Saturday, March 26, 2011

My Shining Hour

When I was still writing elsewhere, at work and as, I tried to be mindful of keeping to some point, usually to do with some occasion to be marked in the bookstore, even if it was just the usual holidays, or some new promotion in which I may have had a hand. I reviewed a book or two, new or not, and talked up old favorites now and then, and while books were my topic, I allowed for the unexpected incident or alteration of the weather, if need be, to start me off, but always with the thought that somehow, in a very brief space, I might find my way back to books and try to sell a few more by way of talking them up a bit online. I had a purpose then, you see, that I haven't here. Books are still the stuff from which my modest living is made, and the central concern of this modest enterprise, but as there's no one here to mind me and keep me on my subject -- whatever I happen to think that may be when I drop down each night at my desk -- as Montaigne said, "there is no mad or idle fancy" that I might not "bring forth in the agitation." Here, there's no one to please but me, and that can be a dangerous goal, as, often as not, having made a start at an entry or two of just a few stray notes, I may be best pleased on any given evening by retiring early to watch television next to my dozing husband. Nothing wrong with that, save that when I next stumble down to my desk, I may have no memory of what it was I had been meaning to write about the night before. The bit of this blog that no one sees but me is littered with incomplete thoughts, some of them now quite mystifying. These notes and squibs -- for most are no more than that, and seldom are they even in complete sentences -- are here dignified, one and all, as "drafts." Too kind. Just by way of example, what to make of this, from January of this year?

"smoking in the alley -- 'There is no darkness but ignorance' -- look up Bessie Smith song"

Well now. That first item was no doubt meant to provide the setting for some anecdote now lost to memory. Happening as it does, to my shame, every day, if no more than once an hour -- I'm cutting back, I swear -- so common an occurrence, in such naked absence of detail, can hardly be counted on to trigger any telling incident now. Who knows what may have happened that day in the alley, or what I meant to make of it later but failed to? As for the quote from Twelfth Night that came next, it's applications are too many to offer so much as clue. And dear ol' Bessie? What song was I humming in the alley, as I puffed away, and posited an essay on... no idea.

In my last entry here, even as I was on about what constitutes a happy hour at the buying desk, I see by the bits I'd originally entered under that heading in an earlier "draft," that what I'd intended was to contrast a good hour buying books for the bookstore with a good hour selling books on the sales-floor -- or so I must surmise from the collection of stray titles and one brief description of a charming customer that survived. As I have no more pressing business tonight, let me then pick up this lost thread and do what I can with it now. (There's no one to say but that I mightn't do better to go back and start again, but any fool can see how likely I am to carry through, considering how long it took me last night to say even the little I did on what was after all but half of my subject, so best leave that as it is and just get on with this. Consider the dithering tonight just to get me to this point!)

Should anyone be curious still, last night I explained, if that's the word for it, the fun, if indeed that is the right word come to that, to be had from keeping behind the counter and letting the books come to the buyer. The other aspect of my employment, the thing that we booksellers actually do with most of our day, if we are lucky enough nowadays to actually see customers coming through the door and up to us looking for assistance or suggestions, is hunt. Wouldn't think it, to look at most of us. Booksellers, taken in as a body, tend to be a rather physically unprepossessing species: sedentary creatures, most of us, myself being a most representative and stable example of the type, and while there are of course among us any number of healthier, outdoorsy sorts who bicycle to work and or take vacation in godly spots full of nature and majesty, more often we are somewhat pale, bespectacled, inactive folk. Encountered by new customers at the information counter in most bookstores, there would be little or nothing about the average clerk in a bookstore that might suggest an eagerness to be up and stirring. Perhaps it is a symptom of the decline in bookselling generally, or the wider economic malaise just now, but appearances to the contrary, anyone stepping into a bookstore these days should be prepared to be met with what must seem an uncharacteristic, even undignified eagerness to be of assistance. (We are just waiting for you, people. Come on in.) Actually, after more than a quarter of a century of clerking in the book business, I must defend the profession and say that this is not something new. True, there have always been and possibly will always be the bored, benighted jobbers to be found in any bookstore, for whom the customer is an unwelcome interruption of their reading. In my experience, the more famous and even venerable the shop, the worse the service traditionally was -- just here my memory drifts back to San Francisco and the hopelessly cool and unhelpful poet manqué inevitably throwing shade behind the high desk at one of the more frequently noted poetry shops on every tourist map. Can't imagine how such places survive, or such people continue employed. By and large, booksellers are chatty. Too polite to disturb the reader standing between the shelves, working his or her way through Ulysses for free, and disinclined to jump anyone as they come through the door, we booksellers will none the less respond with all the enthusiasm of an auctioneer to even the slightest nod or glance, if we think there may be a chance of a sale. An actual smile may bring as many as two or three clerks out of their conversation at the counter and tumbling out to help. Such, I admit, has not always been the experience of every customer. Sensitive souls, nearly one and all, the bookstore clerks I've known in my time, we will, it's true, fly from confrontation if given the opportunity. A wrathful countenance, a raised hand clutching an old receipt, the company of wailing infants, a loud and demanding voice raised from across the floor, and booksellers will scatter like so many rabbits in a thunderstorm. Experience also teaches that anyone in a wig not quite centered properly, anyone not altogether clean or quite right in their person, anyone familiar to staff as either a problem or a bore, as the approach is made to the information desk, and in all likelihood, though a moment ago there might have been as many as half a dozen people about wearing name-tags, said difficult individual will find on arrival only the youngest, most inexperienced clerk still standing, or perhaps the oldest, slowest of us, poor soul, left as a sacrifice for the survival of the herd. A cheery greeting though, and any hint of good manners, and booksellers will probably rush you.

