Wise Words: ‘Not all people who read books are book people’

I’m currently loving this post by Sarah Rettger over at Book Riot about selling books to non-book people, and why we as book people tend to misunderstand them.

Sarah is talking about telling a customer that they don’t have the book they came in for. People either fall into one of two camps: one shrugs their shoulders, maybe orders the absent book and goes about their shopping, picking up a few books on their TBR list. You know, book people.

The other ones?

The customer isn’t interested in alternatives. This conversation is usually no big deal, but sometimes it involves a combination of sighing, eye-rolling, snapping at the person least able to make the book suddenly appear in the store, and leaving in a huff. (NB: Sometimes they say they’ll buy it elsewhere, or get the ebook, which is perfectly cool. I only complain when it’s accompanied by the sighing and flouncing. We all appreciate the social niceties, you know?)

First, can I say YES WHAT IS IT WITH ALL THE SIGHING AND FLOUNCING? I’m sorry we sold out of the one copy of Cuckoo’s Calling we had in stock. It’s not like us booksellers have an ‘in’ with JK Rowling, knew she ghost-wrote a random book and are now enjoying screwing everyone over. OK?!

But then Sarah makes a good point. Customer B is likely part of either the 10 percent of Americans who only bought one or two books last year, or the 22 percent that didn’t buy any. Buying books really isn’t their thing. In fact:

Many potential readers don’t want a book. They want that book. It might well be the only one they buy in 2013. And if they can’t have it, there are plenty of other things to occupy their time.

Good point, Sarah. Good point. I wish things were different, but hey. I can only save the world one book at a time right?

In other somewhat related news, can someone write a Book Riot post about how annoying it is when customers blame poor little booksellers for publishers’ price of books?

  • “Is that the real price of the book? That’s too expensive! How can you sell it at that price.”
  • “Books…cost…money…um…” Walk away slowly.

E-books vs. physical books in ‘The New Yorker’

James Surowiecki outlines some ways that Barnes & Noble (and thus, physical bookstores) can actually survive in coming years in a recent essay in The New Yorker. It’s a refreshing break from the WE’RE ALL GOING TO CLOSE AND DIE refrain we’ve heard since B&N announced they’re separating themselves from the unprofitable Nook.

There are plenty of things B. & N. could do better, of course. Its Web site could be sportier. Its stores, publishing people gripe, are too cluttered, often with non-book merchandise, and don’t do a good enough job of showcasing its key product. (The demise of the Nook should help in this regard, since those giant Nook display booths took up a lot of floor space.) It might also be time for the firm to embrace more innovative ways of pricing and selling books.

…This suggests that, instead of succumbing to the temptation to reinvent itself, B. & N. should focus on something truly radical: being a bookstore.

Of course, I’m constantly annoyed by people’s perceptions that B&N is the only major bookstore left in the US. Um, hello? We’re Books-A-Million, the company that’s actually opening bookstores in neighborhoods left bereft by B&N and Borders? But then, if they’re not in New York (lord help the regional brands!), they don’t exist. Moving on.

I do like his optimism that physical book sales will continue to be a thing even after, I don’t know, we’re all reading from screens someday.

For many people, as a number of studies show, reading is a genuinely tactile experience—how a book feels and looks has a material impact on how we feel about reading. This isn’t necessarily Luddism or nostalgia. The truth is that the book is an exceptionally good piece of technology—easy to read, portable, durable, and inexpensive. Unlike the phase-change move toward digital that we saw in music, the transition to e-books is going to be slow; coexistence is more likely than conquest.

I like that. One of my favorite things to tell people is how awesome a piece of technology the “book” actually is: look at how it’s existed, in its current state, for thousands of years! Despite all attempts to change it and bemoan the “death of reading”! Words printed on paper: no matter how many e-books you read, that’s not going to stop being convenient. And for the large percentage of our population who can’t afford to (or won’t) drop hundreds of dollars on a device just for reading books, physical books aren’t going away as the more affordable alternative.

That being said, Surowiecki is right: the reason most serious readers choose e-books nowadays is because they’re cheaper. Because they are. If publishers want to compete with e-books, they’re going to have to take a serious look at pricing models. Why pay $20 for something from the backlist when Amazon is giving it away for free? (Ok, don’t get me started on Amazon.) It is hard to sell books these days in a brick-and-mortar store. Let’s think about changes that will actually help.

