by David Raney
Whenever I run across one of those surveys detailing how little Americans read—and get past the irony that I might be the only person reading the survey—my first thought after “Damn, really?” is always “You, Mr. Pollster sir, have never worked in a bookstore.” I did for years, and what I remember is not a lack of readers but a rich, strange soup of human variability on display each day from nine until nine.
I realize my impressions are skewed—this was, after all, a bookstore. So for all I know it’s true that one in four of us nationally didn’t read a single book last year, or that 70 percent haven’t been in a bookstore in the past five years, as one survey would have me believe. But those who seek out these dens of antiquity, who look for a bookstore first and a restaurant second in any new city, love books in a way that the seven-tenths will never understand. As with all forms of love, the book variety can be intense, occasionally stupid, and hard to fathom even for those immersed in the affair.
I’m sure longtime employees of perfume counters, hardware stores and doctor’s offices all have their stock characters and go-to anecdotes. Bartenders do, god knows. Booksellers too, and it might be appropriate that the place I worked is called Tall Tales.
Book people (on both sides of the counter) are wonderful, and maybe a little smarter than the average bear, which I suppose is why dumbfounding customer requests make such good dinner-party fodder. No one ever really demanded “the blue book by that woman,” at least from me—it just became my shorthand—but shop staff would put our heads together for questions like “You know the one they made a movie out of, with that guy with the hair? Spanish, I think.” This could be fun, assuming the customer joined in the spirit and didn’t get irritated if we didn’t instantly recognize No Country for Old Men. It could be less fun; a lady asked one of my colleagues if she could borrow a copy of a book she’d really liked but had left on the plane. People asked regularly if they could bring in a book they didn’t care for, something they had lying around, and swap it for a new one.
A lending library might have been the most common thing we were mistaken for, but it wasn’t the most interesting. One man requested a pack of cards, perhaps thinking he was in a drugstore, and when reminded that wasn’t a book replied with impeccable logic: “But you read it.” Equally true of cereal boxes, skywriting and prescription labels, none of which we stocked. Drugs also provided the backdrop for my most memorable moment in the shop. One Saturday night just before closing a man barreled through the door in a white dress shirt and shorts, barefoot, hair wild, and blurted out “What do you have on South American poisons?” We stared like bigmouth bass, waiting for the right response to suggest itself, and he turned and ran back out. I’ve always wondered about that. We never learned if he was an actor auditioning, a fraternity pledge initiating, or someone actually in trouble. I like to think he was writing a mystery, rather than planning a murder (or the victim of one). Had I been working alone that night, by now I’d be convinced I had dreamed it.
Much less dramatic requests could be nearly as jaw-dropping. “I need something light about Vicksburg” made us wonder, after we’d recovered sufficiently, if we were missing a market in Civil War humor or, more broadly, carnage comedy. A customer asked me on the phone one day whether we carried dictionaries on tape, a concept I have yet to wrap my head around. I don’t remember my response, but I feel certain it was unsatisfactory.
Even among items that might actually exist, the genres could tend toward the narrow, not to say microscopic. I understand the importance of niche marketing, but a question like “Where’s your section on fiction about the Plantagenets?” leaves a person little to say and nowhere to point. So does a request to be directed to the Armenian section, or, at the opposite end of the specificity spectrum, a young lady seeking “a nice book on Canada that’s got different parts, and stuff in it.”
We enter slightly different territory with the gentleman who inquired, “Do you have a section of poetry written by people who as children were survivors of incest?” A section … no. But a single specimen of almost anything between covers, however exotic, might yet stalk the jungles of the book world, last of its breed. If so, it was our job to find it. Among my favorite jobs, in fact, for it brought a certain thrill of the hunt—admittedly a small thrill and a quirky hunt, pursued by catalog, phone and microfiche before the Internet swept all before it. Just think: a landscape offering such Monty Python-esque titles as Insects on Grain Legumes in Northern Australia, Diseases of Chinchillas and (my personal favorite) Looking After Your Dinghy could bring a diligent hunter almost any trophy.
Unless, of course, you were hunting red herrings. The Mangled Title is a species familiar to everyone in the trade, and as both a word nerd and a puzzle nut I was especially fond of it. Sometimes a family resemblance to the correct title made the leap easy, even without a word in common: Bitch from Alabama, for instance, doing business as Bastard Out of Carolina. Other manglings offered more challenge. “Their Eyes Are Watching, by Hurston God” was a cinch, for instance, compared to Gasping for Breath, which after some collective head-scratching turned out to be Waiting to Exhale. I wish I could claim to be the one who rang the bell for the man who wanted a new book and knew exactly three things about it: “Local author, fiction, three words in the title.” He was delighted to be handed, after a storewide Vulcan mind-meld, a copy of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil—which of course is described by none of the above.
