Monday, January 25, 2010

Notes From Behind the Desk

When I imagined being a bookseller - looking through the glass window pane to Life Outside of College - I saw myself in a tiny, dusty shop a la Beauty & the Beast, nose in a book, feather duster in hand; a combination of a young Mary Poppins, Kathleen Kelly, and Patti Smith (who, I'm sorry to say, I resemble the least of all three, but did inspire me to work in a bookstore as she did in New York before fame.)

Sadly, I have become none of these women. (I do, however, put on a good show of a tearful "Streatfeild - S-t-r-e-a-t-f-e-i-l-d," after the purchase of any of Noel Streatfeild's Shoes books.)

My plan was to observe the common customer. I would take notes. I would watch the human condition from my till and write all these observations on lined cards and shuffle them around for the Great American Novel. What better to teach me human foibles than working retail in a suburb? The widows who need chairs laid out for them like toadstools all the way to the counter, the divorcees who compulsively return books, the hipsters, that one high-schooler who wears headphones and is always buying Continental philosophy.

But my grand (or pompous) dreams of improving the area for Literature's sake, for propagating the spreading of Literary Fiction, encouraging poetry and the classics, revealed itself as idealistic and foolish, or to borrow from Dodie Smith, "consciously naive."

It seems assumptive - an "I can show you where you have gone wrong, and will correct you." Besides, the authority to suggest a dramatic change is rarely offered. A bookseller is treated like a fast food attendant, a nanny, and a reference librarian. There is less of kindred souls meeting across the top of the bookshelves than finding gum stuck to the carpet, and being asked for directions to the restroom.

I don't blame some customers for being a little suspicious of my intelligence. I have a notoriously short memory when it comes to exact phrases.

"Would you like a bag?" I ask politely.

And between the scanning and the bagging and the talking and the thinking, I can't remember if I've asked or not. So I ask "Would you like a bag?" even more politely. The customer stares at me as if they have been successfully fooled into thinking I am a functioning member of the human race - but lo and behold, I have been revealed as a robot on the wind down. Or perhaps the customer barks back "No! No Bag!" which is legitimate but surprising all the same.

Besides, if you think about it, working in a bookstore as a bibliomaniac is like a struggling alcoholic working at a bar. Most of my coworkers go home with less money than they started. There is a black market system of holds and secret stashes, with used copies, first editions, signed editions, prettily covered editions - we speak publisher-ese like men who bet on horses:

"I say, chap, what do you think about Hesperus?"
"A little too slight for me, thank you."
"Well, I must admit it supports brevity, but - well - Europa then?"
"Oh, no, I never go for those foreign types. Give me a good American NYRB. I have mine stacked on my shelf by color."

During break every staff member runs to the backroom to congregate around a table and sink into their own book. A whole crowd will gather with little conversation and a frequent rustling and turning of pages. What are you reading? we say to each other. It will never fail to start a conversation. It is why we are here, I suppose.

This week, I actually have taken a feather duster in hand. The shelves must be cleaned. The books must be taken off the shelves (in order), the shelves dusted, wiped down, and the books replaced (in order). It is physically repetitive work, but somehow calming. I become aware of the pleasure of exertion, even the small feather-dusting sort. Blame it on some sort of Protestant ethic, but it feels right. When all the books are back on the shelf, there is no sign that anything has changed, but I know the dust bunnies are gone and the shelves smell like pine.

All of this, this small bookselling life (I couldn't compare my narrow experience to a coworker Rene who has been a bookseller for thirty years and could sell anything to anyone, could make any book sing for the casually curious) is all in anticipation of moments that jostle you out of your routine. When a father looks for books for his nine-year old son and you suggest Roald Dahl, and hope that the boy's life will be somehow alchemically altered.

It is all we can hope for.