World Cup reading list, bookstore bingo, etc

I’ve been waiting to write this blog post all week, so excited am I about all the literary tidbits I’ve collected for your enjoyment.  And so without further ado, let’s get down to it:

First, I was super excited when I found this World Cup reading list from international literary magazine, Words Without Borders.  It also helped that their headline—Around the World in 32 (or so) Books—played into my current read, Around the World in 80 Days.  I mean, who doesn’t appreciate a well-placed Jules Verne reference?

The title aside, the collection of books they’ve come up with is simply amazing, and you don’t have to be a soccer fan either.  Words Without Borders looked at the countries who vied for the World Cup a few weeks ago, and created  list of must-read books from those countries.  The countries are (of course) broken down into their respective tourney groups.  Here’s a taste from Group A (starring the literature from host country South Africa, Mexico, Uruguay, and France):

South Africa: There’s really a wealth of excellent new writing being published from South Africa—most recently, Marlene van Niekerk’s novel, Agaat (Tin House Books), which Toni Morrison championed at this year’s PEN World Voices festival in New York. But here I have to go with Ivan Vladislavic’s wonderfully off-beat love letter to his native city, Portrait with Keys: The City of Johannesburg Unlocked (W.W. Norton)

Mexico: A little bit creepy, a little bit bizarre: Mario Bellatin’s AIDS allegory, Beauty Salon (City Lights).

Uruguay: Who else but Galeano? His most recent, Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone (Nation Books), is just that—stories from the dawn of time to the end of the twentieth century, in Galeano’s inimitable radical, rascally voice.

France: I can’t resist a novel with a soccer subplot, so I have to go with French-Senegelese author Fatou Diome’s story of African immigrants—and footballers—in France, The Belly of the Atlantic (Serpent’s Tail).

I don’t know about you, but I plan on copying down all these titles into my master TBR list.  I may not get to them for awhile, but I’m always on the lookout for suggestions of good international literature (I’m stuck in the English-speaking world).

I also stumbled upon this link through my Twitter feed last week, and it continues to make me laugh:  Bookstore Bingo from Shelf Awareness.  During my days as a bookseller, I received more than my fair share of, well, crap (as you might remember from my Annals of Customer Service).  Reading this collection of tweets from fellow booksellers made me feel much better about my sanity.  Some of my favorites:

VillageBksBham: “Who wrote Jane Austen?”

LFrannie33: “I’m here for a Bible, not the KJV or anything. I’m looking for the original. You know the one that God wrote.”

3rdplacepress: “Do you have Atlas Rugged?”. “Uh. No, don’t you mean Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand?”. “No. I need Atlas Rugged.”

joebfoster: Someone once told me that the US government classified ANGELS & DEMONS as fiction to help the Vatican with the cover-up

mmerschel: “Do you have Shakespeare in English?”

Bookdwarf: I’m looking for a book but I only know the title, not the author. It’s called Dante’s Inferno.

I definitely had someone ask me who wrote Dante’s Inferno.  I wish I was making this up, but really, people are that stupid.

And finally, how cute are these book tables from Design*Sponge??

Love it.  I’m definitely not crafty enough to pull this off, but I love that someone else is.

People get meaner over Memorial Day

Last weekend was Memorial Day, the glorious three-day weekend in which summer unofficially starts, and those with 9-5’s nationwide kick back at the pool or in front of the grill.  It’s really great…that is, unless you work at Half-Price Books and everything is 20% off! Thursday to Monday.  Yeah, that’s right.  While most people get a three-day weekend, we have to work a sale that lasts five days.  I don’t understand how this is fair.

Luckily, I was off Thursday, but like most of my co-workers, I was stuck working four days of the sale.  Ugh.  Four days of near-constant madness from open til close.  The weekends are usually busy anyway, but this was, like, five Saturdays in a row.  Not cool.

