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Embracing My Irrelevance

I was invited by a warehouse club near Portland to sign books one recent Saturday afternoonI was invited by a warehouse club near Portland to sign books one recent Saturday afternoon. It was in East Vancouver, Washington, an area not featured in any of my books. With a bit of trepidation about that, but thankful they were carrying my books, I arrived and checked in.

2 p.m. I settle in. Passersby and I nod or smile. Sale number one comes after 16 minutes. Was my gratefulness to the couple uncomfortable for them?

Get out the notebook. To shoppers ambling by, eyes focused on the opportunities ahead, it's meant to telegraph that while interested in my surroundings and in them, too, of course, I have a notebook. A purpose. I am not desperate.

"Daddy, can I be the pusher?"


"But I can see!" The girl, about seven, demonstrates her ability to see over the cart handle. But her father's attention has transferred to the display of iPhone docking stations. He didn't hear that last bit, or even notice me. I shouldn't have worn earth tones.

2:24 p.m. Still just one sale.

Typical scene: one person pushes the cart, musing aloud about potential purchases and perceived needs to the other person, who ambles behind, talking to person number one's back; both heads swivel rhythmically: left, right, 45 degrees, 90 degrees, then come to a stop at an object that connects with their desire.

2:36 p.m. No further sales.

"Maybe I should just get me a buggy," says a middle aged woman. A buggy. Is that a Vancouver term? Interesting. She dumps her broccoli and bread into her friend's cart and the friend waits for her at the book aisle. Her eyes flick over me and past, like I'm cauliflower and she's not planning on cooking cauliflower tonight.

Only every third metal halide light in the ceiling is on. On this December day, when the air feels like bright shards of fractured cold, blue daylight pours in through rectangular windows in the ceiling. Some appear to be openable. Nice green touch.

The floor provides an incentive to stay and buy: it's concrete, tinted a quiet, eye-soothing gray, so smooth carts practically flow over it. A cart/buggy filled with four giggling kids is pushed as effortlessly as the empty carts just entering the arena.

What a great place to roller skate. Did the contractors let their kids in to do that before handing it over to be filled with all this stuff?

An abandoned cart with meat in it has been sitting behind me. I snag a red-vested employee and point it out. She grabs the meat expertly and tosses it right back in the cart. "It's done," she pronounces with the air of an ER doctor. Too warm to sell. She ferries the cart away. I wonder about the meat's fate: homeless shelter, or too much liability?

"Bob, are you going to stay right here?"

Bob is middle aged. He nods yes and two women who look like they could be his mother and maybe her friend walk off. He picks up a book and after a bit notices me sitting at the end cap. He smiles and comes over to talk to me.

"I was thinking of writing a book, but I need some bad guys," he says. "I have good guys — half human, half elves."

Bob, I love you! I am so ready for a chat with someone who likes books. But before I can ask Bob any questions about his protagonists, the two women appear, corral Bob between them and disappear.

3 p.m. Light outside is fading; now two out of every three lights are on.

3:03 p.m. Sale number two.

I write down ideas for potential blog posts: should I kvetch about bits of grit that get under my prickly skin — young women in stores who say "thank you" in faux little-girl voices, swallowing the "ank," or people who don't say "You're welcome" on NPR. After they've been thanked by the interviewer, they invariably thank the interviewer back. "I see your gratitude and raise you one." Whatever happened to "You're welcome!" But I veto crankiness as a blog topic. As Oregon's congressman Earl Blumenauer says, "No whining on the yacht."

Maybe I'm just getting in the way of salesMaybe I'm just getting in the way of sales. In this vast sea of commerce where computers to diamond rings to frozen spanakopita are for sale, books are like phytoplankton — vital to a healthy ecosystem but near-invisible among the dominant sharks, happy dolphins, and other eye catching reef dwellers. An expectant author sitting in front of her books may actually be exactly what a shopper doesn't want. As a warehouse shopper, you've got a list, and you're not expecting literary conversations. You're not expecting any human connections at all — until you reach the sample ladies.

3:33 p.m. All the lights are on now as the blue light outside deepens. It's quiet in here; at times, I see no one in the main aisle ahead of me. It's a brand new store, open just two weeks, as I learn from a kind employee who has been observing my isolation from the electronics section.

"Are you busy today?" a woman asks a red-vested guy at the jewelry counter.

"No," he answers in a friendly way. She wants to be shown something in automotive. He leaves off polishing the glass cabinets and walks off with her.

