Sunday, April 09, 2006

Bookstore Lore

From Books, Inc. San Francisco, The original collection of "Most Stupid Questions Ever", compiled, and with an introduction, by Chris Haight, and collected by generations of bookstore workers, including Sin Sorocco, Margie Burke, Alison Moxley, Val Penn (whose wonderful 'Boris' cartoons originally illustrated this collection), Tom Lichtenberg, Patrick Marks, Sara Gold, Michele Valentzas, Tisha Barros, Olivia Harding, Steve Huang, Lisa Guerin, Judith Halberstam, Carmen Castaneda, John Hardin, Paul Goodman, and many others.

An Introduction

Bookstore workers are a folk. They have a certain shared experience: they are woefully underpaid, never, to my knowledge, unionized; they are usually beset by dingy and unreasonable owners (apparently you have to be slightly crazy to own a bookstore); they are misunderstood by the book-buying public who think they are all happy as hogs in shit and spend their working hours sitting around reading (I never read less on a job than when I worked in bookstores). Bookstore workers are also beset by "service industry" angst. They come to resent customers, and it is only a matter of time before the fresh, bright-eyed, personable and enthusiastic young bookstore clerk becomes the surly, taciturn, curt service industry hack that customers complain about.

The bookstore in which I did my collection of bookstore lore is a fairly typical urban (downtown San Francisco) bookstore, with the customers a pretty usual mix of tourists, locals, and the occasional lunatic from the Tenderloin, and the workers the usual intelligent, over-educated, underpaid bookstore laborers. The thing that sets this store apart and makes it particularly fertile ground for the bookstore lore collector is that the owner is seldom there (he owns a chain of stores all over California) and the manager, my friend and contact, is given an unusual amount of autonomy. Also, the manager, being a Marxist, is in complete sympathy with the workers, understands alienated labor and expects them to express themselves creatively as an outlet for their natural hostility.

In this store, evidence of the creative expression of the workers is all over the store, but especially in 'their' territory: behind the cash register, behind the information desk, in the office, in the shipping room, in the employee bathroom. In all these areas are notes, collages, graffiti, signs and other collective creative expressions. I have enclosed pictures of these manifestations of visual folklore. They are all the work of the staff as a collective, creative unit; though one worker may start the process, all are free to join in.

Because my folk are a particularly literate folk, I have chosen to emphasize their literary folklore. What follows is collected from the blank books that are kept behind the counter at the cash register and used to enter comments by the staff during their register shifts. These books are the work of many hands, but they tend to develop around certain themes. The theme of the book I have collected from is "stupid questions." Anyone who has worked in a bookstore knows that, in the course of a working day bookstore workers are asked any number of stupid questions by customers--at least the questions seem stupid from the perspective of the bookstore clerk. What follows is a literal transcription of selected passages from a typical (for this store) behind-the-counter blank book, which is the repository for this type of bookstore lore. I have tried to copy the entries as written, spelling, punctuation, capitalization and lack of same, in order to keep the flavor, the sense of spontaneity of the original without their occasional illegibility.

Do you work here?

Is this a good book?

Does your store have fiction?

You don’t have any can openers, do you?

HEY! Do you have those cardboard covers for décor that look like books?

UH! Do you have books or just paperbacks??

Do you carry Dover books?

Can I pay here?

Do you gift wrap?

What time is it?

Where am I?

Who do I make the check out to? You?

Do you have clerks in this store???

Where’s Haight-Ashberry? how do I get to Golden Gate Park? is the manager here? are you the manager? what’s the name of the manager? where’s the guy in the brown shirt?

Where’s a good place to eat? I really like cheap but good Japanese food you know or Chinese like that but not too far away you know and for maybe six bucks each---oh well could you write it down and draw a little map? I’m not from around here myself.

Where’s BART? What’s BART? When’s BART?

Are there any museums in San Francisco? Can you tell me where they are?


