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No Reading Required, Part 5: How Bookstore Customers Seem to See Bookstores

I think I like looking for books more than I like reading. I love the smell of new books, the feel of a brand-new spine, and the quiet meditation on ideas and stories. I used to kill time between stand-up sets in Manhattan by walking into any bookstore and wandering for an hour or two just imbibing the good vibe of having so much information around. I say used to because I indulged this practice BEFORE I started working in a bookstore.

I love my job. Let me repeat that because I know some people who are reading this: I LOVE MY JOB AND I LOVE THE BOOKSTORE WHERE I WORK. I ESPECIALLY LOVE MY BOSS! But since working my current job, what I see when I walk into ANY bookstore is not the soothing color scheme or the new, flashy book covers or the wailing specters that seem to haunt every store (we're all seeing those, right?). All I see in bookstores now is rude customers.

Some people who visit retail shops nowadays need the Internet. I don't mean they're looking at their phones the whole time they're in the store (though that is annoying). I mean there are people who have warped their brains by pushing a button and getting something right away so often that now they expect all human interactions to work that way. If you shop in a store and know exactly what you want, I'm guessing it takes roughly 30 seconds to a minute to get what you want and leave the store. Sometimes there are lines (HUGE bummer), but you should know all retailers try their hardest to make sure you're served as efficiently as possible (excluding a not-to-be-named government service). But now I think the total wait time for a rude person has been updated post-Twitter. The average time a rude customer is capable of waiting is 6 seconds.

Here's one interaction I had recently. Alone in the store at 10 a.m., I'm looking at our nice new wooden floors, paging through The Power of Habit, and enjoying a delicious cup of coffee.

By the way, if you didn't read it:

Then the door swings open and a woman comes in, already in a huff:

Woman: Hi. I need that book that won the award.
Me: Uh, the Pulitzer?
Woman: NO!
Me: Oh, the Booker!
Woman: NO! For kids!
Me: The Caldecott?
Woman: The OTHER ONE!
Me: The Newbery! Yes, I think we have them right up fro—
Woman: I'm all out of time

She pointed to her watch and left the store.

Aside: Since I have these, and I don't want you to stop reading because it's getting a little text-heavy, here are some books that won an "award" that she could have been talking about.

The Giver (Newbery)
Knuffle Bunny (Caldecott)

I'm not saying all patrons of bookstores are like this. By and large, people are sweet. They compliment the store, overshare gossip (the best part of the job), and even ask the postgraduate students opening boxes in the back which books they'd recommend (second best part)! I'm saying there is a specific type of person who seems to think he or she is the only person shopping on any given day, and it's because that person sees the world entirely differently than those who enjoy being in a bookstore.

Bookstore owners, you may think your bookstore is perfect: You've swept and dusted, you've shelved handpicked classics and new releases to make the reader's experience easy and calming, you've even made cupcakes and tea for anyone who wants to hang out and try some. You think your store is perfect. But you're wrong. It's gross and awful and inconvenient and not nearly as good as everywhere else. And now that you're open, the rude patrons are going to tell you so. Here is how a book buyer sees your stupid store:

  1. Hardcover Best-Seller Front Table: This is a coat rack and coffee holder. Never mind these other books, I just want to flip through the new Eggers, scoff at the price, and leave after spilling a little coffee on whatever book jacket looks the cleanest. No, I don't need a napkin! Pssshhh! I'll just push the coffee off the book with my hand. DUH! Why don't you be a little more conscious about the environment?
  2. Bookseller at Front Register: An idiot who's wasting my time. NO! I don't want your help. I'm just looking at your books so I can remember them and buy them at another store that's cheaper. Oh, but I just remembered: Do you have that book with the green cover that came out in the 1960s? You know, the one about the guy who could see things? No? Well, you should really carry it. NOOOO! I DON'T WANT TO ORDER IT! I'm saying you should READ that book and KEEP it here so I can see it whenever I come in. Someone will buy it. It's good for your store to keep the right books in stock. UUGHHGGHH, what is wrong with you?? No. I still don't remember the name.
  3. Cat: My favorite part of the store. The only reason I come in and the only being in the store worth talking to. I can tell you my secrets, can't I, little guy? Now where is your café so I can complain to the Health Board that there shouldn't be a cat here!!!
  4. Chair: Ahhhh, a nice relaxing spot where I can crinkle up every magazine, then put them back on the shelf... Perhaps I can bring my niece here so she can climb all over this chair and break it.
  5. Children's Section: Oh! Look how beautiful these Sendak books are. I loved these soooooo much as a child. The only thing to do now is scatter them all over the floor so more people can remember how messy their childhood bedrooms were when these books were scattered on their floors. There. That's better.
  6. Countertop at Register: A space with no books! I must put my purse on it. You don't mind if I leave a bunch of bags here with you for a while, do you? I just did a lot of shopping, and I can't carry all these items I bought around with me while I run more errands. I will buy this 75-cent postcard and be on my way. I should be back in 10 or 15 days for my things. Thanks!
  7. Back Office Where Bookseller Is Clearly on His Lunch Break: Here's someone who can help me, even though I'm standing next to another employee on duty. Do you— oh, finish swallowing before you look at me, cretin! Do you have quarters for the meter outside?
  8. Shelves: I will constantly run around these, doing figure eights for 20 minutes, insist that I'm not looking for anything, then finally ask for something, bring it to the front, and impatiently sigh when I'm not getting rung up immediately.
  9. Owner: Someone whose business I can save with my book! Yes, that's right. I'm an author. I wrote an instructional book about yoga that can only be done over the mouth of a volcano. It's kind of niche, and I printed the copies by hand on recycled napkins. You know, the environment and all. You should carry my book. I'd love to do weekly events here! I know you don't have a volcano to do the yoga over, but we can improvise. Maybe a small fire pit in the children's section? Let me know!

