A consequence of working at Annie Bloom’s is that I’ve developed two personalities. BookLover Jeff is gregarious, always happy to start open-ended conversations with customers, and sometimes has trouble knowing when it’s time to shut up. BookSeller Jeff is pragmatic, maintains an awareness of what’s happening in every aisle, and is always careful not to do anything that might degrade the reputation of the store. The tug of war between these two determined personas is ongoing, even when I’m relaxing at home.
For example, not long ago I was drinking my morning coffee while staring out the kitchen window and saw something truly wonderful. A young man was strolling along the sidewalk staring intently at an object in his hands. I assumed he was holding some type of web-accessing device but no–he was READING A BOOK.
The voice of BookLover Jeff immediately spoke up inside my head. “That person should be congratulated!” he said. “Too many people these days are becoming slaves to their electronic communication gadgets. You need to run after that guy and let him know he’s doing a great thing. Give him a big bear hug and say, ‘I officially declare you to be a reading rock star! You’re my new BFF! Keep turning those pages!’ Go tell him. Now!!”
It was very tempting. I do believe that reading should be encouraged at every possible opportunity. But in this case there was a major complication: I was wearing only a terrycloth bathrobe. Before I had time to make a move toward the front door BookSeller Jeff stepped in with some cautionary advice.
“Don’t even think about it,” he warned. “Stay right here and finish your coffee.”
“I feel bad just letting that guy walk away,” I said. “What harm could come from complimenting someone for reading a book? And I could also tell him I work in a bookstore, so he understands why I’m so thrilled.”
The reply was immediate. “Have you never heard about The Law of Unintended Consequences?” Sometimes BookSeller Jeff can be a bit sarcastic. “Look at this from a more objective viewpoint. What is that guy on the sidewalk going to think when he sees you, a total stranger, charging toward him in your bathrobe? It’s also highly likely that during the chase your waistband will come untied and give the entire encounter an X-rating.”
BookLover Jeff felt the wind going out of his sails. “Okay,” he offered, “so how about we just forget the bear hug and give the guy a high-five?”
“Good idea,” I said. “What’s wrong with that? ”
“Pretty much everything,” BookSeller Jeff shot back. “Consider the bigger picture. Suppose the incident goes viral. Word gets around that a man reading a book caused a scantily clad homeowner to come running out of his house and give chase. It’s the kind of story that makes people not want to carry books around in public places. Then they find out where you work—that could cause consumers everywhere to be nervous about even shopping for books, so then bookstores all over America start going belly-up, and suddenly the entire publishing industry is reeling. Do you want all that on your conscience? That you wrecked the book business with one impulsive act of affection that went tragically haywire?”
“Maybe he’ll come back someday,” BookLover Jeff added hopefully.
“Maybe he’ll walk into your store one day and become a regular customer,” BookSeller Jeff suggested.
“That would be great,” I agreed. “And now that you mention it, I sometimes give hugs to regular customers. How come you’ve never had a problem with that?”
“Because the store is a controlled environment that provides a literary context for the hug,” BookSeller Jeff patiently explained. “And, in some instinctive way, you have always been careful to observe the two crucial rules about spontaneous hugging, the first of which is to let the customer make the first move so you know the mood is receptive.”
“And what’s the second rule?” I wondered.
“Be absolutely, positively certain,” BookSeller Jeff concluded, “that all of the participants are fully clothed.”
Jeffrey Shaffer is a bookseller and booklover at Annie Bloom’s Books in the historic Multnomah Village district of southwest Portland. His relationship with Annie Bloom’s began in the 1990′s when the store’s booksellers enthusiastically sold his two humor collections I’m Right Here, Fish-Cake and It Came With the House. He continues to blog about politics and popular culture for Huffington Post and also contributes to the ‘Modern Parent’ blog at the Christian Science Monitor.