Do you have John le Carré on the shelf? Well you’d better take him down. Ha ha ha hahaha….
(Again and again. Why do they think that’s funny?)

I don’t know the author or the title, but it’s green and about so big.

One classy exec: “Well, I’ll tell you one thing, one thing I really miss is reading.”
Other classy: “Yeah. If only we had the time.”
(buying: Afterplay, How to Get Rid of Your Partner After Sex and How to Avoid Love and Marriage)

(Never have so many bored so few; never have so few been bored by so many.)

Do you have any books on ice?

Do you have Humping Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion?

Do you have Civilization and its Discotheques, by Sigmund Freud?

Where are the Mary Kay cosmetics books? I looked in the women’s section….

Do you have a book on animated pigs?

So I tell her: “It’s $12.74.”
She turns to her husband and says: “Dear, it’s $1274.”
Then she looks back at me and says: “How much is it?”
(Will someone explain this to me?)

Is this all you have about John Wayne?

Is this just novels or do you have a book on the postal service?

Do you have a book on Portugal? or just travel books on Portugal?
(What do you want, a pictorial?)
Yes! that’s just what I want. One with lots of things about cork trees. There are lots of cork trees in Portugal.

An old Japanese man who does not speak English comes in the store and asks: “Do you have a Japanese today?”
(Me: “No.”)
Old man: “Saturday? Sunday?”
(Me: “Maybe???”)
Soon after he leaves the store another Asian man, speaking phonetic English, obviously the spokesperson for a group of travelers: “Excuse me, I’m a stranger here myself. Do you have Lick Splingfire’s book?”
(That one’s easy. The classic l/r confusion)

“And the Lemon Car book?”
(Not used cars, hah! it took awhile but I finally grabbed a book by Raymond Carver and got it right!)

“And a book on blake dots?”
(By this time it was a piece of cake: break dancing.)

But then two cute Japanese schoolgirls want: “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy! Time and tide wait for no man. Have you these book?”
(Ah? Yes? No?)
They say: “What mean these?”
(Ah? OK, well you’re both very nice. What next?)
They say: “From tiny acorn towering oak tree grow!”
(Is this a conversation we’re having here?)
“Jack be nimble Jack be quick Jack jump over the candlestick! What mean these?”
(Ah? Perhaps it’s time for lunch?)
(Oh. Not yet.)

Have you read all the books?

What’s a good book to read?

What do you call books with pictures in them? Oh, I was just wondering.

Do you have a list of all the books you have in the store? and like, all the ones on younger men and older women?

Do you have the book The Beans of Peru Maine? or is it The Beans of Ancient Maine?
(No, no. But we have The Beans of Egypt, Maine, perhaps they’re related?)

Wait! Wait! I think I have the change.
Oh well, I guess not.
No! Wait, wait! I think I have the change!
Oh well. You better just go ahead and do it.
No! Wait, wait!

Hey! Did you say thank you?
(Sometimes I feel like a thankyou machine.)

Do you have paperbacks?

Why don’t you put the tax on before?

Why don’t you sell Fast Passes or Muni tickets? You sell Muni maps. You should sell tickets.

Why should I pay tax?! I don’t live here!
(Because we don’t like you.)

Why don’t you carry magazines? It would be much simpler.

Tex? tex? tex iss for those who liff here. Tex for me iss shtupit. Do you have stems? Why sell the carts without stems? And enfelopes? Why not have enfelopes? And pens? A little writing paper would help. But no tex on these things. Not for me. I don’t liff here.

I’m looking for a book. Should I tell you the title?
(Oh, I dunno, perhaps not.)

Do you have that book about the Song Dynasty? the one that ruled China? Or one that lists the worst companies in the U.S. to work for?

