Saturday, July 25, 2009

Midnight in the Garden of JK Rowling

I am standing on a platform, roughly 9 ¾ of an inch from the center of the room we now stand in. Around me is a sea of wands, robes, cauldrons and palpable excitement. As I rise to address the masses and tell them the time of the awakening will soon be at hand I feel my wig slide down the front of my face and sense a sharp pain in the back of my skull. Is it possible someone hit me with a box of Bernie Botts every flavor bean? I adjust my wig of long flowing red hair and gaze out at the mass of witches and wizards. They are silent for a moment as I look above my head. The metal sign hanging over the information desk that reads “Customer Service” is now titled at 45 degree angle because of its recent encounter with the back of my head. I had just succeeded in cracking my skull while garnering the full attention of a room full of nerds, who at this point were beginning to chuckle at me. There were a few concerned mothers and nuns who put their hands to there mouths to cover their smirks, but they were there.

“Well, I’m Glad no one saw that” I said to the mass of people now obviously staring at me. The laughter that had been bubbling over reached its full brew and the room filled with it. I was relived that I was able to turn the situation to my advantage and regain control of the room, and I now began shouting instructions about where to line up if they had a book reservation and where to cower in fear of us running out if you did not have one. This was an experience like nothing else in life, the anticipation and excitement behind a Midnight release for a Harry Potter book could not be matched.

This particular Midnight release party was for the 6th book in the Installment, which would go on to be my favorite in the series. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the expectations were high as it was the second to last book in the fabled series. If books are a dying form, JK Rowling is not aware of that fact. During a time when movie companies were struggling for new ideas and Mystery books were telling the same tired old stories with dogs instead of cats, JK created a new world. A World to rival that of Tolken and CS Lewis a world of her own creation that captured the imagination of the time.

Rowling provides a good example of why I believe books are here to stay. In a time when technology was developing faster than it could be written about JK Rowling wrote about people who stayed away from technology. Wizards and witches were unfamiliar with technology for they had no need for it, despite living in the modern world. The fact that this idea was believable to children and adults, that we can live in a world without technology and still believe in magic is magical in and of itself.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Books will never Die!

This is the prologue to "Cure for Crazy" which is going to be a collection of the craziest stories i have heard/been a part of in my time working for Barnes and Noble

There are those who say that Books are a dying breed, and to them I have only one thing to say: Your Crazy. Sure, it might be slightly techno-phobic of myself to cling to the leaflets and notebooks of my past, but I still do it with pride. I collect pens and pencils now like they are pieces of the Ark of the Covenant. I keep every magazine and every hand written letter or post-card in the hopes of one day discovering them and proving to my grandchildren that mail used to be delivered by an actual person. In this vision of the future I see me sitting in my rocking chair reading a newspaper, but as time has gone on the newspaper has begun to fade from the fantasy. Instead it is replaced with a book, any of the Harry Potter books to be precise. I can see myself in the future reading the stories to my children, and letting them touch the book itself and see the Special British edition I imported for far too much money. I look forward to this shared experience, to being able to make a physical connection with a memory from my past while creating a new one in the minds of my imaginary grandchildren. The physical embodiment of memory is something that the digital age will never be able to capture, nor should it try. A book can have a life story separate from the one contained within the text. Where did it come from? How did it get that crease in the binding? Is that a coffee stain inside the front cover or an image of the Virgin Mary? Thousands of questions that can never be asked of a blog, facebook update or tweet.

As a reluctant environmentalist I have to admit I see the benefits of digitizing printed works, but at what loss of character? What part of ourselves do we have to give up in order to maintain the status quo? More and more often today we give up what is real in favor of the artificial, with social networking tools helping us stay connected while staying away. It is also through tools like Twitter and Myspace that we are able to connect with people of similar interests, with similar backgrounds and stories. And in doing so myself I have begun to realize that bookseller has been replaced in the digital world by the search engine. There is a third party involved in the book purchasing process in the material world. Or course there is the author and his or her publisher who create the text and send it out into the hands of those who wish to purchase it. In between that connection however is the third party of the bookseller, a book Butler now replaced by Jeeves and Bing.

