Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Anecdotal Life of a Bookshop: I Don't Want a Book (Apparently)

People are odd. And one of the ways people are odd is to be odd about books. And one of the oddest of such oddities occurs when a customer comes in to ask for a specific book. This happens a lot, and normally it's a simple and painless process. Someone asks for a book: I can say "Yes, I have it," or I can say "No, I don't have it," or I can say "Let me check."

Checking is better than saying "No." Checking draws the customer in, and if I don't have what they're looking for, well, they may find something else just as good. Get them looking at the shelves themselves, that's the key. See, salesmanship! Hard to believe, I know, but I've learned a few things. Not many, admittedly, but a few.

The interesting thing, though, occurs when I do have a book. Actually, most of the time it's not interesting, but simply profitable. And happy! "Yes, I do have that book! Here it is!" "Great! Here's my oodles of cash with which to feed your children! I'll bring more the next time I come through!" Everyone's happy, Amen, Hallelujah.

But sometimes people come in, eager and excited, a question on their lips: "I'm looking for Book X. Really, I've been looking for it everywhere. Do you have it?"

"Yes, I do! Come this way."

I present the book. It's shiny. It's exactly what they want. They came into the store for just this very thing. Eagerly, bouncily, happily... they are the Tiggers of the book world, and they are getting just what they want.

But... a moment of hesitation. They turn the book over... heft it a little, as if its weight were a key factor in the process of selection and purchase. And here is the strangeness... a moment of pause, a flattening of expression, a cessation of Tiggerish bounciness. What's going through their mind? Doubt of some sort, it seems. Was this really what they wanted? They consider. A pregnant moment, a moment of stillness, where the direction of movement is not yet decided and yet still imminent. Everything teeters, teeters so precariously...

They are wondering, perhaps, what the reasons were for wanting this book. They have it now, in their hands, and yet perhaps the reasons grow distant, escaping beyond the bounds of the want that drove them into the shop... and that want has now become a thin and paltry thing. So vague, so poorly understood... like a dream when one awakes, a dream that slips away even as they try to hold it. So insubstantial. In a moment it is only the fragment of an image, a lingering mood, a feeling, a few lonely words. This is all, seemingly, that's left of their want, the need that had driven them so keenly only moments before. A disparity, perhaps, between that bright want and the dim, bookish shape in their hands.

Perhaps they had loved the ideal, the platonic perfection of the image. It was made grand by want, by distance, by the very lack that drove the want in the first place. It was exciting because they did not have it, because of the possibly of it, the maybe of it. And perhaps the concrete existence can't match this mystery. A book. A title, a picture, pages and pages of words. Sentences, too. Paragraphs. Is this really what they wanted, a collection of paragraphs?

No, this could not be it. They didn't want this, not sentences, no. Certainly not paragraphs. And chapters? Out of the question. They shake their head a little. Hum and haw and become very aware of my presence. They asked for it but don't really want it, not really. They wanted the wanting. The thrill of the chase. Now there's only awkwardness; they asked for it and now they have it. What now? What to do? Should they really offer money for this thing? Money for words?

"Hmmm, maybe..." they say, but already their hand is inching back to the shelf. Slowly, though, as if not to spook the bookcase and scare it away. Don't startle, nice and easy, just put the book down slow and everything will be alright... Slow, yes. If they put it back slowly enough no one will notice they're putting it back. Even the shelf won't notice the extra weight. Just that Dostoyevsky, the shelf will think, putting on a little extre Christmas fat that'll be gone by spring.

The customer says something unrelated. Distraction. The magician's oldest trick: draw the eye away.

The book is re-shelved. They look around the shop, but their heart isn't in it. They've waylaid their Tiggerishness, they're all bounced out. If they didn't want what they wanted, how could they want what they didn't want? They continue to browse - distracting everyone (even themselves) from the memory of that one book, it's rejection and re-shelving, as if they had always come in just to browse.

They leave.

What they wanted was not enough. What I wanted (a sale) was not enough, either. Those two wants had circled each other, snarling, marking their territory. In the end that other want, the one that lived so ephemerally as a want and never became a need, had sidled up to me and peed on my foot.

13 comments:

Elaine 'still writing' Smith said...

Oh I was so desperate - so in the moment with the Tigger-type - so been there.
I've stood their with my purse counting out the contents physically and the ramifications mentally (money for food, bills and other essentials that could crop up... especially towards the end of the month) - considered bartering - had to face the fact that my need to read would upset the balance.
Sometimes I just got to hold it - couldn't look in it because that would have made all good sense depart - and replace it wishing I'd never been so close and yet so far away.
Reality really only bites when the possibility to have what you really want presents itself and, where you'd light a candle for warmth, you know the kids probably need more.

Ink said...

Ah, the want for books... I've got fifty thousand or so and yet I always seem to want more. :)

Laura Martone said...

Oh, Bryan, don't you know that's the cruelty of the human condition? We always want what we don't have. Like dogs chasing the proverbial car, once our lips are on the muffler, we realize we never wanted it THAT badly... and so we choke and spew and try to sidestep away from the scene of the crime.

For the record, though, whenever I've asked for a book, I've almost always purchased it. Possibly out of a sense of guilt, more than anything else - but you probably like customers like that, huh?

Ink said...

If you buy books, I like you. :)

jbchicoine said...

I read this post yesterday and I had to come back and re-read it today—it’s just that good. It’s not merely the truth in it, but your delivery of it…I hate sounding gushy, but …wow…

Ink said...

Hey, gush away! I have paper towels, kleenex, face cloths, maybe an old sock or two...

jbchicoine said...

...a sock or two?...thanks for ruining that moment...

Ink said...

Lol.

Ink said...

On a serious note, though, thanks. It's nice to know something you write is appreciated. And if everyone likes the Bookshop stories I can write some more, hopefully.

jbchicoine said...

If you do, it'll be on my 'must read' list.

Ink said...

I shall sharpen my trusty keyboard.

Ms Kitty said...

I like the bookshop stories, too. I'm a Tigger who finds a book, but oh! the prices!

Sometimes, I agree, it's not the kill, it's the thrill of the chase.

Mira said...

This is hilarious. And so true. I've been on that side of the book buyer. First, I want to know I can have it.

That need satisfied, now I want to know if I actually want it.

It's so embarrassing to put it back! How terrible to actually get what you asked for.

Love this, Bryan. So funny. Loved the last line especially.

Ha.