Breathless: “Where’s Bloomingdale’s?”
(Lexington and 59th)
Breathless, rushing out the door: “Oh, thank you.”
(In New York)

A young boy comes in, looking for his brother: “Have you seen a mentally retarded person today?”
“Well he has blond hair and is kinda large.”
“Well I lost him.”
“He said he was going to be in a bookstore downtown.”
(Ah. Ask at the information desk. Thank you.)

Where’s your non-fiction at?
(She wanted the new Ken Fillet book.)

Deranged: “Do you have any non-fiction?”
(Yes, it’s all over the store.)
Der.: “Well I can’t seem to find any—you must have sold it all.”
One hour later, deranged is back: “Do you have any non-fiction?”
(Oh, you’re back. What are you looking for?)
Deranged: “Something like Edgar Allen Poe.”

Is this the price you sell it for?
No discounts?
Not even on this book?
Well, how can you do business this way?

Hey, give me change for a twenty---what, only two tens?

Do you sell calendars?
(Yeah. They're right there.)

Do you have placemats?
(No. Try the liquor store on the corner.)

Where are your books in French?
(We don't really have any.)
Well, where would they be?
(Try the liquor store on the corner.)

Do you have a book that's 800 pages long?

So a bored cabbie, just took Julius Fast to the airport, leans on the counter and babbles at me, "People who are ugly become writers and they all have ugly wives. Good looking people are actors." Right Jack, whatever you say. Finally he stops and says, "What am I standing here for? Better go drink." Goodbye.

Do you have Gone with the Wind, the book?

Do you have Color Me Purple, by Alice Walker?

Old quavering lady: "Do you have any binders I could write my recipes in?
(No, we don't have any binders. We only have blank books.)
Ohhh goooood. That is JUST what I want.
However, upon viewing the blank books her piercing wail rings out somewhere beyond querulous: THESE ARRREN'T BIIIINDERS!!!
(Try the liquor store on the corner.)

Do you sell jockstraps? chastity belts?
(Oh, go away.)

(So the kid swaggers up to me) and he sez: "You gotta copy of The Basketball Diaries?"
(Yah, I sez, and I goes and gets it for him.)
"Oh," he sez, "I already read that one."
(I predict a dismal future for the little snot.)

I have a lie detector test on Monday. Do you have any books telling how to beat a lie detector?
("Yes," I lied.)

Overheard comments:
"Ahh, why don't you go to New York and commit suicide."
"Wanna go in the bookstore?" "Nah. I gotta library card."
"Got a book from Barnes and Ogle?"

What time do you close?
At night??

Which one is the first table? what time do you close? are you open tomorrow? do you take Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Diners' Club, Carte Blanche, Macy's? oh well I don't have any of those I was just, you know, wondering. Do they have clerks back at the information desk that could help me?

So a wimpy sleazy hughy dewey and louie kind of man bypasses me and goes up to one of the women working in the store and waves a copy of For Yourself (women's sexuality) and demands to know what he should read to "understand women." He's sent to the women's section and looks disgruntled to discover that it isn't sex books.

Do you have a nubile section?

Do you have Handwriting for the Television?

Do you have any calendars that are alphabetical by month?

Long irritable line at the register.
Do you giftwrap?
(Yes, back at the information desk.)
What color is your paper?
(You can look at it back there, it's on display.)
Well what kinds of colors do you have?
(blue, brown, green…)
Oh, you have all kinds of colors? and patterns?
Oh, can you show me? where is it?
(Back at the information desk.)
Why isn't it up here so I can judge it?
(Because it's back there so we can wrap it.)
Well, that's terribly rude I think. Don't you think that's inconsiderate? I think the world would be so much nicer if people were just considerate and not rude. That's what I say.
Do you wrap books here?
(No. Back at the desk.)
Are they real busy?
(I don't know.)
Well how far back is back? Is it worth my going back there?
(I don't know.)
You're not much good, are you.

So she's got one check, not imprinted, an out of state license and a Mervyns card: "That's always been sufficient before."

Another one, right behind her, has only an expired drivers license: "The Emporium always cashes them."