Now, I will admit the sale part wasn’t actually that bad.  When everything’s 20% off, you don’t have to worry about all the auxillary discounts—the random coupons, teacher discounts, old people discounts.  And since you can’t combine discounts (haha! Take that, cheapskates!), punching everything in is as easy as letting the register do all the work.  Granted your register line is eternally 10 people deep, but with practice, one can achieve a zen state where the chaos simply rolls off you like water.  The customer may be foaming at the mouth with impatience, a stack of books five feet high in their arms and 10 rugrats pulling at their pant legs, but you are free to smile like you don’t have a care in the world.

This state of calm is worn thin when one actually has to deal with the customers on a one-on-one basis.  Case in point:  I had finally found some free time to run a section, and had settled myself in the World History section, happily shelving  Irish history books.  Above me, Earth, Wind and Fire played “September” or some other swingin’ 70s tune.

Note about our in-store music:  it is a truth universally acknowledged that a lot of the music we’re forced to play is shitty.  I remember walking into the store and handing in my application—oh, so many moons ago—while The Shins played, thinking, “I love this song!  This must be fate.”  I even mentioned this fact to the assistant manager during my interview when he asked about my music tastes.  Shortly after I started, our regional manager sent down word from on high that our in-store music policies had to change.  No pop music from before the 1970s.  No “annoying” jazz (meaning, no jazz).  No classical.   Before, employees had been able to submit a CD to our manager, and granted it was age appropriate (from 8 to 88), it was OK.  Now, our manager had to be twice as strict, and no one knew what to play anymore.  And so the period of strange, awkward, and downright BAD music commenced.  Occasionally, someone would sneak in The Shins or The Police, just for old times sake (and our sanity).  But we were recently caught by the aforementioned regional manager, and so it’s been back to the oldies for us.

Now, the Earth, Wind and Fire passed our stringest guidelines, and even I have to say I was satisfied with this pick.  I know not everyone enjoys “September” or “Shooting Star,” but Joel has instilled in me a nostalgic affection for the group.  But even as an objective observer, EWF really isn’t that bad compared to what we’ve listened to before.

Back to my story.  So this man enters the World History section, and stands behind me looking at the shelves over my head.  I’m happily ignoring him until this conversation ensues.

Man: Let me guess, you use your in-store music to torture people at Guatanamo Bay.

Me: *Laughs awkwardly* Yeah, we have pretty strict guidelines for what we can play.  It’s difficult to pick something everyone likes.

Man: But seriously, this is really bad.  I mean, it’s so bad, it’s almost offensive.

Me: ….

Man:  And this isn’t the first time either.  I’ve had to leave your store four or five times because the music drove me out.

Me: …. *Gives him weird face, shrugs, runs away*

Seriously dude.  I’m sorry you hate Earth, Wind and Fire THAT MUCH.  And yeah, our music sucks sometimes, but why do you think I’d care about you or your problems?  If you haven’t noticed, there’s a sale going on and about a MILLION people milling around in here.  If we changed the music every time someone had a problem, we wouldn’t have any music left to play.  And while you’re only here to browse a half hour, at most, I have to deal with this crap for 8 HOURS.  Don’t tell me about your problems.


To top off my day, it was nearing the end of my shift and I was called to the register to help an older woman looking for “religious books.”  I walked her over to the religion section, and—turning toward the shelf so that I could point to the section labels—I said, “Here are the religious inspiration or motivation books, and over here…”

Then, this “fine,” religious lady jumps in:  “Excuse me honey, you’re going to have to look at me when you talk to me.”

When working in customer service, you encounter people like this on a frequent basis.  There is no room for rebuttal or a simple defense of your dignity;  the only choice you have is to smile and do as they ask.   Which I did.  This is what I would have liked to say, instead:

“Excuse me, but I was briefly turning away so that I could show you the books you’re looking for.  And I’m allowed to look away, because I’m probably going to help more than 100 people, just like you, over this sale weekend.  I’m nothing but polite, respectful, friendly and helpful.  You see this phone on my hip?  I have to answer the damn thing every time it rings until this hour is up, answering ridiculously stupid questions, all the while acting like “I have smile on my face.”  I don’t have the time, energy, nor do I care to act like I’m personally interested in each and every person I speak to.  This would be physically and emotionally impossible.  Also, while I may be 23, I am fully grown, college-educated adult, and I’d prefer you didn’t treat me like your 15-year-old granddaughter.  Thank you, and enjoy the rest of your day.”

