A DIFFICULT TRANSACTION
(A couple approaches the desk.)
BOOKSELLER: Can I help you find something?
MAN: Yeah, we're looking for a vocabulary book. It's either called The Soars or The Sars.
BOOKSELLER: Let me look it up and see what we have.
WOMAN: Oh, it's okay, I made a note of the title.
(Customer pulls a napkin from her purse and lays it down for the bookseller to read. Written on it is: "The Saurus.")
A few pages into Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores, you may start to realize that most of its humor derives from customers being way dumber than the booksellers helping them. These chuckles rely on the underlying anxiety present in every encounter between a bookseller, the fleeting arbiter of cultural authority, and the customer, her supplicant.
Out in the world, the customer may be extremely well-compensated at her job in upper-management, but in here, she's only as good as her knowledge of books. Meanwhile, the bookseller resides at the low end of wage-earners — a rather obvious black mark in a consumerist, capitalist nation — but in here, she's the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. This role-reversal can be so unnerving that it can induce vertigo. Is it any wonder they're sometimes enemies?
Of course, transactions fraught with socio-cultural anxiety aren't limited to bookstores. Visit one of the country's remaining record shops — or just watch High Fidelity — and you'll see what I mean. However, bookstores alone carry the cultural weight of the US educational system, and of literature itself (a very anxious-making art form if there ever was one), and of 50-plus years of tumult in the publishing sphere — books, the ones printed on paper, are perpetually embattled, and the places that sell them have faced just as many threats.
And for the last decade at least, some booksellers have become standard-bearers for fair business practices and consumer politics of the farmer's-market variety. Anyone who has ever worked in an independent bookstore will have encountered at least one customer who blubbers with gratitude at her store's existence, or who loudly declares that she always shops locally, that she doesn't believe in Amazon, and that it's worth it to spend the extra money for such wonderful service and selection. For these customers, the bookseller must do a dance of gratitude in kind, for without these generous souls who find it deep within their hearts to buy novels at a 33 percent markup, the bookseller would not have her low-paying bookstore job and be forced to work at Trader Joe's.
These are the good ones. The bad ones let their kids shit on the floor.
The bookseller, for her myriad burdens, must perform a crucial balancing act: she must divorce the frequently despicable ways the general public acts around books from the books themselves. She must maintain her love of reading while being constantly reminded that the business of books is both rotten and unfair. She graduated with an English degree too, and if her parents could just have afforded to subsidize her rent while she took an unpaid internship at Knopf, she wouldn't have to deal with these slobs. No, she'd be tucked away in an immaculate turret, surrounded by manuscripts, buoyed by a sense of discovery and the rapier wit of her fellow editorial assistants as they drank away their $30 thousand salaries in some glittering Greenpoint bar.
But when emissaries from Manhattan alight upon her bookstore — touring writers, publicists, the occasional editor — they don't sense her, a smile spreading to their eyes as they recognize her as one of their kind. They don't whisk her away to a cocktail party, let slip some gossip about James Franco's ghostwriter. She's lucky if they can remember her name.
Little wonder, then, that the bookseller — a butterfly trapped in the wheels of commerce, alienated from product and consumer alike, the strange result of too much knowledge and too little pay — can start feeling bitter. Maybe that place in her heart that feels sympathy for the functionally illiterate will freeze up, and leave in its wake a person who laughs openly at Twi-Hards.
You cannot blame her. I cannot blame her. The Saurus. Ha-ha.