The Peculiar Nature of a Bookseller

April 24, 2011 at 9:00 am (General) (, , , )

This is probably a trait of all retail and customer service field, but people seem to have a particularly bizarre defintion of what a bookseller’s job actually is.

Even before I worked retail, my definition of a retail employee was: do you have [blank], can you help me find [blank], can you check me out and take my money for [blank]? That’s pretty much it. Now, granted, I’m an inherently anti-social person. I may chat personably with the cashier while he/she is ringing me out, but I’m not there to get my fix of sociability. I know this is not the rule with everyone, and I’m okay with that. There are all sorts of people.

It’s the stunning array of other things people think we do that baffles me.

For instance: why do so many people assume that, as employees, we have read every book in the store? Even taking into account the fact that we occupy a smaller physical space than most others, that is a LOT of books, and frankly no one has that much time. We’d be doing literally nothing but reading, regardless of author or genre preference. I love books, but it just isn’t possible to have read every single book in the store. And yet, for some strange reason, people just assume that we have. They pull a random book off the shelf and ask us what we think of it. Then a number of them look affronted when I reply that I haven’t read it. If I’ve heard others comment about the book, I try to relay those, but if it’s an obscure book, I may not have anything to offer.

Why do people assume that we know the name, location, and in-stock availability of every book off the top of our heads? I’m very good at my job, but no one’s that good. We have a handy-dandy computer system that keeps all of our on hand quantities and tells us where things are and all that jazz. We’re asking you to follow us to the computer, or even just let us go to the computer and come back to you, in order to help you. It’s not a stalling technique, we just want to make sure we actually have what you’re looking for so we can find it quickly and not lead you on a wild goose chase. Our stock changes on a daily basis. We don’t want to give you the wrong information.

Believe it or not, I’m not a concierge. A concierge gets tipped. I don’t. I’m in a college town, I’m right off the interstate, so I kind of get the questions about places to eat. Ask me if there’s a good burger place or a deli, or even if there’s a nice sit down restaurant for a celebratory meal. But I don’t know menus and I don’t know prices or reservations or crowds. I don’t know the price range and vacancies for the area hotels and motels. I really don’t know if the waitresses are hot (hand to God, I’ve been asked). I can point out where places are along the same road, but if you want details, borrow my phone book and call the restaurant.

This is the one that actually got me to thinking about all this: I’m not a dictionary. We have a guy come in pretty frequently, and he almost never actually touches the books. He’s stringy and unwashed, his clothes fit very poorly and he has maybe three teeth in his mouth if you add up the stumps into the proportions of whole teeth, he reeks like a backed up sewer, and his eyes never quite look in the same direction. He comes in, usually with eight millions bags or, recently, with a brand new rolling suitcase that he carries with the extendable handle up under his arm like a crutch, and pretty much never touches the books. He weaves through the line, stares at the clock on the wall for several minutes, and then leans way too close to the cashier to ask what time it is. He’ll walk away for a bit, and then he’ll come back and ask for the definition of a word. I have no idea where he actually hears these words. This week’s entry? Fo’c’sle. As in forecastle, the front part of the upper decks of a ship, usually where the crew’s quarters are. (Strangely enough, I actually knew that off the top of my head) But he’s not the only one. We’ll have customers come up to us and ask us random words from the book. My favorites are the students who keep asking us questions about themes and context and motivation.

Does it make me a horrible, horrible person that I occasionally screw with these students? I once convinced someone that Crime and Punishment was about a wrongfully imprisoned man who escapes from Chateau d’If and spends the next decades hiding from a determined police officer named Javert. He came back a week later very confused as to why his paper got a failing grade.

…okay, yes, that makes me a horrible person.

But seriously, I can’t write your paper for you, and we do actually carry dictionaries in the store.

In the course of a fairly normal week, I’ll have people ask me to access their voicemail, call them a cab, where the sex store is, how to do a math problem, the chemical symbol for silver, how to talk to an eldery parent about a porn stash, the bus schedule, the university class schedule, whether or not the library has a book, the state of the traffic 45 miles away, what’s wrong with their dog…really, I can keep going. It’s kind of terrifying.

Of course, I can’t say that when I’m at work and actually confronted with these bizarre occurrences. There’s some small measure of tact tucked away in here. (Very small) (Infinitesimal) But it always makes me wonder. What is it about bookstore employees that make people ask us such varied questions?

And the theory I’ve formed is this: because we work in a bookstore, we must be incredibly intelligent and well-read, and have therefore absorbed a wide range of knowledge. There’s something about working in a bookstore that lends this instant reputation of brilliance, like we spend all our time rifling through thick encyclopedias as prep for Jeopardy. Which, I guess, is flattering in a way, but let’s be serious: bookstore employees are pretty much the same mixed bunch as anywhere else.

And we really don’t know everything.

So, let me introduce you to this amazing, wonderful thing called: Google.


Ask me to help you find a book, even send me on a computer scavenger hunt on part of a cover without any idea of title, author, or genre, ask me to put the book in your hand or order it for you, or hand me money so you can legally take the book home with you, I’m your girl. Ask me if I’ve read a book, or if I’ve heard anything about it, I’ll tell you anything I know about it.

Ask me the price of the ribs at the roadhouse, I’m going to give you a lovely, utterly insincere smile and hand you the phonebook.

Until next time~

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