Shout-out to my alma mater, disgusting free books

If you happen to keep track of my sidebars, you would know that I’m now reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s This Land is Your Land, a far cry from my original reading list.  However, I found the book while filling the clearance section one night, and couldn’t stop myself from reading…on the floor…while I was supposed to be working…all the while posing a tripping danger to customers.  I decided to borrow the book instead of causing an accident and/or getting fired, and have been enjoying it so far.  Stay tuned for a full review when I finish.

Until then, I thought I’d share the beginning of the chapter titled “Class Struggle 101,” in which she describes on-campus efforts to increase the living wage for those who toil away with mops and soup spoons on college campuses.  And guess who she features as an opening example?  Why, only my alma mater, Miami University!

At Miami University of Ohio, when 460 maintenance workers went out on strike, the students erected a tent city in front of the administration building, and faculty members spent a night there in solidarity.  As part of the campaign, union picketers humiliated the university by turning away the union camera crews who had come to televise the Miami Redhawks-Cincinnati Bearcats game.

And later…

At mainstream public universities like those of Maryland and Virginia, there are plenty of students who would agree with Miami University’s Justin Katko when he writes that he got involved in the campus workers’ struggle because “I could not allow such extreme disparities as are found on college campuses…to exist without being ashamed of myself for apathy.”

If I’m not mistaken, the tent city incident occured either the year before I arrived at Miami or my freshman year, when I barely paid attention to anything (bad aspiring journalist…bad!).  While I was there, I experienced more than my fair share of living wage marches, as well as an interesting character who requested that Colin Powell, who came to speak in 2008, return his speaking fee so that Miami staff could have a better living wage.  By that time, I was dispassionately covering the issue for the school newspaper, so I had little chance to get involved, but I am proud Ehrenreich noticed Miami’s contribution to the good fight!  (Plus, this means Ehrenreich must have read The Miami Student…insert squeal).

In other news, I picked up a new book at work yesterday…for absolutely nothing!  You see, we booksellers are paid a mere pittance.  Most of our hourly rate, in fact, is made up in “good feelings” and weird pride in working under the prow of literary expression.  And so when a good book is tossed for whatever reason—broken spine, water damage, ripped cover, dirt, bug-encrusted, tooth taped inside—you can bet my fellow colleagues and I are all over that like…well, rats on trash.

Yesterday, I found this book lying on the buy table, priced at $4.98:  The Regency Underworld by Donald Low.  Reading the back of the book, I was hooked:

Alongside the world of Pride and Prejudice and Vanity Fair, Byron, Keats, Constable and Nash, there are also existed a pulsating underworld where crime and vice of every kind flourished.  Venture into this forgotten world and discover a fascinating place filled with pleasure-seekers, criminals and body-snatchers at work.  This edition is illustrated with a variety of contemporary prints, portraits and cartoons to bring the characters of this sinister period to life.  Anyone with an interest in the Regency era, or in the underground activities which tended not to be explored in the novels of the time, will find this essential reading.

Ooo! Ooo!  I like the Regency era!  I like pleasure-seekers and body-snatchers!  Upon further investigation of the book, I discovered the back cover to be all bent up and out of shape, and a strange booger-like thing stuck to the inside front cover.  I began to think sneaky.  As she was leaving at the end of the day, I casually asked my manager if she thought the book should be thrown away.  “I mean, look at this thing inside the cover! Gross!”  She agreed, then I snuck in and made my move:  “Great!  Can I have it?”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you bring home disgusting old books, for absolutely nothing.  Dumpster diving ain’t got nothing on me.

The perils of bookselling: “my poor hands” edition

Bookselling seems like a tame job.  Safe.  I mean, I’m not logging timber out in the Alaskan wilderness.  Neither am I operating heavy machinery, working around hot stoves, or dealing with screaming kids.   I don’t even spend my days at a computer, saving me from the perils of eye strain and carpel tunnel.

I do, however, work with my hands.  I touch money and handle more than my fair share of filthy old books on a daily basis, giving me reason to fear what bacteria may be growing between my fingers.  However, this is nothing a good hand washing and near-constant application of bacterial soap can’t fix.  What takes longer to heal are all the nicks and scrapes, the cuts and bruises.  Every week, there seems to be a new bandaid on some finger, either from papercuts or the widgets we use to scrape stickers off books.  Then, there’s the splinters.  All the bookshelves at HPB stores are built at a company wood shop in Texas.  The company saves money and trees by providing their own shelves, and all the stores look the same.  The shelves are *pretty nice*—they get the job done—but are still a little bit on the rough side.  While shelving books, it’s almost inevitable to catch your poor, unsuspecting hand on a splinter.