What I'd intended to write about originally was a particularly pleasant hour, I now remember, spent at the Information Desk recently, an hour during which we were not only busy, but in which I had not a single phone-call demanding explanation of the failure of a five dollar signing ticket to guarantee "one on one time" with a visiting financial expert and television personality. In that shining hour I likewise was spared contact with even so much as one of our regular company of bums, bullies, duffers and nuts. That, let me just say, is unheard of in any urban retail establishment with central heating, an extensive collection of browsable magazines and clean toilets. But what made the hour truly special was not so much the absence of such obvious negatives, as the presence of so many delightful customers and the surprising ease with which, despite an ever increasingly more "selective" stock, shall we say, I was able to find just the books wanted, and to recommend a few besides. It was heaven.

One customer in particular, to whom I have already briefly alluded as being mentioned in my original notes, was an elderly gent with a list. This is not always a bad thing. Indeed, this fine fellow was very much a man after my own heart, as the very first book he asked for was James Thurber's The Years with Ross, a book I know well and which we happened to have in a nice, cheap used paperback that seemed to delight my new friend in every way. As if sent from above, just to make me happy and restore my full faith in the reading public, the very next item on his list, for which he hoped I wouldn't mind making some recommendation, was something he had been looking for in vain elsewhere, namely "a good life of Thomas Hardy." Comrade! We found three, all beautiful, used hardcover books. I recommended the admittedly rather daunting, if definitive, Martin Seymour-Smith. From my daily sales report of the next day, I saw that the gentleman eventually chose the less cumbersome, but no less respectable book by Claire Tomalin, also quite good. Finally he asked if we might have the new book by Susan Jacoby, author of an excellent earlier title on American anti-intellectualism, The Age of American Unreason. Not only did we have her new book, Never Say Die, we had multiple autographed copies, as a result of a recent appearance, sponsored by the bookstore, of the author here in the city. The gentleman was impressed.

What made the hour shine though was not just this one delightful fellow, though he might have been enough to see me through an average day, or even a week, bless 'im. Miraculously, he was but the first in a long line of good people who came to the desk while I was there, all of them friendly, all of them looking for books, all of them only too happy to loose the pack and send us panting through thicket and plains, the scent of sales in our noses, the titles of books we knew to be in stock on the tips of our tongues. It was glorious!

If, as I said last night, the joy of buying used books is at least in large part in the anticipation of sales, it is when working out on the floor, and actually making sales, that the bookseller will find the greatest happiness, or so at least I've always found. It isn't just a matter of the prospect of money being made, though in these increasingly difficult economics times that is something always very much in mind, but to be able to make a sale and know that the books that are being sold are the books one hopes rather desperately to sell, because one knows them to be excellent of their kind, because a title is familiar, but not much sought anymore, because there is no happier moment than meeting a fellow enthusiast for Austen, or Hardy, or Christie, or Susan Jacoby, come to that, that is the best.

I will mention just one other transaction, and then I will let the subject rest for tonight. There was nothing so very wonderful about the book in this case, but the customers were jolly people, a couple, and delightfully happy to be helped not just by one, but by no less than four of us, as it took that many of us to piece together from the amusingly little information that our customers came in with, just what the book was called, who it was by, and if indeed we still had it. One clerk asked questions of the customers, another searched the computer, a third interjected the name of a fourth who might know and the last in fact did! All this baying and bouncing and barking back and forth, up and down stairs, and 'round and 'round, the blessed people who'd come up so shyly to ask us if we might remember what they couldn't quite, found as fun as we all did. When the book was finally treed and bagged, there was something like general jubilation. What's more, they actually bought the book!

If in my last I sounded rather more stiffly dignified than I actually am in even my most studied pose, I hope tonight I might have at last conveyed something of the pleasurable chaos that makes for the happiest hours working in a bookstore. Its really why we do it -- that and our general incapacity for other useful employment, though just here I may perhaps best speak for myself. As this will doubtless prove, I haven't a head for any more sustained intellectual effort. Most days, I can not even remember what I was saying, or why. At this one task though, selling books, I can now and then, shine.

Nothing better.

I think that's what I meant to say. If not, it will have to do.


  1. Absolutely correct, the two best parts of selling books are selling books and figuring out the title of the book the customer knows has a "green cover, is about art, and is flat". (An actual description I got from a customer once.)At CWLP, we loved the latter game so much we would all rush to help figure out the title.

  2. Dear Richard, I do think this may be the one thing I will miss most when bookstores are gone and I'm forced to sell pencils in the street.