Category Archives: Things I Come Up With While I’m At Work
It happens throughout the year, but it’s during the holidays when this particular customer has the power to reach right into your chest and rip out your heart, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom style. Like Mola Ram, this heartbreaking customer lies in plain sight, manipulating you and all those around them to their evil ends.
Or… in order to purchase Christmas presents. Ok, it may not be quite so sinister as enslaving children and stealing sacred stones towards the ultimate goal of world domination in the name of the great Kali, but it’s pretty up there.
The set-up is that you never see them coming. They usually don’t show up wearing a necklace of teeth or a ram’s skull with a shrunken head mounted on it. Fashion scarves and sensible outerwear, is what this lot typically appears wearing. They seem so sweet, so trustworthy; they could be your mother, your favorite aunt. Don’t let this fool you! They are no less dangerous than Thuggee high priest high on chilled monkey brain and snake surprise.
“I’m looking for this book for my son,” she asked, “I’ve looked on all the tables but can’t seem to find it. It’s called the Boys in the Boat.”
“Oh yeah, we should definitely have that,” I say, and type it in to the computer to pull up where in the store we put it. “I remember when that came out, I think it was one of the Buffalo News’ picks, everyone was looking for it.”
Small talk. I’m not particularly good at small talk, but I try. Usually I lose interest in what I’m saying and just kind of trail off. In most cases, it’s just to stall until our Pentium 4 IBMs can process the search and tell me that the book I’m looking for is, in fact, only six feet away. In my defense, we sold out of the stack of them on the table, so I couldn’t physically see the book from where I was standing. It was only on the floor underneath the table. Shut up.
I took her over, and put the book in her hand as we do, and prepared to have praise showered upon me before returning to the information desk where the next customer will undoubtedly crush out the desperate, smoldering attempt at holiday cheer I feel by yelling at me that we are “raping our customers” because our online prices are lower than those in-store.
But that is not to be, not yet.
“You don’t happen to have this in hardcover, do you? He really prefers that,” she says.
You can’t win.
Da Vinci Code, anything even remotely Harry Potter, or pretty much anything you’ve seen on the bestsellers’ list. These books can spend years in hardcover and all you hear is, “Do you have this in paperback? Why isn’t this in paperback? When is this coming out in paperback? Amazon has this in paperback, you know, I’ll just buy it there.”
Customers will ask for James Patterson’s newest release in paperback. That book came out three weeks ago: spoilers, it’s not in paperback. Not for a year. At least. And Amazon doesn’t have it in paperback, they have the option to preorder it in paperback. When it comes out. In six months.
It never fails though. As soon as it hits paperback and all the hardcovers have been returned because, well, who would want them anymore, that’s when suddenly everyone needs the hardcover. Hey, but sometimes we have one.
“I had one the other day, let me look it up again and see if we still have it.”
I check. One. One book on hand. Usually, this means we’re never going to see it, that we’re never going to find it. It’s difficult enough any other time of year, but Christmas? Yeah, it goes something like this:
you’re going to check the shelf, check the cart, check the other cart, check the sorting table, check the computer for when it came in, check the table again, look at pile of boxes still unopened and wonder, give up, check three other carts just because, look on the return shelf, check the computer again to make sure it wasn’t on hold, hope the hold didn’t expire in the computer but that the book was still physically on the holds shelf, check the shelf again, check the computer again to see when it came in, feel your heart sink when you realize it was six months ago, check the cart, check the shelf and find it.
You found it. You found it one bookshelf over and three shelves down from where it was supposed to be, and in no way alphabetical by author. But it’s there. It’s there!
I hand it over to her, and she’s as excited as I am. The store is incredibly busy, and she saw you running trying to find that single copy for her. Against the odds, you found it and its still looks perfect. It’s a little Christmas miracle.
Until three hours later you find it on the “What Teens are Reading” table under a copy of Hollow City, and your heart breaks a little. This happens all year long, you should be used to it. But it’s always more difficult during the holidays. While you’re searching for these books, dodging customers and digging through carts and shelves to find what they’ve whined about and guilted you to find, while you’re searching for this perfect gift, this present, they absolutely have to have or Christmas is ruined forever, you really think you’re making a difference.
That moment of excitement, of victory, you feel when you find that book—spot it out the corner of your eye on a completely wrong shelf, entirely by chance—is supposed to be exactly what someone is going to feel when they open this gift on Christmas. It’s a little Christmas present from Jesus and Santa and the bookselling gods, all for you.
So it hurts. It hurts when, for whatever reason (and one completely out of your control) you find that book discarded hours later. That was your connection to someone, your contribution to making someone’s holiday just a little bit more special. This time of year, it will crush your holiday spirit, and every time it will break your heart, just a little.
