Tuesday, 4 August 2009

The Sarazens head without New-gate: It's still a retail job


I think I'm well overdue to devote a post to life in bookstoreland, hey? Even though there have been only a few Sarazens head posts, I think it's about time to disabuse you of your notions about the complete serenity of manning a bookstore all day long.

Yes, I sometimes get to read or nap on the job, and yes, I sometimes get to have great conversations with customers about books. But you know that guy in line at Starbucks who smells bad and who's yelling at the cashiers for moving too slowly? He shops in bookstores too.

Someone needs to get some lessons in anger management
Recently, a woman came in and spent about 45 minutes looking at one of these flaky new age books we sell so well to people in Alberta (not sure what that's about). After the 45 minutes, she asked, were she to buy the book, whether or not she could return it after a week or so if she found it wasn't the right thing. I said no, that 24 hours was the best we could do (not a generous policy, I realize, but the previous owners instituted it because so many people were trying to get things refunded after a week or more).

Upon hearing about the 24-hour thing, she immediately started screaming at me that this wasn't fair and what if she spent that $14 for nothing?? I responded quite calmly that I was sorry, but this wasn't a lending library and she could spend the next 4 hours before we closed looking at the book in one of our comfy chairs to decide either way on the book. Her response? "You arrogant fucking bitch! You're going to have a really fucking hard time in life and I'm glad! Fuck you, bitch!" She then threw the book on the floor and stormed out. She didn't fail to hear me laugh at her tirade, however, and slammed the door so hard it sounded like it broke (it didn't). The book has recovered, and is now waiting for that special someone to come take it to its loving, forever home in hippie-land.

Did you really just tell me that I don't know anything about Shakespeare?
Granted, this particular crazy woman didn't know that I have a PhD in the Shakespeare, but she didn't stop talking smack even after I told her. Last week, I was quietly minding my bookish business when a young woman came storming in and asked me, quite angrily, if I knew anything about Shakespeare? I informed that her that I could lay claim to some knowledge in that area, yes.

She then proceeded to inform me that all of Shakespeare's plays were co-written by a woman, namely Virginia Woolf. Apparently, Shakespeare often got tired and lost his writing mojo and she had to finish what he started. She knew for a fact that Woolf was the co-writer because she wrote a book named Orlando and there's a character in Twelfth Night (actually, it's As You Like It, crazy girl!) named - ORLANDO! She also knew that the co-writer was female because, she informed me, Ophelia means "help me". Now that's a thesis statement if ever I heard one, but one designed to earn you not a grade, but rather a punch in the neck.

At first, I tried to speak gently and reasonably with her about this stuff because clearly, she had some kind of mental issue (the clearness of it coming from her manner rather than what she said; I'm sure many people have no idea when either Shakespeare or Woolf lived and that's no biggie in my view if they're not either an English literature student or an insatiable reader - she was really twitchy and bug-eyed is what I'm saying).

But when she wouldn't listen to anything I was saying and just kept screeching about our man Willie as the co-author of our woman Ginnie, I lost my patience a little and asked her rather abruptly, "Have you come in here for anything besides talking mush about Shakespeare? Because if it's just about the mush, I don't have time." She immediately snapped out of it and asked if I had a copy of The Time Traveller's Wife. Which, based on her ideas above, made me think that maybe she believes this is a how-to manual and not a novel (and now a movie).

Can I call the double-A for you?
This is a sad case I can't make fun of. But it does highlight the fact that bookstores are retail environments through and through because yo, this won't happen to my husband at his hyper-securitied up office.

A few weeks ago, a woman came in with a bottle of what appeared to be Diet Coke. She took her time and gathered together a honkin' stack of books and then betook herself to the comfy chairs in the back. Upon her sitting down, I heard her open a can of something, which I found weird, what with the bottle of pop already on the go, so I started walking towards her to see what was up. She immediately spilled the canned pop everywhere as she drunkenly tried to pour it into the bottle, which I now know was not housing pop, or not only pop. She staggered to her feet, slurred at me that she was sorry, and handed me the can.

Whereupon, I informed her she must leave post-haste and not return. Meanwhile, a lovely pair of teenagers took it upon themselves to begin moving the boxes of books that were in the path of the expanding pop river on the floor. God bless 'em!