And yet another dope in the same line, with no ID, just a Versateller card: "This is outrageous. Everyone knows my checks are good!
(Well then get some money from everyone and leave me alone.)

Old hippy: Whatever happened to…you know…
Other old hippy:…that chick?
Old hippy: Yeah. Her.


Do I look like a zombie to you?
(No. Why?)
Ohhhhh, I dunno.

Little fussy man: Do you sell penguins?
(Albatross! fresh today! albatross!)

"My wife and I are travelling to France. Do you know any fiction that would be fun to read in France?"
(They bought Hollywood Wives.)

A man wants to pay for a copy of On the Road with an American Express card.
So the guy comes in a leans himself up against the counter, asking if I know how to tell if a metal object was real brass. He holds up a LAPD badge he'd bought for $50. He wanted to know if I wanted perhaps to buy it for twenty five. He said he was "just a cab driver."

Found the remains of a victim of spontaneous combustion in the occult section.

Excuse me, do you have religion in here?

"…how many inches in a yard? what's your name? are you a native? how many feet in 72 inches? is it always sunny here? I'm from the country, a real country bumpkin. are you a native? what's your name? oh that suits you. are you Scandinavian? I love Scandinavians, my husband's Swedish. I'm from Lake Tahoe, the mountains. he's quiet, my husband, I'm not. a real country bumpkin I am. why do you look so cross you should smile. it's snowing at Lake Tahoe and loook at me I'm smiling it took me four hours to go four miles and I hadda get towed and I had on my bathing suit. I just love bookstores don't you? do you live here? where is Coit Tower? my husband is retired now so I can see how working denies you many pleasures. thank you for being patient, here's a quote to cheer you up since you look so cross. now I'm going back to the country, a real country girl from Lake Tahoe that's me, bet you don't seem many like meee--are you a native? then smmmmmile."

I don't understand John Updike and when I do I don't like him.

Little crazy lady: where's you love books? I need something I can do myself.
(Me: well, try the psychology section.)
She comes back with a Scott O'Dell kid's book: How about this one? see here, they're huggin'.
(Me: that's an adventure novel.)
She: Oh, well--will you find me a book on love? to show how to do it?
(Me: try books by Leo Buscaglia.)
She: Oh, he's Italian isn't he?
(Me: um, yes.)
She: Well, I can't read. Will you show me?

Guy buys a copy of Heidi: have you ever read this book?
(I say: nope.)
He says: Well you should. It was first written in the 1800s.
(I say: Oh? When was it second written? but he didn't seem to hear.)

Young man in suit, with mustache and pipe, buying Fear and Trembling: "You know Kierkegaard is the thing."
His friend, attired exactly the same: "Oh yes, I've always been partial to him myself."

(Phone rings. Me: Hello, Bookstore! may I help you?)
Voice: Is this a bookstore?
Voice: where you can purchase books?
Voice: Oh.

And I'd like that book by Michener.
(Which one?)
Oh, the one that writes all those books.

"The back cover of this book is bent. Can I have a dollar off? It's a gift you see."

So this guy comes in and leans way over on the counter and says: Can you help me I need a book right away on the effects of opium and like heroin? He talks real slow with many pauses. So I direct him back to the health section and he falls down by the drug books without looking at them and then he crawls around and finally passes out with his head on a stack of Stephen King books.


Coughing lady: Hey! you even got a book on Typhoid Mary--how well I remember her…

Phone rings and the woman asks if we have a certain book and we say "yep" and she says "OH?" and hangs up. She gives us another call immediately: "Did he touch it?"
"Did he touch it--the book? or did he look on a list? Was it touched by human hands?"

She asks, in great seriousness, after consulting the sign that says INFORMATION--"What is the weather going to be like tomorrow?"

I need an engagement book.
(We don't have any, sorry.)
There must be other people with my problem---
(I'm sure there are, dear.)

