The Damndest Questions

Morning. (Insert yawn, gap, and stretch here.) Links first! There’s an interview (10 Favorite Things) with me over at Book Chick City, as well as a giveaway. And decluttering your life. (Been doing a lot of that lately.) You can make jelly out of Mountain Dew. But if you want something a little less jet-fuel and a little more tasty, gingerbread pancakes are probably a good bet. (Thanks to Reader Kathy McC for that last one!) Last but certainly not least, tolerance in two stories: New York Mayor Bloomberg’s recent speech, and a piece on Abd el-Kader and the Massacre of Damascus.

Whew. That’s a lot of links.

Every once in a while, I like to work some retail to keep my hand in. Being on-call on a volunteer basis for that certain local used bookstore suits me fine. Yesterday I opened and closed the store, and as usual there was a certain amount of craziness. The owner calls it “the Vortex” because the weird swirls around and around, and sometimes funnels through with a gurgling noise.

I tried to warn her this was the rule more than the exception in working retail. She didn’t believe me, having been stuck in the corporate hell of a cubicle job for years.

Now she believes.

Anyway, yesterday I got called “Peggy”, was sized-up by a cologne-dunked man buying mythology, found textbooks online for a half-drunk college student, drank and made a lot of coffee, took in a lot of books, hand-sold some of those same books less than an hour later, explained why Clancy hardbacks just don’t sell, and just generally chuckled and meandered my way through the day. If one must work retail, a bookstore isn’t a half bad place to do it.

One funny side effect, though, is that people wander in with the damndest questions.

* “Where’s the liquor store that used to be here?” Answer: “It’s moved about a block and a half up the street, and that was over twelve years ago. You can see it from the edge of the parking lot. Good luck.”

* “Do you have a phone book?” Answer: “Yes.” Then a long beat of silence. Finally, the second question will come up, which ranges from “Can I borrow it?” to “Can I look something up in it?”

* “Do you have maps?” Not heard as often as just a plain, “Where’s X?” X can be the local museum, any other local business, any business in Portland, a random street number, an address, or (on certain memorable occasions) someone specific’s house. Usually, the people asking for someone’s house are pupil-dilated, disoriented, and have to learn to live with “I don’t know. Are you all right?” for an answer. People just think that when you work in a bookstore, you Know More, and will disperse that information rather like a search engine.

* “Where’s your bathroom?” OK, a lot of retail places hear this. It becomes time for a judgment call as soon as the words are uttered. Because for some reason, the loo of a bookstore is apparently second only in desirability to pub or music-store loos as a place to shoot/snort/whatever. So the answer ranges from “We don’t have one” to directions.

* “I’m looking for a book…but I don’t know the title or the author.” Answer: “Well, what do you remember about it?” Between what people remember of the cover or (less frequently) the story, we can usually find it. The owner used to laugh when I told her she would get this question and soon develop an encyclopedic knowledge of cover art people are likely to remember, as well as a finely-sharpened intuition about what title people are really looking for based on what they remember of the story.

* “Do you sell…magazines?” Answer: “No. Especially not those kind of magazines. Check the gas station down the street.” Which really, they don’t have any either, but it gets the men who come and ask this particular question out of the store. I mean, occasionally a dude will come in looking for a Ladies Home Journal or something, but that is by far the exception. Mostly they’re looking for Playboy. (For the articles. Yeah. Right.)

* “Oh…damn…where’s the bar?” Answer: “Right next door.” Yes, there’s a bar next door. Sometimes drunken patrons are sent over with trivia questions so we can settle the bets made over shots of something-or-another. Plus, their karaoke comes throbbing through our walls at night. It’s…interesting.

* “Where’s your fiction?” Answer: “What genre?” And a quick list: litfic here, mystery and spec fic (sci fi and fantasy) and horror and romance around the corner there, suspense and spy fiction in this room here, westerns up front…and nine times out of ten, the questioner will simply look at you bug-eyed and repeat, “Where’s your fiction?” Which generally means they have rarely been in a bookstore before and want a recommendation, because they don’t know what the hell they want, but they want something, dammit, and it’s YOUR job to see they get it.

* “Are you hiring?” Answer: “No.” Bookstores are pretty desirable places to work, either because the questioner thinks we’re edgy and snarky a la music stores, or because they think it’s easy. Just drink coffee and read all day! They have no idea about the customer service, the answering questions, the art of buying books and weeding the shelves to make sure they can breathe and tempt consumers, the little maintenance tasks…I could go on.

* “Do you buy books?” Answer: “We do, for in-store credit. We do not pay cash.” Around the end of the month we get this question about twenty times a day over the phone at least, and a few times in person. It’s amazing, though–98% of the questioners then say, “Oh, thanks.” And hang up. Or just hang up without the thanks. Sometimes they try to argue. “But I have pristine hardbacks!” (I am not kidding.) The most fun, however, came when I was working in new bookstores and people wandered in to ask this…

Every bookstore I’ve ever worked at (they’ve mostly been used bookstores, natch) has a board set up in the employee area with variations of these questions in different boxes, and some way of marking them off. It’s just like Bingo, only with retail and caffeine. Days when you get a bingo used to mean drinks after work for everyone on shift. Nowadays they’re more likely to spark a flurry of emails, mostly variations on “Guess what happened THEN?”

If you get a blackout on that board, though, it always means drinks after work.

I’ve worked a lot of jobs in my life, and a good proportion of them have been service or retail oriented. You get to see the best and the worst of humanity. I have a special place in my heart for working in a bookstore, though. Even on blackout Bookstore Bingo days, the regulars and your fellow employees more than make up for it. The joy of matching the right book with the right person, too. Those times that someone returns and says, “You recommended X to me, and I LOVED it!” make one happy to be alive. Plus, geeking about Litrachur with the oddest people–people you wouldn’t think twice about talking to if you saw them on the street, or people you would simply never meet because their slice-of-life is so different from your own–has to be one of the most sublime acts of social and intellectual connection I think I’ve ever experienced.

The greatest thing about it, though, is that working in a bookstore provides such awesome material. Nothing is as absurd as real life, nothing. Fiction has to obey rules. Reality is far zanier than anything a writer can come up with, but you can strip-mine it for the telling quirk, the tiny detail, the internally-consistent eccentricity.

I don’t get paid for any of the volunteer hours I put in. I have to tell you, though, the experience of the daily Vortex spin damn near pays for itself. At the very least it provides me with hilarity I don’t have to watch on a screen. And it reminds me that people are the most strange and wonderful oddities the Universe has going at the moment.

So if you’re working retail today, I salute you. I hope you’re getting great material. And I hope you’re only crossing off a few of those bingo squares…

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