I’ve almost gotten used to the splicing and dicing my fingers take at the bookstore, even bragging about them when my colleagues and I gather to discuss our war wounds.  I’m pretty blood shy and don’t handle pain particuarly well, but when cut, I’ve become accustomed to gritting my teeth, applying pressure on the cut and calmly applying a bandage without alarming my co-workers or customers.

But one can only be pushed so far.  Wednesday had already established itself as a bad day after a VERY creepy customer decided it would be OK to oggle the bookseller for three, very uncomfortable minutes.  I had just about forgotten about that experience and had 30 minutes left before going home.  My team was ahead in running their sections, and I was finishing a cart of Christian Living books.  I don’t remember exactly what happened, but one moment I was straightening a row of Joel Osteens and the next something was digging its way under my pinkie fingernail on my left hand.  It didn’t hurt at first, though I grabbed my hand and jerked to the side, unaware of what happened.  Then, it started to hurt….a lot.  I realized I had managed to get a splinter under my fingernail.  Great.

For a minute, I thought I could work through the pain.  I’d gotten plenty of splinters before.  Experience taught me if you simply ignored it and favored the other hand, you could get on with your day.  But this was unlike any pain I’d ever experienced.  My fingernail began to throb, shooting sparks through my left hand and up my arm.  I felt the tears starting to rise in my eyes.  The pain got worse.  Then, it became excrutiating.

During the Vietnam war, the Viet Cong would torture their prisoners by sticking bamboo slivers underneath their captives’ fingernails.  The skin underneath the nail is already sensitive, and so coupled with the extreme downward pressure exerted by your fingernail, the pain can force secrets out of anyone.

After fumbling with a pair of blunt scissors from the store’s first aid kit in the bathroom (difficult considering my hands were shaking and I was desperately trying to avoid tears), I managed to corner the manager on duty and ask, quite pathetically, if I could leave.  I didn’t think it would be a major problem, considering I only had 30 minutes left and I wasn’t scheduled on the buy table or register.  He let me go, although I felt I wasn’t able to properly convey the emergency of the situation.  Having a splinter under your nail doesn’t sound horrible, unless it’s happened to you.  I don’t know if he understood, but since he’s a nice guy and my voice started wavering, he let me go.  Therein followed a tearful drive to my parents’ house, where the pain tricked me into imagining trips to the emergency room and someone pulling my nail off.  Like I said, I have a really low threshold for pain.

Luckily, my dad (a Navy-trained surgical assistant) was able to pull the splinter out easily.  Two days later, my finger is still wrapped in a bandaid because it’s still very tender to the touch.  Now, I know all this might be TMI for the casual reader, but I believe this story is important in that it represents all that we booksellers sacrifice for you, the reading public.  We put our health—our fingernails!—on the line daily as we strive to bring you the books you need.  It’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it.

Overheard at the bookstore

This exchange took place yesterday morning at Half-Price, while I was running a batch of DVDs, which is located near our CD section.  An older woman was apparently shoppping with her granddaugher, who looked to be about 9 or 10.

Old woman:  Oh, here’s the “The Sound of Music” soundtrack!

Girl:  What’s that?

Old woman (a bit dejected):  Oh, you’ve never seen it on TV?

Girl (with a ‘tude):  No.

I overhear this, and assume the older woman is trying to instill some good ol’ fashioned values in her granddaughter.  I begin to walk back toward the register.

Old woman (calling to me):  Miss? Where do you keep your Lady Gaga?

Apparently, the attempt to instill decent morals in your 10-year-old has been overruled by the elementary-school demand for Gaga.  I look at her granddaughter; I doubt she even knows how sex works.  Later…

Old woman:  Miss, I have another question.  Where do you keep that book, Precious?

Later, the woman and girl check out at the register buying a Debbie Macomber novel and an American Girl book.  Morality—and age-appropriate reading material—wins the day.