This sort of pursuit brings a weird joy to book fiends, buyers and sellers alike, readers all. In the store we sometimes made up titles we wished existed, or else parodied real ones (The Road Less Graveled, Wordsworth’s The Quaalude, “I Wandered Lonely as McCloud”). But in books as elsewhere, reality can be tough to beat. Among first sentences, for instance, “Call me Ishmael” is justly famous, but something in me prefers the sublime opening of Life Cycles: Reflections of an Evolutionary Biologist: “I have devoted my life to slime molds.” Intentional parody, too, has nothing on the other kind. Years ago on an exam, one of my students referred to Pope’s “Rape of the Lock” as “Locke’s Rape of the Pope,” which I have to think both authors would have enjoyed.
Bookshop workers are not immune to the lexical lapse, I ought to point out. A publisher’s representative who visited dozens of shops, both chain and independent, told me that he’d seen Roots shelved under gardening and The Divine Comedy in humor. My boss’s son overheard a customer in a Denver store ask for The Chicago Manual of Style, and swears the man was told to check in business under “Dress for Success.”
The fantastic jumble of life in a good bookstore—fiction and essay, biography and self-help, science next door to religion, disquisitions new and ancient on every topic you know about and all the others too—makes for strange bedfellows, and strangely perfect ones. The worldwide web is untouchable for speed and access, as long as you prefer bodiless encounters, but a bookshop is where serendipity lives.
Title conjunctions of the willed kind I used to think of as “theme stacks.” A biography of Napoleon, a novel set in France, Fodor’s Guide to Paris…. Someone planning a trip? None of my business, of course, but it’s easy to infer stories when a customer brings books to the counter, and almost impossible not to. We live by stories. Sometimes, sadly, the plot could be less City of Light and more City of Night. My first customer one morning plopped down a stack that suggested she wasn’t having the best week ever: How to Raise Your Self-Esteem, Breaking Free, Coping with Difficult People, and Men Who Can’t Be Faithful.
When life in our own dimension wasn’t mysterious enough, technology and chance contrived a bookstore on a parallel plane, which we would glimpse now and then on our computer or microfiche reader like explorers stumbling on Borges’s Library of Babel. Wholesalers’ microfiche carried dictionary-style identifiers in the upper corners which truncated first and last titles to something like MYTH OF PR / NEVER TOO L. Once, I’m happy to say, I got the lovely FAITH IS / IN THE BAR—a short story waiting to happen. Our computer regularly cut off titles after eighteen characters, yielding treasures like How to Be Your Dog, Revolutionary Fran, and The Emperor’s New Clot. And you can imagine my delight at coming upon these shorn of their last three letters: Beyond God the Father, Chesterton on Dickens, and Origami for Christmas.
This must have happened in every store, but a particular brand of shape-shifting was unique to ours. I think of it as Belle Book and Scandal, after the owner’s mother, Belle, a terrific grand dame from New York who sometimes helped out. Belle was gracious, funny, occasionally coarse, and a treat to work with. One day she was assigned to special orders, which meant calling customers whose hard-to-find books had arrived, and we half listened until she pronounced to a local academic’s voicemail that his dry-as-dust sociological tome on pornography had arrived: “Dr. Porn, your book is in.” The owner turned mutely on her register stool, eyes wider than you tend to see outside of Saturday cartoons. Belle stayed on the phone, though, and a bit later told someone we had received a chess instruction manual, getting all but the last word right: “Your book is here, Introduction to Sex.” It was her eyes this time. “What is the matter with me today?” You just don’t get this on the Internet.
Denis Donoghue in The Practice of Reading quotes Anatole Broyard on his feelings about books during his Greenwich Village years. Books were “our weather, our environment, our clothing,” Broyard says. “Books took us great distances.” In a great writer’s hands these distances can be covered very efficiently. A famous (possibly apocryphal) tale has Hemingway accepting a challenge at the Algonquin to come up with a story in six words, and scrawling on a napkin “For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” The hand of chance can do almost as well. One afternoon I slipped a new microfiche page out of its sleeve, flicked on the projector lamp, and read: I Love You / I’m Moving / Wish You Were Here.