Adventures in Reading

A Bookseller’s No Good, Very Bad Day
September 9, 2008, 12:32 pm
Filed under: thoughtful | Tags: , , ,

Between being an English major and someone who adores literature, I would say I am quite tolerant when it comes to customer’s choices. [1] Recently I read somewhere (the intro to Finnegan’s Wake?) that the contemporary description of “the common reader” is somewhat misleading as traditionally this term defined a group of individuals educated from a common curriculum containing such material as the Greeks, Dante, and the Bible.

But I am mostly a hospitable person that passes little judgment; however, over the past six months or so customers have become increasingly needy and pompous. The vast majority of the customers I deal with have no freakin’ idea what the hell they’re looking for. No title. No author. Goodness knows, no ISBN. The best they can give me is that it was something they saw on Glenn Beck or Oprah. [2] What’s worse is that they’re often looking for is complete garbage someone told them to buy, but not something they really thought about.

And if the common reader’s curriculum includes The Shack and The New Earth, I beg of you: call me the uncommon reader!

With the new school year starting, the past two weeks have simply been atrocious. Parents and students who didn’t bother with summer reading over the summer. Entire school districts that send letters home saying that the bookstore will have their books waiting – without ever telling the bookstore. And currently topping my list, parents who are too consumption oriented and refuse to spend 15-minutes with their kids making paperbag bookcovers.

Yesterday I was helping a woman from one of the nearby universities and I was impressed because she had both the title and the author’s last name. It was for Carson McCullers, one of my favorite authors, and just as I was about to comment on her professor’s good taste the student began: “I had to pick a book and I picked his. He’s supposed to be pretty good. I think I also have to read a biography of his.” As I turned to hand the book I looked at the woman levelly and responded: “Carson McCullers is a woman.” And I walked away.

Was it rude?


Did she deserve it?


(I concede, it’s an easy enough mistake to make.)

But I have finally achieved the point where I’m exhausted of a world aware of every new reality TV show, that hangs onto the last word of every One Tree Hill episode, or that thinks Stephenie Meyer is brilliantly great literature. Do I think I’m better than these people? Most of the time no. But I’m exhausted and after this two year stint at a bookstore I don’t think anyone could blame me if I wanted to bury my head in the world of academia and never leave.

[1] I refuse to call them guests. Whatever PR person came up with that can kiss my pink patoot.

[2] I don’t mind people who can’t recall what they heard on NPR – I prefer they decide to be safe drivers rather than scratching the title of a book down.


Wow. I have bad days at work, too. But those customers are why I have a job. And who cares if they didn’t know the title or author. That is half the fun. Trying to figure out the book they want. Sometimes you get it right & have a customer for life. Sometimes you don’t get it at all, but they will come back because you tried.

As for not liking books they choose? Not our place to judge their literary taste or lack thereof. They are reading. And in my book, that makes them a decent human being, regardless the book they choose to read.

As a manager for a very large bookstore, I say get over it or find a new job. If I were your boss & read this, I would be having a conversation with you behind closed doors about your attitude & your desire to stay employed in a bookstore.

Comment by A Bookstore Manager

Incident like the one you have shared makes me wonder if it’s a good thing that people are roaming the bookstores looking for crap to read. But at least they’re reading, right?

Comment by Matthew

If I were your boss & read this, I would be having a conversation with you behind closed doors about your attitude & your desire to stay employed in a bookstore.

Wow. Since when do managers intervene into an employee’s personal business or blog? I think she is just venting about customer service and how utterly tiring it is at times. I’d rather her vent in her own blog than to the customer. Especially since she doesn’t mention names of the store or customer.

Comment by onegimpyreader

Since you work in a bookstore, maybe you can help me. I’m looking for a particular book: there’s a guy and a girl in it, and they have some adventures and fall in love. Oh, and also there’s an antagonist. He’s a real baddy. I think the cover is blue. And can you find it in the Penguin edition?


I’ve never worked in a library or bookstore (yet!) but I did work at a WalMart for six rather un-blessed months. You have my sympathies!

Comment by Christine

A Bookstore Manager: Believe me – I’m looking for a new job. The problem is that I was fortunate enough to live and work in a world of books, for quite some time too, that didn’t treat a bookstore like any other retail experience. However, during my years of work this is precisely what has happened: the Bookstore [1] has become just another retail job. It’s no longer a place to chat with people about books, because they didn’t select their books: Oprah or some other TV persona told them to. The customers increasingly reflect the unthinking masses of the U.S.A..

Also, a few points of clarification: At no point do I refer to people as not being “decent human beings,” and while I’m thrilled people are reading, I’ve given up on buying that it’s enough. No, The Shack isn’t great lit and anyone who calls it so really needs to explore what is available.

As far as talking to me behind closed doors: get over yourself!

[1] Not in all cases, mind you.

Comment by bookchronicle

Matthew: It’s definitely good that people are reading and all of this has allowed me to improve my super ninja skill of facial spasm control! So, I suppose there are a few perks.

Onegimpyreader: Thanks for the comment and I definitely agree that sometimes we all need a place to vent and rant. I, overall, have terrific customer service and am freakishly helpful, but it’s a trying experience when customer after customer has such little knowledge or, even worse at times, want you to decide for them.

Christine: Thank you Christine! My job usually isn’t quite so intolerable but it does indeed have its frustrations!

Comment by bookchronicle

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