Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Not While You're Shopping Under My Roof

It's been a while since we took a visit to my imaginary bookstore, Bibliophiles, so I thought we'd stop by. Today we'll be looking at a couple of things that aren't there. (That's right, we're being very deep and philosophical today.)
There are some things in BookWorld that I don't enjoy being forced to sell. Now, I'm not saying they should be banned or censored or burned, because I totally, passionately believe in every one's personal freedom of speech. However, I personally don't like some of the things that I cross paths with, and since it's my imaginary bookstore, and I am queen, I don't have to sell them. You're more than welcome to buy them at your local Barnes & Borders.
First on that list – CliffsNotes (Or Spark Notes. Or Monarch Notes.) I realize that they were originally intended to be a study aide to help people understand the scholarly interpretations, complex plots, or historical context of great works of literature, and I somewhat condone their use in those situations, but you still have to buy it elsewhere. Now, of course, CliffsNotes are a way to half-ass your way through great works of literature without having to do too much scary reading. Not in my bookstore. Read the actual book or face the wrath of my attack ponies.
Second – No magazine section. I may stock a few copies or Bookmarks, Publisher's Weekly, and Mental Floss, but you cannot buy Cosmo at Bibliophiles. In every bookstore I've worked at magazines require the most work for the least amount of monetary (or literary) gain. I honestly don't know why most places still stock them. No one ever puts them back, they read them and spill coffee on them, they tear pages, and then they never buy any. Most of the clean up after Borders closed at night took place in the magazine section.
Third- Nothing that makes noise. I've already made my opinion known about noisy toys, but my bookstore will also not stock noisy books. Sorry kids, I will happily sell you any Winnie-the-Pooh book that doesn't come with a very loud noise making element. Someone else will have to teach you what sound the cow makes.
Fourth – Any non-book item that I cannot in some way relate to books. Bookmarks, pens, notebooks, highlighters- all fine. I use all of those things when I'm reading. In fact the Post-It Flag display in Bibliophiles will be front and center, and probably constantly depleted by me. But no one has been able to explain the necessity for a pink flocked reindeer. Which I have been forced to sell in a bookstore. (No, really)
Finally (for today's tour at least) – No food or drinks sold or offered for free. I have had to throw away too many things after someone spilled coffee on them. One of those things was an original pressing of The Beatles White Album on vinyl that a gentleman managed to ruin by spilling a large coffee into one of our locked cases where we had it stored. I may have teared up as I tossed that into the garbage. I know it's great to kick back and enjoy a great book with a hot beverage, but in my world you do that after you've purchased the book. And again, Bibliophiles is for book lovers, most of whom respect the idea of keeping liquids far away from books.
There are many more things that won't be allowed in my hallowed book grounds, but I feel like that's a good start. Come back soon – leave your coffee outside.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Quote of the Week

"Do you have Adolf Huxley's Brave New World? "
            Sure, right next to Aldus Hitler's Mein Kampf

It is really amusing to imagine a literary mash-up of those two books….

Thursday, June 23, 2011

What is the Flight Velocity of an Unladen Swallow?