That's it! Be nice and patient and stay off the Internet, everyone!

÷ ÷ ÷

Dan Wilbur is a comedian, a writer, and an avid video game player living in Brooklyn, NY. His writing is featured on, McSweeney’s, and the Onion News Network. Dan is the creator and editor of Better Book Titles. His first humor book, How Not to Read, will be published by Perigee (Penguin) on September 4.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Giver
    Used Mass Market $4.50
  2. Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale
    Used Hardcover $10.00
  3. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of...
    Used Trade Paper $9.95
  4. How Not to Read: Harnessing the... Used Trade Paper $7.95
  5. A Wrinkle in Time: 50th Anniversary... Used Trade Paper $6.95
  6. A Visit from the Goon Squad
    Used Hardcover $13.50
  7. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What...
    Used Hardcover $8.95

Dan Wilbur is the author of How Not to Read: Harnessing the Power of a Literature-Free Life

9 Responses to "No Reading Required, Part 5: How Bookstore Customers Seem to See Bookstores"

    Meredith September 6th, 2012 at 9:46 am

    I used to manage a bookstore with my sister and UGH, yes, all of this. Now I run all of their web stuff, and even those people are idiots. I posted an interesting book thing on Labor Day and someone decided that meant maybe the store was open after all, but posted on the Facebook page rather than calling the store.

    One woman decided to return a $3 card because the envelope was a different color than she expected (because she apparently didn't look very hard when she bought it, and god forbid she just put it in another envelope).

    You've left out the people who talk about how much they ADORE the store, how GLAD they are to have this independent store, but only come in once a month and only buy coffee.

    Melly December 21st, 2012 at 9:36 am

    fyi--some people love bookshops but are allergic to cats. Cats make some people stop breathing.

    Stop keeping cats in bookshops. It's rude.

    Bitcolorine December 21st, 2012 at 11:08 am

    What about the people who call on the phone for information:

    Customer: Hi, I'm looking for a book but I can't remember the title or the author... I know the title in French.
    bookseller: Hmmm, do you have anymore information?
    Customer: No, but can you reserve it for me?

    True story.

    Tina December 22nd, 2012 at 3:21 am

    Best story from a bookstore-employee friend:

    Customer: Do you have Romeo and Juliet?
    Bookseller: Yes, Shakespeare's plays are in this section here.
    Customer: No, I want the book the play was based on.

    Ria December 26th, 2012 at 7:48 pm

    Honest question: if I've collected a small pile of books to peruse while sitting in a comfy chair or in the cafe area, would you prefer that I put them back myself, or is it okay to leave them on the table? I'm always worried that I'll put the books back a bit out of order and make them harder to find for other people, so I would appreciate your guidance in this.

    Jon January 4th, 2013 at 9:20 am

    Ria, are you serious? I'd suggest you look at one book at a time, so you can remember where you got it from, and then put it back in the right place. Remember that a bookstore and your living room are two different things.

    Rosiland January 13th, 2013 at 1:40 pm

    I worked at B. Dalton to earn money for college, and at the Harvard Book Store after college (health insurance and BOOKS!). Every single thing in this post happened to me -- with the bonus of a customer roundly chewing me out at HBS because we didn't carry Dan Quayle's autobiography. I also reorganized BD's totally trashed children's books section -- only to have parents come in and wreck it.

    We just didn't have a cat at either store, which would have been awesome.

    Gaby January 17th, 2013 at 2:43 pm

    The "book" Romeo and Juliet was based on... :)

    Karen K. August 6th, 2013 at 6:01 am

    Working in a library is pretty much the same, but with people complaining about library fines. And without the cat and coffee. And customers think they can yell at you because "I'm paying your salary." No ma'am, you are not. Your annual tax contribution is approximately $40, which is an infinitesimal compared the the annual library budget for 26 branches.

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