(What I want to know is: why are al the business-suited men who buy the Black Cat dirty books always wearing hats that are too small and carrying umbrellas? and why do they want to know how to get to Neiman Marcus? what will they do there?)

Sign ideas for the store:
We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone who says "dude."
We are not responsible for lost or stolen memories.

Where is the World Trade Center?
(In New York.)
Oh? I thought it was around here somewhere.

Do you have Clan of the Valley Bears?
(furr shurr fur shur)

This book was only $2.50 last year, how come it's more now?
(Rising prices are caused by greed which is endemic to the capitalist system. There are two means of dealing with this social/economic problem: continual expansion and aggrandizement (imperialism) or a direct challenge to the whole structure (revolution)--the time is now! make your choice! You've nothing to lose but your chains, rise up, rise up.)

I guess it's just the American way, huh?

Do you have a book about Sinbad the sailor for a eleven year old girl?
Oh good. Well, I just hope it's not too big because she is not going to want to spend much time reading. She has a computer you know.

Do you have a sort of "altered life-style" section?

Do you have a sandwich machine?

waving at the computer section, he asks, is this as far as it goes in terms of human advancement?

So the woman says to me: Goodbye, dear! I'll be back when you get more cranberries!

------------ More Lore from the First Edition ----------------

are there any museums in San Francisco? can you tell me where they are?

do you have clerks in this store?

do you have a book on animated pigs?

is this just novels or would you have a book on the postal service?

if you don't have it, does that mean it's not in stock?

do you have any books on ice?

do you have any good magazines? like on ballooning?

do you have an old envelope i could use?

do you have a book that's 800 pages long?

do you have gone with the wind, the book?

hi, i'm unemployed. do you have any jobs that pay $2.21 an hour?

excuse me, can you tell me about Tad's chicken?

do you have tin plates?

do you have wallpaper?

do you have this one? she asks, holding up a box of kleenex

do you have any books on mineral water?

do you have that book called 'blow your house down'?
(what's it about)
life. it's about life

my wife and i are travelling to France. do you know any fiction that would be fun to read in France?

do you have dictionaries from other countries?

are the stores in san francisco open on thursday nights?

where's your love books? i need something i can do myself

do you have the hallmark calendar of how a woman can succeed?

how much are books these days?

do you have my book?
(which one)
well i called last month and she said she'd hold it for me
(which book?)
well i don't really know. ask the girl who is holding it

can you look it up and see if it's in print at any other bookstore?

do i just look or can i ask you?

you got no books on quicksand huh?

i'm looking for a book with all the tourist parts of the world.

does Yukio Mishima mean anything to you?

i was walking around yesterday and i saw a precision cut for six dollars. do you know where i was?

there is this paperback book that costs eleven bucks and i can't afford it. what i mean is i can't afford it financially. and what i want to know is can i work for it?

where do you keep the out of stock books? We were told somewhere around Union Square we could get a publication that lists all the jobs open in the United States.

how about South America?
(how about it?)

do you have any books by Ansel Adams?
(shows hima few)
Ohhh. these are all in black and white ...

do you have any straight novel paperbacks?

do you have a book called 'whispers'?
(can you tell me something about it?)
yes, it's called 'whispers'

is this the only hofbrau around here?

where's that store across the street?

do you sell clay here?

do you have the Gideon Bible?

do you take canadian money?

how long will your store be here?

do you have any books that are not out yet?

do you sell tickets for the Jacksons tour?

tell me, do you think everything is phony or correct?

how many books you got left?

you are gorgeous. yes you are. you just stay right there. i'm going but i'll be back as soon as i get the marshmallows.

do you seel luggage labels?

do you have a psychic dictionary i could use?

do you have Jack London's latest book in paperback form?

do you have the complete works of Kris Kristopherson?

do you have that book that proves that Queen Victoria drove the whole world crazy?

do you belong to this store?