Over the past few years I have answered what seems like a googolplex of questions within the confines of various bookstores. Most are book related, a hefty percentage are the same question or type of question, and far too many of them are insane, inane, and rage inducing. Then there are the questions that strike fear into my heart either because of the depth of their stupidity, their insult to things I hold dear, or the fact that no matter what answer I give the customer is going to get mad at me. The first of the unspeakable questions falls into the last category. It always leads to at least a 15 minute conversation and ends with both the customer and I close to tears of frustration. Here it is:
Can you recommend a book to me? Really just anything.
Nope. No. I can't. Because it's never just anything. You're never as broad a reader as you claim to be. I read all over the genres, and have probably hit at least one book in every section of the bookstore I work in, but if someone were to recommend a Nicholas Sparks book to me I would seriously re-think my relationship with them.
So – I hear the dreaded question. My response is always the same: “What sort of things do you like to read?”
Now – if the customer can give me two or three topics, authors, titles that they like we can save this conversation. I can usually make a recommendation, or I can find the co-worker with similar reading tastes and they can handle it. This rarely happens. More often it continues down this line:
I don't know. I read anything.”
No you don't. If I take you at your word and recommend the great book on the relationship between Queen Elizabeth and Robert Dudley that I found fascinating chances are you will look at me like I am nuts. Same goes if I suggest a Chuck Palahniuk book. Or, because I'm feeling trapped by this question, The Story of O. Reading is an intensely personal experience. Yes, occasionally a publishing phenomenon will put a majority people on the same page, but I can't even recommend Harry Potter to everyone, because lots of people don't like it, for whatever reason. Same goes for me. James Patterson is one of the top selling authors in the country. He puts out ten books a year. I would rather read a tool supply catalogue than one of his books.
So after I've made my first two or three “anything” suggestions I try to narrow down the customer's tastes once again. And, again, even after the many failed recommendations, they're still not going to give me anything to work with. That's when, much to my personal distaste, I look the person up and down and make a judgement based on physical clues as to what they might like, but cannot or will not verbalize. I feel bad about it, but at this point I can tell what a lot of people are looking for before they ask me anything just by what they're wearing, their general location in the store, and the expression on their face. I've also found that the publishing world occasionally makes my life easier by being able to match people's clothing to a book cover. (This tactic works far more often than I really feel comfortable with. It's kind of terrifying.)
After all this walking, talking, questioning, color-coordinating, and mini-oral book-reports, the customer and I have either settled for a book or have realized the futility of it all and silently walked away from each other, tired and frustrated. I always feel bad, and it almost always ends this way. I know I'm all kinds of snarky and mean on this blog, but I genuinely love books. I love introducing my favorite books and authors to other people, and matching people up with the right book for them. However, I cannot help people who cannot form the most basic of opinions on what they are shopping for. No one can. I have seen groups of booksellers freeze, then scatter when someone asks the dreaded recommendation question.
So- in closing- whatever your opinions on various books, genres, authors are- own those opinions and don't be afraid to express them. And if you can't form an opinion on your own, please don't ask me to guess or make one up for you. Because my recommendation is going to be to find a library, grab a huge stack of wildly different books and start reading. Come back to me when you've found a few you like.

One reads as one dreams, defecates and masturbates-alone.” - John Sutherland How to Read a Novel (Which is an excellent book about books and how we read them.)

BookWench is currently reading Lover's Dictionary by David Levithan

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

1, 2…What's After 2, Again?

This is the cover of Janet Evanovitch's One for the Money:

I show you this to give you a mental image to carry with you for the story I'm about to relate. It's also important to know that this book is the first in a series, the titles of each book containing their series number. (i.e. Two for the Dough, Hot Six, Fearless Fifteen, you get the idea. They're very easy to put in order.)

And now – the story -

A woman comes up to me at the main counter in the store. She appears to be well into her forties.

Customer: I need a copy of One for the Money?
BookWench: Sure. Follow me, it's over here in the Mystery section.
Customer: Thanks. I'm new to this whole reading thing, so I'm not really sure how it works. Someone told me these Plum novels are really good.
(This is when the feeling of dread sets in. Anyone over the age of 20 who has never set foot in a bookstore and willingly volunteers, with pride, that they don't see the point in reading tends to lead to stories that make me cry. And, while I am happy that she's giving the reading thing a try, the lack of basic common sense that I know is coming is what truly terrifies me.)

I hand her One for the Money. Again – if you refer back to the picture, you'll see why this gets scary.
Customer: So how can you tell that this is the first one?
BookWench: All the titles have the series number in them. So One for the Money is book one in the series.
Customer:  So where does it say one?
BookWench: Right here. In orange letters.
Customer (staring at the shelf full of numbered books): So which one is next?
BookWench: Two for the Dough. They all have numbers in the title to tell you the order. Like the fourth book is Four to Score. The seventh book is Seven Up.
Customer: So, can you print me out a list of the order they go in?

