Whenever booksellers gather, they’ll eventually start asking each other one question: What’s the most vague and crazy way a customer has asked about a particular book? Scratch that–they won’t ask, they’ll just start telling their stories. They’re like poker players who can’t get over a bad beat, and they can instantly recall the nearly impassable hurdles they’ve had to overcome in trying to find the right read.
Even a front-counter novice knows the basic routine: “I don’t remember the title, but I think it had a blue cover. I heard about it on NPR, so you must know what it is.” You dig for as much more information as you can, and sometimes you get lucky. It’s a wartime romance and it’s fiction and it happens to be on this week’s bestseller list and voilà, there’s your sale. Most times there’s not any extra detail to uncover, the customer’s trick pitch is too much to handle, you swing and you miss, and there’s not much more to tell.
More interesting are the occasions when you find yourself handling a slippery Clupea harengus rubeus, known in less technical circles as a red herring. The available clues all point in the wrong direction, and the frantically-sought biography of Henry Kissinger turns out to be a memoir by Madeleine Albright. But hey, they were both Secretaries of State. Close enough, right? I remember a woman who came in search of a novel that had the word “joy” in the title and a picture of a horse on the front. I pondered for a bit and gave her what she really wanted, The Visiting Privilege, a book of short stories by an author named “Joy” with a German shepherd on the front. To be fair, the picture of the dog is blurry, so the customer didn’t lose any points on the zoology portion of the exam.
Situations like that aren’t deflating, they’re just challenging. Your sails lose wind entirely only when a shopper doesn’t really know what she wants and you can’t help her. Take one young woman as an example. She was doing an aimless scan of the shelves when I saw her and asked if I could assist. She said she didn’t think so and explained: “I’m looking for a book about geologists, their lives and what their work is like, but not just boring facts. It should be a narrative with personality, written with real style. I’m not sure something like that exists.” Bingo, I thought, and produced Annals of the Former World by John McPhee. A cross-continental journey through billions of years of history! Decades in the writing! Elegant prose from the contemporary master of creative non-fiction that makes rocks as charismatic and compelling as rock stars! Stamped for approval by the Pulitzer Prize committee! She flipped through it for a while, handed it back, and said, “Nah, I’ll keep looking.” Still feels like my nose is bleeding from that punch.
The only thing that could provide consolation after that epic failure is an epic success, and I had one of those this week. A woman approached the counter, heaved a sigh, and said, “I don’t remember the title.”
“That’s OK,” I told her. “What kind of book is it?”
“It’s a true story.” Pause. “It’s about a woman.” Longer pause. “She was English . . .”
I don’t know exactly why I knew what to say, but as her voice trailed off I asked, “Did she make paper flowers?”
“Oh my god, yes!” Molly Peacock’s The Paper Garden was the very thing she wanted.
I’d like to say that I coughed up that five-year-old study of an obscure artist through a combination of intuition, experience, and sheer inherent brilliance that I alone possess, but that’s not true. I mean, all that was necessary (especially the brilliance) but it wasn’t enough. To make that impossible leap I had to have been guided by some kind of patron saint. I doubt that a miraculous hand will ever again point me so perfectly toward the perfect book, but if it does, I’ll bet the cover will be blue.
James Crossley is a bookseller and blogger at Island Books on Mercer Island. If your friend says there’s this great book about the South but you can’t remember the name, whether it’s truth or fiction, or anything else at all about it, he’ll give you a copy of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and he’ll be right.