues for a focus on the relationships between retail managers, workers and the objects that they sell in understanding the production of retail spaces and service interactions as meaningful. Sociological and critical management literatures on the service encounter have emphasized the extent to which retail workers are encouraged to display enthusiasm for the things that they sell as part of the process of selling. Indeed, competitive advantage in large modern retail environments is often premised upon the ‘quality’ of customer service and the genuineness of worker engagement with the customer. This article examines these debates in the context of the UK retail book trade and argues that this emphasis in the literature might neglect the extent to which relationships with symbolic goods in consumer society are not simply benign resources for the creation of reflexive selves. It argues that the notion of reading as a worthwhile or respectable leisure pursuit informs the working practices of the book trade. It demonstrates this through interviews with bookshop managers about processes of selection and recruitment and interviews with managers and workers about relationships with customers. Both of these aspects of retail work are informed by relationships to objects that reflect and produce inequalities in cultural capital. In the discourse of the retail book trade, bookshop workers and customers are presumed to be particular types of people with particular orientations to the products being sold. The embodied cultural capital of workers leads to interactions that implicate the bookshop as a site in which hierarchies of cultural value are produced and reinforced.

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