This is a common question for series that have odd titles and no numbering on the spines of the books. I usually refer people to the list of the author's previous works in the newer books to get a series order. I totally understand if you need the order for the 20+ Xanth novels, or the 17 Anita Blake novels. This was the first and only time that I ran into a customer that needed a listing for the Stephanie Plum novels. I showed this customer the list in the front of the latest book, pointed out (again) that all the titles had numbers in them, and then showed her that we kept them shelved in series order. (You try to make things idiot-proof and they build a better idiot.) Then I excused myself for some quality whimpering time.

Addendum to this story – James Patterson's Women's Murder Club Series is similar in its naming style. (1st to Die, 2nd Chance, 10th Anniversary, etc.) Today a woman came up to the counter to check the copy of one of the books she had just sold to us to see which one was the 6th. She had to check 3 times, and then write it down. She had previously spent 10 minutes staring at the James Patterson books in the mystery section unable to figure out which one came after The 5th Horseman. Seriously – whimper...then much drinking.

BookWench is currently reading Foundling by D.M. Cornish

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Beware of Customers Bearing Lists of Greeks

Summer reading list season is upon me right now. Every year it arrives to beat me down with both new and old crimes against the classics perpetrated by students and their parents. If Sophocles did actually turn in his grave every time someone mangled his name or his works we could probably power a small town with the rotational kinetic energy.
I'm not saying that everyone should come with an innate knowledge of Greek pronunciation, but if you are a high school or college graduate you should have a passing awareness of the big guys of ancient literature. Admittedly, my bias and annoyance are probably heightened by my college study of theatre. By the time I graduated I owned three different editions of The Oresteia. I had read, performed, and picked apart the great Greek works so many times that I could probably still write a very focused, well constructed and intellectually valid paper on their contributions to the the arts and their continued influence on modern theatre. Again, having this in my bank of special skills is why I work in a bookstore,as this knowledge is useful virtually nowhere outside of academia.
I think my main annoyance with the customers, who are apparently trying to avenge the Trojans by butchering the Greeks, is their terrifying lack of knowledge that people wrote books in something other than English IN ANCIENT GREECE.
That's right – the question or confusion I run into the most is about translations of Greek works. I had a woman yesterday tell me that she didn't think her daughter would need a translated version. When I explained that unless her daughter read some version of Greek fluently she would absolutely need a translation the woman looked shocked. “It wasn't written in English?” Nope. Sophocles, though brilliant, didn't write in a language that wouldn't be created until 5,500 years after his death. That's why the play has characters like Antigone, Oedipus, and Creon; not Annie, Oliver and Chris. I've also had several people think that Oedipus Rex by Sophocles is the title of a play by Robert Fagels. (I also enjoy the look of confusion when I explain that it's a play, so it's supposed to be written that way. No, the book is not defective.)
The other mind-blowing Greek confusion that I deal with daily is when people ask for Oedipus Rex and I hand them a copy titled Oedipus the King. Didn't we all learn that Rex means king when we studied dinosaurs as very small children? I can honestly remember having that bit of knowledge in first grade. I bet I could survey a group of small children and most of them could tell me that, yet high school/ college students and their parents look at me as if I am insane when I tell them that Oedipus Rex and Oedipus the King are the same play.
As to the pronunciation problems – it's usually not too bad. If I can piece together what play you want pretty quickly than I'll give you a pass. (I'll still mock you a little bit, but at this point in the year we like to keep a tally certain mis-pronunciations. We take what amusement we can in the BookMines.) However, when it take three tries and then you have to spell it for me, you may need to revisit some Hooked on Phonics tapes. It is especially fun when people add in letters randomly and then expect me to know what they're babbling about. Or when I've pronounced it correctly for them three times and they still think the writer's name is Sophopoclix. Or the play is called Opeedifius. Or – on one memorable occasion – Sopedidiah. I have no idea where the “d”s came from. I will bet that that customer went on to confuse many more booksellers that day as she called around looking for the Odepius Clyxal*
Stay tuned for more Greek slaughter, other tales of summer reading terror, and a re-cap of the history of the ancient world I gave in the music section this week.

*Cycle - couldn't make this stuff up if I tried.

BookWench is currently reading Bossypants by Tina Fey.  It's brilliant.  You should all go out and buy copies immediately.  She's my new heroine.  ("And by that I mean lady hero.  I don't mean I want to inject [her] and listen to jazz.")