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— 'I'm looking for a book." This is the most common opener from a customer in almost any bookstore in America.

In an informal survey of employees in chain bookstores, it was voted the most heard inquiry and most frequent preface to a question. At B. Dalton in Horton Plaza, for example, on a relatively quiet Wednesday afternoon, the three staff members at that store are reticent about my curiosity. "What," I ask, "are the stupidest questions you hear from customers?" They refer me to a phone number for store manager Julie Cheever, but they will allow that they never cease to be amused when customers approach with that broadside -- as if the statement narrows down possibilities. It eliminates such faux pas as I'm looking for a nice cantaloupe or Do you have any timing belts for a '78 El Camino?

I worked in that same location over the Christmas holidays in 1991 when it was Doubleday Bookstore, before Barnes & Noble bought out B. Dalton. B&N was already inextricable from the failing Doubleday chain. That is, it was by then Doubleday in name only. It was really B. Dalton and had been for some time. Before that I had worked at the Doubleday stores and Kroch's and Brentano's on Fifth Avenue in New York and then years later at Hunter's Books in La Jolla, a small but famous independent franchise. It was at the now-defunct Hunter's on Prospect Street that the staff, in the mid-1980s, had refined anticipating stupid questions to a fine art.

I'll never forget an employee named Shawn, who was approached by a customer who asked, "Do you have that white book, I think it is, about your voice and stuff and like if you change it and everything?" The guy had a nasal, lazy-voweled whine and looked as if he'd never been surrounded by so many books in his life. Shawn knew immediately what the guy was looking for and adopted a Mickey Mouse falsetto as he guided the potential buyer to the Self-Help section. "Yesireebob, this is a quite a book, made all the difference in the world for me!" He handed the customer a big seller at the time called Change Your Voice, Change Your Life. The guy bought it without detecting any irony in Shawn's salesmanship.

Another employee named John, with a languid, deadpan manner, was asked by a customer, "What's good? What's selling?" John responded laconically, "Herman Melville and Danielle Steele in that order."

I was once asked by a middle-aged guy in an expensive suit and a bad toupée for "War and Peace by Robert Michener." Now, I was pretty sure he was looking for a book called War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk because at the time a miniseries of that novel was airing and starred Robert Mitchum. The guy knew it was "a big, fat book" (undoubtedly why he was thinking Michener), so I handed him both War and Peace by Tolstoy and the book he really wanted. The customer preferred to be perceived as savvy rather than leaving with the book he came for, so he insisted "... You don't know what the hell you're talking about" and proceeded down the street to Crown Books or John Cole's. He called out from the door, "There are plenty of bookstores that carry War and Peace by Robert Michener! You just lost a sale, pal!" I still grieve about it on long winter evenings.

Reminiscing about the zany antics of much of the mainstream book-buying public, I stopped in at B. Dalton after a movie with my son. He headed straight for the science fiction section, and I cruised around the cash register, curious as to how things have changed since my tenure there. The answer seemed to be: a lot.

The staff was much better dressed, although back in my day (cough, wheeze) when we were required to wear ties, the guys always looked like high school principals in Newark. The girls could wear whatever they wanted: a lot of Star Wars and Star Trek T-shirts, as I recall. The under-30 crew on duty this day at B. Dalton are a lot more polite than we were. I would usually hide in the back stripping paperback covers off books by authors I didn't like, thus avoiding actually helping anyone. And the girls would congregate among books with titles like Sex Slaves of Saturn or Barbarian Master of Xlantor, effectively avoiding actual work.

Another difference I noticed is how straightened the shelves are seven years later. This is not astounding in itself until I visit the children's section and the humor section. These are notorious areas for morons looking through 1001 Jokes for the John or their negligent demon spawn ripping their way from Winnie the Pooh to Pop-Up Barney.

"We try to stay on top of it," says one anonymous, helpful clerk.

"Amazing," I nod in admiration. "These are the traditional areas of godless devastation."

"Yes," he agrees; prideful, gratified.

Still another difference, and this one is major, is the bank of computers at the main desk. I recall tearing my hair out over the question, "Can you look up a book on your computer and see if you have it?" An innocent enough question but so ill-informed and so often repeated I started grinding my teeth in my sleep. We had two microfiche machines, updated every week by the distributors Ingrahm and Baker & Taylor. This would tell us what may or may not be in their warehouse, but would give us no clue as to what we might have on the shelves, in haphazard stacks or wrapped for return to the publisher. We also had Books in Print, those mammoth multivolumes, alphabetical by author or title so huge as to make a few feet of Los Angeles phone books look like Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Invariably a customer would ask to look up something in these tomes, stab his finger at it, and say, "Aha! See, you have it!" At which point we would have to explain that if we carried every book in print, we would require a store the size of Michael Flatley's ego.

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