Sunday, June 28, 2009

Through the Looking Glass Again

Doing a bookstore's inventory is, shall we say? a collaborative process. I hate that. It requires, once a year, that strangers come into the very places where we work every day and that they find there an order perhaps not all together natural to the bookseller. We are an organized business; books are bought, priced, tagged, sorted, ordered on the shelf, sold, as much by recommendation as review, and that last means being able to find not just the book asked for, but also the book unanticipated. But booksellers are not, in my experience, tidy beings. Our pleasure in print makes pack-rats of us all, to begin with. We do so like paper, one would think we eat it, the way it is stored up even after it's use is done: catalogues, reviews, reports, stray plates and pages, broken bindings, bits, pieces, scrap. True, we use the scrap. We are great ones for note taking and lists. We are mad for reference, and anything once jotted down may be necessary to someone thereafter. Even in the age of interior store blogs, we leave notes taped everywhere; telling this one she's had a call from her customer, and those that a book has been on NPR and ought to be reordered, explaining new procedures at the cash registers, or a correction in the calendar of events. It is lunatic, the continued reliance of booksellers on scribbling. I don't know that it can be helped, no matter the technological innovations, extraordinary in just my time in bookselling, meant to do away with all this business of memos and notes and books of reference. We do so like a note. We dote on records, ledgers and the like. (They're almost like books, don't you see?) And then there are all the book themselves that we ought not still to have about the place come inventory taking; the publishers' returns we've put off too late, the reader's copies we can't ethically sell, the damaged and the shopworn and the unsalable. What to do with all that? This is to say nothing of the personal effects, the mugs and water bottles, the sweaters and library books (hateful things,) the book reviews and clippings shared out at the information desk, the pens, and pencils and... stuff. So the thought of anyone not sympathetic to our little disorders, our packed cubbies and stuffed desks, coming in to, potentially, count our paperclips and question the value of our accumulations, causes a kind of annual panic.

Books that ought to have been gone, returned long since, marked down, donated, destroyed like so many lamed and sickly pets, are culled not methodically or systematically, in a business-like way that would suggest planning and careful maintenance, but at a rush; more slum-clearance for fear of typhus than logical hygiene. Our inventory at the bookstore where I work, for instance, comes every year at the end of June. This has not varied in the memory of a living soul. And yet, we meet it every year, come April, with all the shocked horror of unlettered peasants catching the first scent of an unexpected plague in the gossiping breeze. Carts full of last minute "pulls," i.e. books unreviewed on the shelves for months, overdue for removal, suddenly back up in the returns area, books too old to return, or used books long ago paid for but unsold and unnoticed, suddenly appear heaped at the desk to be "clearanced," marked-down, made to go away.

Desk drawers are checked for salable goods. The unlikely to be purchased piles of squirrelled away remainders and forgotten bargain books, books that have survived the last day of increased employee shopping discounts unnoticed, reappear mysteriously on the bargain books tables, in ones and twos, long after the displays of these books have sold away otherwise to nothing.

For us at the Used Books Desk, always unhappy to see any used book come back to us for any reason other than a customer selling it back for credit, the return of so many unsold books every June, when we are already madly scrambling to enter everything newly purchased before the deadline, constitutes the worst possible news at the worst possible moment. We are surprised, every time.

All of this frenzied organization, elimination, reduction and adjustment is, in it's way, ridiculous. In the first place, new messes will be quickly made, come the first of July, and new stock, new and used, is being purchased even as we panic about the old. True, in these troubled economic times, a more concerted effort has been made of late to tighten up the inventory in a very real way, but this does not preclude, evidently, the long established custom of talking about doing this sort of thing throughout the whole of the post-Christmas season and straight through Spring, and then actually addressing the issue only in April. So it ever was and shall be, I suppose. And in the second place, more absurdly, nothing is to be counted on the last Sunday in June that we do not ask to be counted! There is nothing in the bookstore but what we've put in it all the other months of the year! And yet, we seem to resent the very idea knowing any more than we have to of just what it is we may have done to ourselves, and this delayed and guilty admission -- that's there's no one to blame for our inventory but ourselves -- makes us all suddenly self conscious of waste, extravagance, and the embarrassingly messy way we tend to do business all the year 'round.

One would think, reading this, that I stand, like Jeremiah on a rock, shaking my weary locks at The Nation, calling down judgement and mercy, but the truth is, I'm madly trying to make my desk look presentable for visitors, enter all the books I ought not to have bought for the past month, and finally address at least some of the mark-down I ought to have done long since myself.

If only I could find my favorite pen in this damned drawer. And when, exactly, did I decide I needed this bargain book about Lewis Carroll & His Illustrators? That definitely needs to just go back on the table. When will I ever buy that book? Did you notice the lovely pictures, though? Look, here are Dodgson's original sketches, and then his "crocodile walking on his back" is transformed into the elegant crocodile of Harry Furniss. THe letters back and forth are fascinating...

I'm sorry, what was I talking about just now? Never mind. It can wait. Look at Sylvie!

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