On her way out, poor drunk lady fell flat on her arse without the help of the many piles of books around; indeed, she managed to do it in the clearest place in the store. Sigh. I hope she'll figure this out before it kills her to death.

The fires of hell
People come in and try to make me a Christian all the time. Sometimes it's benign, e.g., someone comes in regularly and sticks pamphlets about Jesus everywhere (I still don't know who it is; they're crafty I guess; in any case, I think it's kind of funny). Sometimes, people come in to try to talk to me about it and when I say I'm not interested, they look disappointed but take it in stride.

But once, very soon after we took over the bookstore, this guy came in and started giving me his whole brimstone speech. He was loud to begin with but became much louder and more aggressive as I tried to tell him I was fine, thanks, but no. He was going on about the tortures I was going to experience in hell and he had crazy manic eyes on top of the voice. I was starting to get scared so I pulled on my super-aggressive face and told him to leave, which he just ignored and kept going, but even louder and with more violent gestures and the crazy eyes. Just at that moment, the meter reader guy came in and he happened to be 6'5" or so AND he happened to feel like being manly for he sent that guy packing with threats of his tall guy boot ending up in the other guy's hell and damnation ass. Phew. I was getting ready to call the cops.

Apparently, someone else owns this store
There's a crazy talking-to-herself lady that comes in sometimes and who I am now totally terrified of. The first time she came in, she just talked to herself but was pretty well put together. The next time, she was all dirty and her hair was matted. She said to me, I shit you not, "My other personality, who owns this store, tells me you have such and such a book." I was disconcerted but thought maybe she was kidding. I looked up the book. We didn't have it. I told her so. And then I knew she wasn't kidding for she looked at me with so much loathing and malevolence that I started to quake; she then informed her other self that "The lying bitch says she doesn't have it!" and muttered angrily to herself for awhile. Again, I got ready to call the cops but the other self took pity on me, I guess, and took her out of there.

Of course, these are extraordinary events; the everyday form my life here takes is that of quietly selling things like The Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter books, and generally remaining in a mutually molestation-free relationship with the people who wander in. But the encounters described above make my bro's advice to run my store like the guy in Black Books quite compelling. Here are some snippets on the YouTube if you're not familiar with Black Books.

Oh, and I have to make change a lot. That's part of having a retail job. A BIG part.

15 comments:

Kevin said...

Thank you, Colleen! I appreciate this glimpse into a world that my imagination decorates with silver and gold spangles. A Ph.D. in Shakespeare? That sounds more official than my black belt in McCarthy. I'll ping you offline with a proposition (totally appropriate). Kevin

Colleen said...

I think your black belt in Cormac McCarthy is much cooler and more hard-ass than a PhD in anything...except maybe Cormac McCarthy.

I'm intrigued to hear this entirely appropriate proposition.

mel said...

Do you like the Folger Library paperback editions of Shakespeare? Most of the complete sets of the plays are in too small a print or too big a book to make for easy reading.

raych said...

I want to come and run this bookstore with you - be your lackey, as it were. We could sit and make fun of people all day, and not even just the crazies. ALL PEOPLE!!

Also, my word-verification is 'wingie.' How droll.

Book Psmith said...

Umm...even if she ended up liking that new age book, I don't think it could really help a psycho-chick like that. Good to know these are not everyday occurences. I think you and Raych should team up...safety in numbers.

J.G. said...

Clearly I did not work in a bookstore long enough to get the full effect. Thanks for sharing the details I missed.

Just don't let them make you all twitchy and bug-eyed.

Colleen said...

mel: Sure, the Folgers are alright; when I taught, however, I found the Pelicans to be the most usable and useful. But as I don't teach anymore, I imagine I'll just stick to my Riverside when I'm able to look at the Shakespeare again without barfing.

raych: You are welcome to be my co-author of customer abuse ANY TIME. That would be more fun than I have the vocabulary to describe.

Book Psmith: You have a point about her being beyond the help of the new age book. It's a good thing I didn't think to tell her that though, or she might have cut me! (By the way, I was gifted Psmith in the City for my birthday!)

J.G.: I think I'm okay for avoiding the twitchy, bug-eyed thing myself - I've got Dickens and a billion other authors to keep me sane and happy. :) But I'll be sure to take mental health days just to be sure.

dolcebellezza said...