Some of these heartbreakers you can spot. You’ll start to predict when you’ll find that book later that night; their hesitation taking it from your hand, their instantly asking the price, them immediately slapping you in the face with it. (At which point, according to the code of bookseller conduct, you must challenge them to a dual at sunrise the next Tuesday before the new releases are put on sale.) Some take you by surprise. But if you want to work in a bookstore for Christmas, you won’t let it stop you. You can’t. You have to keep going, keep smiling, keep searching and checking and double checking for whatever crazy thing they may be asking for. One in ten might break your heart, but the rest? Well, actually, the rest will break your heart too.
It should still break, but for a different reason. Instead, it should break a little each time because the rest of those people, each and every one of those customers, now have that perfect gift they were looking for. On Christmas morning, they’ll get to see someone’s face light up as they open it. It might be the first book in a series a kid was hoping for, it could be a memoir by someone’s favorite musician, it might be a party game they want to open immediately and start playing.
That’s why you go home every day exhausted and sore and with your feet soaking in sweat and reeking in a way you never imagined possible. Seriously, it feels like you’re walking on sponges—that’s not normal. But it’s ok. It’s ok. As long as you remember that every person who walks through those doors isn’t just asking for your help, they are inviting you to be a part of their holiday experience. You’re not a computer screen promising free shipping if they spend a little more money. You’re the person who saw in their face just how much they wanted this game or movie or terrible teen series about steampunk assassins fighting supernatural in a prep school on the site of a former psych hospital, and you checked every shelf, every cart and shoved that old lady out of your way to get that perfect item for them.
They can’t do it without you. Literally. They can’t. These people will wander around the store in a daze until you ask them what they’re looking for. If it wasn’t for you they’d still be there at four in the morning wandering in slow motion down the middle of the aisle and stopping randomly for no reason at all.
Instead, because of you, they’re able to make someone’s Christmas. So be ready for the heartbreaker who will hide the book you found for them under that giant pile of Sons of Anarchy Collector’s Edition—no, I’m just kidding. We don’t have that, no one does, that’s on backorder until Valentine’s.
Be ready for them, those spirit-crushers who don’t realize finding that book for them was the sad high point of your day. But be ready for the other heartbreakers, too. The ones who take the books you found for them and give them a special place under their tree, who get excited to watch it get opened, who have given it a place in the life of someone they care about. You are going to save Christmas. You are going to change someone’s life.
So stay strong, don’t forget to smile, always double check the shelf, and for God’s sake man, change your socks.
No longer resigned to lounging on the couch on Sundays for every football game ever, no longer for painting or yardwork or staring at that weight bench in your basement you keep intending to use. What? No, you will, I know. Next week. You’ll start your workout routine next week.
No! No sir, not anymore are sweatpants marginalized and cast aside in favor of pants with their fancy zippers and buttons and measured waists. Who the hell do those pants think they are? No more!
Sweatpants. Sweatpants are your going out pants now, because somewhere along the line we have devolved into a society where this is entirely acceptable. With sweatpants you get a a full range of motion, the possibility of keeping one pair your entire life no matter how fat you end up with their revolutionary stretchable elastic waistband; and, of course, the liberating knowledge that your balls are just bouncing free as you walk, unhindered by stiff, restrictive fabric that other “pants” fall victim to. The ladies will love that last bit. A man in sweatpants is DTF, you better believe that. And for the record, real men wear their sweatpants pulled up an inch above their ankles to properly show off the white socks they’re wearing with sandles.
I was kneeling down, putting some books away on the bottom shelf when a husky, sweatpants clad customer who had a five-o’clock shadow on only half his face, stopped at the end of the aisle.
When I looked up he gave me a big, wide-eyed smile and snapped the waistband of his sweatpants.
“Yes sir!” he yelled and nodded at me, his eyebrows threatening to jump off his face, and continued on his way.
“Ok,” I said to the now empty space he had occupied (well, what else do you say?) and went back to what I’d been doing.
Until he came back. He always come back, that’s an important point to remember. You spoke while facing his general direction and that means you spoke to him. That means, as far as Sweatpants Guy is concerned, you are the only person in the store. You made the mistake of acknowledging his existence, something that apparently no one else has done in quite some time.
See, you’re the guy in the horror movie that opened the creepy nailed-shut door behind a shelf in his basement his first night in the new house that he bought for a surprisingly low price that the rest of the town avoids going near. How many red flags do you need? The house was wearing sweatpants, why did you even look at it? Now you’re the guy that lets out the evil spirit that’s been trapped in there since the house was built over an old Indian burial ground. Now, you gotta pay the piper, because that evil sweatpants-wearing spirit will now feast on what is left of your retail soul.
Anything else Sweatpants Guy needs to ask, that he needs to say, any other thought regarding his favorite snack foods or his opinion of the color green, anything at all that pops into his lumpy noggin that he inexplicably needs to speak aloud, he will find you, and he will tell you. And only you. Because you’re friends now.
Sweatpants Guy popped back around the corner of the aisle about 27-seconds later—-he didn’t come back into the aisle, make no mistake about that—-he only leaned around the corner. And waited. I saw him out of the corner of my eye and took a deep breath. I’d been through this before. There’s no point in trying to avoid it or pretend he isn’t there. Sweatpants Guy has nowhere else to be. He can do this all night. He stared at me silently until I looked up.
