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.
Some conversations with customers are a bit like a trip down the Wikipedia rabbit hole where you just kind of hold on and see where you end up. You know how it goes: one minute you’re watching a Hidden Valley salad dressing commercial with Jenny Garth and three hours later your roommate finds you rocking back and forth watching the Richard Donner cut of Superman II and you have a perfectly reasonable, logical and well documented explanation for how you got from point A to B.
It happens to us all. But that’s how these conversations can go; they’ll start with a perfectly innocent (albeit stupid) question and then it’s liftoff. That customer sweeps through and picks you up, and really, who knows where you’re going to end up when they’re done with you.
One customer confided in me in graphic detail how he would like to murder a Florida prosecutor who had convicted his son of having attempted to murder his wife. It wasn’t that the man doubted his son’s guilt, in fact, his crime was also described for me in great detail, but instead simply that this attorney had the nerve to punish his boy. I’d known the man all of thirty seconds when this happened and was only trying to recommend a nice supernatural teen series for his granddaughter. This happens. A lot.
“Does it matter what tablet I have?” the woman asked me when I noticed her at the ereader accessories display. “Is there a difference between the sizes for these cases?”
“Oh yeah. Everything’s a different size. Which device do you have?”
“I don’t know. It was my son’s—my older son’s. He got a new one and gave his to his younger brother, I don’t know what it is or what size. It looks like these.”
I explained that she needed to get the make and model of the device, that she should ask her son about it. He’ll know what it is, so as long as she writes it down, we can tell her whether there’s something in the store that would work, or if she needs to look elsewhere to get a case for her baby boy’s new toy.
At this point, I think we’re done. I think she thought we were done. We should have been done. That would have been cool, since up until this point, she seemed nice. And not crazy at all.
Nope. Nope, not done, because then she notices a display we have up. Ok, busted, it wasn’t a company mandated display but instead one we threw up because we had boxes of this teen series and nowhere to put it. See, we sold a handful of Asylum and its sequel Sanctum, so the company shipped us 60 more of each one. That’s how it goes. Sell one? Here’s seven! Returned four? No, you must have done that by mistake, here’s fifteen!
“Oh what’s this?!”
“That? That’s a cool teen series, I think this one’s the first one,” I say, pointing to it, “It’s about kids in a prep school who live in an old psych hospital. There’s all these photographs throughout the—”
“That’s disgusting when they do that, like that one, they shouldn’t be opening a hotel or whatever, they need to tear that place down, I used to work there, there’s no reason to keep it around—”
“Yeah, of course,” I said before realizing I had no idea what she was talking about. Now she’s fired up, she’s talking and she’s talking fast. There’s barely a space between words or a breath between sentences, there’s no space between thoughts. You’re going to have trouble keeping up. “Wait, what place?”
“The Richardson Complex. I used to work there, it was horrible, I lasted a week, I was in college, you should have seen the way they were treated there, the kids had to take care of other patients and most of them weren’t even crazy, they’d just been abandoned and no one knew what to do with them, you know who was crazy? The ones running the place, those were the crazy ones, and the ones who want to turn it into a hotel now—”
“That reminds me of a book we have in our biography section,” I said, hoping to bring the conversation back around to her spending some money, “It’s the State Boys Rebellion, about kids who were institutionalized in the 50s, most of them were just unwanted—”
“No, they weren’t there—”
“At the Psych Center, that wasn’t them.”
“Well no, it was a different institution, but it’s like what you were saying about—”
“It wasn’t them, I can’t believe they would do that, they need to tear that place down, whatever with it being a historical building, it’s disgusting what happened there, no, I don’t think I can read those, those kids shouldn’t even have been there, so I should talk to my son and see what kind of tablet he has?”
“Exactly,” I agreed. I was starting to get dizzy. “Ask him who made it and what the name of it was, the make and model, and we can figure out what kind of case you need and whether we have it or not.”
“OK, honey, you’re so sweet, I will, I’ll ask him and come back and see you, thank you for taking the time, I’ll see you soon.”
And then she’s gone, and you stand there for a few seconds. Sometimes you smile to yourself and shake your head, sometimes another customer who may have overheard a part of the conversation makes eye contact with you and you both laugh. Your laughter isn’t malicious. You’re not laughing to be mean or to make fun of them; you’re genuinely amused by this crazy person tornado you just experienced. In fact, you’re not even sure you helped this customer at all even though they left super happy about their experience in the store and the amazing customer service they received.
Well, at least from their perspective. You’re still wondering what just happened.
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.