I don't think any one will ever be able to properly express their faith by force; screaming, certainly, is ridiculous. I think the best way to show what we believe is through our actions, our smiles, our loving one another. I believe in God, and Jesus, with all my heart, but I wouldn't force it down your throat ever.

It must be wonderful to own a bookstore. Or, even work in one!

Yuri... said...

Here's to the "mutually molestation-free relationship" as a worst-case, and many more interesting discussions on mutually-loved literature as the norm :).

This post actually reminds me a little too much of my Radio Shack days, which are surely not to be romanticized either...

heidenkind said...

The second story made me lawl. :D That's the type of person I would totally egg on. I'd be all like, "Really?! Tell me more! What other characters did Woolf borrow?" This is why I'm not allowed to talk to crazy people.

Tony said...

I think I'll stick to reading (and blogging)...

Rohan Maitzen said...

Ah, retail. I worked in a classical record store for six years, full and part time (and yes, it had actual records when I started). You'd think a specialty store of that kind would insulate you a bit from the nut jobs, but we sure got all kinds. My favourite was a woman who had decided she wanted to learn about classical music (a common phenom in the store, actually, usually quite a nice thing to work with someone on). But her plan was to start with music that had just one instrument and then build up to a full orchestra. Well, that's not an impossible plan, given the range of options in the chamber music genre, though between an octet and, say, a chamber orchestra, I think there would have to be a leap. But she was convinced she could choose the instruments herself and simply would not believe me when I said that there were, in fact, fairly conventional combinations that she would have to follow (you know, piano and violin, then add a cello, and so on). Eventually she insisted on seeing the owner and stormed out when he too informed her that no, indeed, her plan was a non-starter.

One of our pet peeves was people who would rush in and demand "that piece I just heard playing on CBC"--but could not tell you who it was by, what program they were listening to, or anything else about it. And of course the CBC folks were terrible about playing recordings that were no longer available, so a lot of time was spent persuading people that in fact the recordings we had of something like The Four Seasons really would sound about the same as whatever ancient LP they had just heard on the radio. And don't even get me started on the people who could not accept that LPs were out and CDs were in.

My greatest retail success, though, was a stroke of sheer intuitive customer service genius. A woman came in asking about a piece she had heard once that was "just a woman singing." That's all she knew. I immediately pulled a copy of the Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5 for her, played a few minutes of it--and it was the right piece. She was very impressed.

Actually, sometimes, despite all the craziness, I miss the directness of retail work. There's a real satisfaction in finding what someone wants, or introducing them to something they love (I remember a woman coming in once and coming right up to me, saying "You recommended such-and-such last year and we all LOVE it, so I'm hoping you can help me find something else.) Maybe that's why I like doing student advising: there's the same sense of meeting someone's concrete needs.

Colleen said...

dolcebelleza: I think most people, like you, are comfortable enough with their faith to be entirely calm about it. And yes, owning/working in a bookstore is pretty great in spite of the crazies that sometimes visit me.

Yuri: Radio Shack for you, Tim Hortons and Reitmans for me. *Shudder*

heidenkind: Egging them on is tempting, yes, but then they might never leave. And at some point, it becomes necessary, for my sanity, that they leave.

Tony: Fair enough!

Rohan: I get similar demands based on very little information: "You know, the book about the guy and his kid!!!!" (Incidentally, I got that one correct once - it was McCarthy's The Road, but the only reason I was able to make the guess is that the film had just come out and people always want the book after they see the film.)

I've had some success with book recommendations but then there are the instances such as this "I read Bel Canto on your recommendation but found it really boring - nothing happened! Can you give me something more exciting?". Sigh.

andrew said...

I'm actually wiping tears away. People are looking in my office window to see what I'm laughing at. Well done. Here's a good story I heard from a long-time Ottawa bookstore owner: a reasonably normal looking guy comes in to their shop, heads straight back to an "employees only" stockroom, takes off all his clothes, walks back to the front of the shop, and climbs into the window display and sits cross-legged in it until the cops are called to extricate him posthaste to a nearby mental hospital.

Colleen said...

andrew: Egad! All my stories seem rather tame in comparison to your naked guy one! Glad I could fill your office with some laughs. ;)