In the material world it is the seller who makes the union between two like minded thinkers possible, or between two people with the same passions and creative dreams. It is also possible for a bookseller to steer someone’s life in the completely wrong direction resulting in catastrophe for the reader. As a matter of fact when dealing with issues like family emergencies, loss, troubled relationships and trying to fall in love, the bookseller actually has more power than the author themselves. All they have to do is lead someone in the right direction and tell them “I think this will help”. It is that personal touch, that ability to lift someone’s spirits, only to potentially crush them if the text doesn’t 100% meet the needs of the reader, that separates a bookseller from a search engine. Despite the number of online shoppers who search constantly for books, there is always a special difference between the Jeeves of and the Jon of Barnes and Noble. I have worked at Barnes and Noble for more than 6 years now and in that time I have seen and heard the most outrageous stories. All revolving a form many believe to be dying, and it is for this reason I put these stories down on paper (and digital, just to be safe) to preserve the memory of what could be a lost art. This collection of stories is about the art of being a Bookseller, what it means to have that level of personal effect on a customer’s life. To lead someone through troubled times merely with a book suggestion, or to outrage a customer by suggesting a liberal biased book when the are a conservative. These are the stories of customers who are not afraid to ask where the Self-help section is, and of the booksellers unafraid to say to them “Doesn’t it defeat the purpose of self-help if I tell you?”

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Cure for Crazy

Cure for Crazy

After spending several hours crouched in the self-help section I suddenly began to feel better about my life. That is primarily because while scanning the section in (my monotonous robot-like task for the day) I realized that never in my life have a I felt the need to browse the self-help section of any bookstore. Never have I thought one might be a good idea as a gift, nor have I even considered searching for a book to solve whatever problems may be weighing down my soul.

This feeling of superiority led me to have a rather bemused look on my face throughout the day. This was not diminished by the fact that I found a book titled “Never be used again” right next to “Make people do anything for you” by the same author. The Irony had clearly escaped the author, and more importantly the buyers who seemed to gobble up both texts with glee. Finding self-help books written by everyone from Chuck Norris to Kanye West, I couldn’t help but wonder why anyone would ever read these books. Who would want to tips for living from Kristie Alley? Or Advice on the sanctity of Marriage from Jessica Simpson? Or a book of life lessons written by the 20 year-old actress who played Meadow on the Soprano’s? Who Cares? I just couldn’t wrap my head around the idea why these books would be printed, and who in their right mind would buy them

It was around the time I discovered the Chuck Norris self help book “The Secret Power Within” that I was first approached by a customer. It was a frail looking blond girl, about my age I’d guess, although her malnourished body made her look much older.

“Can I help you find something?” I asked, realizing a moment after I said it what this would entail. Working in a bookstore you can learn a lot about peoples tastes, imaginations and political views. There are also conversations like this one, the kind that stay with you after the customer leaves. The kind you struggle with throughout the day, wondering if you handled the topic with the care and ease it needed. The woman gazed at me with her olive green eyes and whispered something barely audible

“I’m Sorry?” I asked, louder and more forceful than I probably should have been. A pair of tween girls who we’re looking at the sex section giggled and I glared at them. They quickly dropped the guide to fellacio they were leafing through and skidded out of sight. I turned back to the woman to see that she was crying.

Overall I am a pretty empathetic person, but this moment was different. It wasn’t that I couldn’t feel the obvious pain the girl was dealing with, but that I had no idea what to say to her. She knew from the look on my face that I could see she was crying and so, embarrassed she turned and rushed down the aisle in the opposite direction.

“Wait!” I shouted, as I started towards her. She stopped short and turned around, wiping the tears from her eyes. She walked toward me and instinctively, I put my arms out. I had no idea who this woman was, or for that matter why she was crying but there I was standing in the middle of the bookstore hugging her. It was at this moment I realized why people come to this section in the first place. Not because they care what the authors really think, but simply that they need someone. Even if that someone is an author they have never met, or a stranger at a bookstore.

It was at this moment I realized I had not taken a shower this morning, nor had I bothered to put on deodorant in my rush out the house…