At 4 p.m., I fold up my chair, return it to the box of chairs for sale, and head out into a beautiful sunset, happy, mostly, with where I've been today.

÷ ÷ ÷

Laura O. Foster is a writer and expert on the history of Portland, Oregon, and the small towns around it. She is the author of The Portland Stairs Book, Portland Hill Walks, Portland City Walks, Lake Oswego (Images of America), and the writer/editor of Walk There! 50 Treks In and Around Portland and Vancouver. When not writing about Portland, Foster is busy creating new urban adventures or leading walks for local governments, civic groups, and nonprofits. She blogs at portlandwalking.blogspot.com.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Portland Stairs Book
    Used Trade Paper $8.95
  2. Portland Hill Walks: Twenty...
    Used Trade Paper $9.95
  3. Portland City Walks: Twenty...
    Used Trade Paper $13.50
  4. Lake Oswego (Images of America) Used Trade Paper $11.50

Laura Foster is the author of The Portland Stairs Book

11 Responses to "Embracing My Irrelevance"

    manwith7talents December 13th, 2010 at 11:19 am

    I bought your book! It's great.

    Bart King December 13th, 2010 at 12:40 pm

    Wait, you got to go to a "warehouse club"? Why did you leave at four? As I understand it, the rave party gets started right after that!

    Great post. :)

    Laura Foster (Post Author) December 13th, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    So that's when they bring out the roller skates??? Those floors are meant for dancing, or something.

    M. Diane Rogers December 15th, 2010 at 11:15 am

    Sorry you didn't sell more, but your experience resulted in a funny post! I will look for your books before I visit Portland next. Great place! (And I'm from Vancouver, BC, Canada - I say buggy instead of shopping cart most of the time, I think.)

    Steve Storm December 15th, 2010 at 11:41 am

    Taking that "irrelevant" stab at sales and turning it into a pleasant read makes me wish I was there to buy you a cup of joe and set a spell. I might start hiking the stairs of Portland to see what you've seen. Thanks.

    traydee77 December 15th, 2010 at 1:16 pm

    Oh, wish I'd been there to chat with you!! I love books and love hearing people's life experiences and definitely am a Northwestern gal. To be able to chat with a published NW author would be nearly divine for me!!
    Just did my first craft fair attempting to sell handmade cards and had a very similar experience.
    Kudos to you and smiles galore~

    djessica December 15th, 2010 at 2:04 pm

    And I thought that I was the only one who had decided that the demise of "You're Welcome" was due to radio interviewees always thanking their interviewers back after being thanked for the interview. And now it happens everywhere! Thanks for all of the observations of warehouse store life, too.

    Tom December 28th, 2010 at 10:35 am

    Nice little piece, Laura. I feel like that in my own house sometimes... t

    Linda Cohen January 5th, 2011 at 8:46 am

    Great insight to how it feels to be an author waiting to meet your people! Thanks for the thoughtfulness.

    rrm January 6th, 2011 at 5:44 am

    Although I understand the frustrations about the "Thank you--no, thank you" exchange in everyday life, where we often have a wide variety of power dynamics. As a teacher, if a student says "thank you," I'll say "you're welcome." The same exchange would happen if I did something of value for someone else, regardless of our relative "station."

    And yet I'm not sure I can feel your frustration on the radio, at least not in the majority of cases. I know that if I were being interviewed on NPR, I'd be grateful as heck to be there. I'd want to thank everyone, even the janitor, for making that possible. Regular correspondents aside, I imagine that most of those selected to be on NPR recognize that there are just as many worthy potential interviewees who aren't being interviewed. Therefore, as much as the interviewee may have offered a service by granting the interview, s/he is still probably grateful to have been asked and wants to do everything possible to develop that as a professional relationship.

    What's more, I'd feel that someone just ending on "you're welcome" would be a little self-absorbed for my taste. It kind of has the air of "yeah, I know I'm slumming to be here, but I'm just glad I was able to share my thoughts and indulge how brilliant I am. I feel better knowing that you appreciated the opportunity to bask in my glory. You're welcome." I believe modesty is also being able to admit your own worth and not put yourself down, but that's all the more reason why both the interviewer and the interviewer should say thank you--they both contributed and both benefited

    In sum, thank you for giving me the opportunity to contribute to this discussion, NOT you're welcome for my thoughts on the matter.

    enoch john January 10th, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    Well Laura,thanks for that spirit of patience you showed.I can certainly learn from your experience.

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