“Do you still have—-you have paper applications, or I do it online now?”
“Excellent!” he yelled, and pumped his fist int he air, and with a sweatpanty swish and a cloud of the cheap potpourri he rubbed on himself before leaving the house to mask that man-stink of indeterminate origins, he disappeared again, leaving me with the realization that he would probably get hired and I would be the one to argue with him that sweatpants were not acceptable work attire.
“Maybe you can help me,” my co-worker said after she waved me over, “That customer over there is looking for ‘poetically written contemporary fiction.’ Everything I’ve suggested he’s pooh-poohed already.”
I made a face. I made a face like I… well, like I had to pooh-pooh a little. What does that even mean? Poetically written contemporary fiction?
First of all, the definition of contemporary depends on the person. You might think contemporary and modern are synonymous. Sounds like it. Maybe. Nope. I made that mistake when I took a class once called “Modern Philosophy.” That branch of philosophical namby-pambying starts in the 17th century. In a big picture kind of way sure, that’s modern times, but not for a 19 years old college kid. Contemporary philosophy, while closer to the mark, is still old. It picks up towards the end of the 19th century.
The periods in literature are more confusing and more poorly defined because writers are artists, which means we’re all babies and can’t make up our minds about anything. Periods overlap and lack any clear start or end. Contemporary literature, I guess, starts in the 1930s, because that’s what Wikipedia said. More or less.
But is that what this guy meant by contemporary? Your typical bookstore browser might say contemporary but mean current, present-day. Does he want new releases? How new? And what does he really mean by ‘poetically written’? I can jot down some sentence fragments full of adjectives and no clear point, if that’s what he wants. Better yet, I’ll write a full page and just delete every third word, let’s call that poetry. I think someone may have written a poem on the wall in the men’s room, how’s that for contemporary?
I offered up Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, but that’s more fantastical than poetic, even though I found the writing beautiful; a children’s book written for adults. This reminded me I have yet to read Rushie’s sequel to Haroun, which aggravated me even more. Giving up I said dismissively, “Just give him some Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Every death article I’ve read talks about how poetic his writing is. Or maybe I’m confusing that with magical realism. I don’t know. You’re on your own.”
Before I could complete my dramatic exit however, I suddenly thought of a book I’d read a few years ago, one I came across by chance walking down an aisle in the Fiction section. It was depressing, full of imagry and difficult to follow; if that isn’t the purest definition of poetry then—well, actually I think I’ve made it clear I have no understanding of poetry. After handing this book off to my coworker a couple others came to mind, and for no particular reason, I’m going to share them with you. I’ll start with the one the guy purchased…
Tinkers / Paul Harding —
It was weird. It left me feeling as though I was looking up while being sucked down into a whirlpool. It’s been a couple years since I read it, so that could actually be something that happened in the book, I’m not sure. That’s the only way I can describe my memory of reading it. It centers on an man lying in a hospital bed in his dining room dying. In and out of consciousness, the world around him constantly breaks down as he moves through his memories and those of his father. What’s real, what is hallucination, what is the point of… all of it?
The cover of the paperback is absolutely appropriate: a snow-covered field, a solitary figure. Imagine being that—no, imagine being in that field and seeing that figure. Walking across the field in the snow, the cold reaching through your coat and the fog of your breath pouring out of you, but never getting any closer to that figure, and that figure never turning around to see you.
the Solitude of Prime Numbers / Paolo Giordano —
A few years ago, when this book first came into the store, a coworker and I instantly hated the author. Italian, good looking, twenty-seven and working on a doctorate in particle physics who, you know, in his spare time, wrote a novel. He’s probably one of those guys who makes riding a scooter look badass. His author photo only rubs it in that I don’t have an awesome corduroy sport coat. Yet.
The book makes you uncomfortable. There’s no point in trying to hide that from you. You care about the characters, you want things to happen, but you’re entirely sure if they deserve to be happy. You want them to be, you want things to work out. But you also give up and push them away. You’re rooting for and against them the entire time. It’s painful and beautiful in the same moment. Its infuriating. Paulo, you need to stop being awesome.
the End of the Alphabet / C.S. Richardson —
I saw this book on the shelf but forgot the title and the author. Three years later I finally tracked it down after countless internet searches with the incredibly limited information I had. This book is beautiful, inside and out; it is a tragedy of literature that it is out of print. OK, that might be a slight exaggeration, but the book broke my heart. Go find a used copy of it, buy it, it’s worth it. Be dramatic and read it on the porch during an afternoon rainstorm. Have either a glass of bourbon or a cup of tea within reach. It’s a short book. You can read it in one sitting, but it will be a book that on days when you are feeling alone or lost, when nothing can hold your attention, you will want to find it on your shelf and read again.
The main character, Ambrose Zephyr is going to die. He has one month, so he and his wife pack their bags to travel the world in alphabetical order. This is about loss, it’s about dreams, about love. It’s the shortest book ever written to cover everything that makes a life beautiful.