16 May 2009

Intelligence and stupidity at the bookstore

One of my favorite “writer” activities is to walk next door to the major mall and go through their Borders Books and Music. Living beside a large bookseller, even if it is a chain (I like to support independent bookstores when I have the opportunity) makes constant purchases a serious danger, but I’ve learned through these frequent walks not to give in and go on a buying binge. I have it much worse when I take a trip up to Portland and go to Powell’s, but that’s another story.

However, I have another reason to circumambulate a large bookstore aside from purchasing books, researching popular titles and trends, and simply absorbing a literary (mall literary, but still literary) atmosphere. Bookstores, you see, have some of the most interesting conversations going on throughout them. I imagine that nightclubs might compete with them in this arena, but the music is so damn loud there you can’t hear anything. A bookstore is neither the tomb silence of the library, nor the clashing utensil din of a restaurant, and because the inhabitants are surrounded with the world of ideas, they start to get into intriguing conversations.

Not necessarily intelligent conversations, although that does sometimes occur, but conversations that at least veer off of sundry topics and that make for interesting eavesdropping. Everything from fascinating to hilariously stupid—the bookstores bring it all out.

I overhead examples of both today as I walked the wide corridors of Borders Books and Music. (I wish they would bring the shelves closer together and get more books on the shelves, but the reason for this is to make the shelves accessible to the handicapped, so I can’t argue with that.)

First, I came across a parliament of high school students, probably freshmen or sophomores, who had parked on the floor at the intersection of the Eastern Philosophy and Christianity shelves with the U.S. History shelves. I don’t like it when people clog the aisle like that, sprawling entirely across the floor, but I’m not going to act the part of the irritable grouch and tell the kids to move—especially when I don’t need to be in that section for anything specifically. I was a teen once too, and know the bizarre temptation to sprawl across a hallway with good friends, even when there are perfectly acceptable chairs a couple feet away. (Someone should write a thesis on “teen hall sprawling.”) I moved past the teen parliament and stood at the Philosophy section. While I pretended to find fascination in a copy of Wittgenstein, I listened to the four teens—two boys, two girls—talk about theology and history. It wasn’t an erudite academic argument they were having; it fit with their level of education. But they were making a debate about the existence of deity and expressing their leanings toward the agnostic position (although none of them used with word “agnostic”). It was uplifting to hear teens talking about serious philosophical topics, especially teens who didn’t appear to be the sort who would gather around for this sort of symposium. As I said, bookstores have this sort of power.

Now, on to the stupid. And let this be a lesson to all book consumers about how to phrase a query to a bookstore employee. I walked past the central Information desk, where a middle-aged woman and her husband walked up to the pleasant clerk with the aspect of a kindergarten teacher who was currently working the desk. The customer kindly asked: “I recently read this book that I really loved. I was wondering if you could recommend another great book.”

This is the point when Terry Gilliam in medieval knight armor comes out and whacks the customer over the head with a rubber chicken.

Customer, come on! “Recommend a great book?” Okay, how about A History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides? Maybe Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy? Perhaps The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald? Or Fast One by Paul Cain? All great books. But all over the map, and perhaps nothing like what you might want to read. Could you please narrow the focus?

This leaves it up to the be-trodden clerk to have to start asking questions like “Well, what do you like?” and play detective in a frustrating game of Twenty Questions. But customer, you should make your likes clear from the start. Asking for a “great book” is completely useless as a query. And, most dangerously, if the clerk is busy (or not well-read), you might just get recommended whatever is most popular at the time—and clerks should make sure to guide you to what isn’t the big seller. Clerks (the good ones, at least) want to guide you to the more out-of-the-mainstream awesome authors who need your readership. So give them some help, and you might leave the store with something unusual and beyond whatever the bestseller lists are trying to force-feed you.

So, I recommend a rubber chicken over the head. Next question.