Sunday, July 05, 2009

Ah, Bookstores... The Sequel

People always seem to complain about bookstores. But consider the alternative.

Think what's it's like to work in one. I've been working, in one capacity or another, in the local big bad chain bookstore in Poodledale for several years now. Yeah, one of those faceless, heartless, evil large corporate entities that don't give a damn about anything or anyone, and have put all those poor little indies run by Albert Schweitzer and Mother Teresa out of business.

What a crock. And a tired one at that. Book selling is a very tough, competitive business and unfortunately, simply loving books is no guarantee even the nicest, coolest, friendliest person in the world -- and I've met some pretty good folks in those small little bookstores -- can manage to run a successful bookstore.

But I can assure you that there are plenty of people working in even those big bad bookstores who love books and reading every bit as much as their customers. I know I do. It's why I love my job. And most of my customers are great.

And yet there's hardly a week goes by that I don't open up a discussion group digest or have to deal with some irate "customer" who's dumping all over us once again.

Like, for instance:
"I wanted to go to the bookstore for my birthday. I wanted to get a cup of coffee and a muffen then use WiFi to look at (some author's) webpages and see what books I could find. I am not picky what kind of book I read I will read anything! I have even been known to read a cookbook when I had nothing else. Off to the bookstore with my PDA I go. What do I find? Coffee and a muffen would set me back 10 dollars. WiFi was not a free service and I could not find any of the books that I wanted. I am not just talking about (some author's) books, I am talking about there was not one Hard back Dean Koontz book in the whole place. I miss the local used book store at the end of the block where you could just drop in and find the book you wanted chat up the latest gossip with the lady reading a romance novel behind the counter, then go home curl up in a blanket read the book all night. "SIGH" I have not tried the libary yet that is where I am heading next.
Me? All I wanted was someone who wasn't hoping to read magazines and books for free, or poach our WiFi for free (which isn't free to those who provide it) and not get their undies in a knot simply because we don't carry every edition of every book in the world (no bookstore can afford to). But if we don't have it, we'll try our best to get it for you.

All I wanted was someone who wouldn't complain about how used or online bookstores offer so much better prices (except for shipping and handling, of course). And the next time you can't find that book whose title you don't know by that "arthur" whose name you forget but it has -- maybe -- yellow on the cover, feel free to call Amazon. I'm sure they have a team of operators standing by just to help you. Or ask one of the staff (if you can find one) at Wal*Mart for help with your literary questions.

All I wanted was someone who wouldn't exaggerate to make a point. Ten dollars for a simple coffee and muffin? Yeah, right... I'd like to see the receipt for that.

All I wanted was a customer who could spell "muffin" or "library."

All I wanted was a customer who was a "customer" (IE: one who actually spends money), not a freeloader or a mooch or a squatter...

It's not a library. We don't mind if people glance through a book or a magazine sometimes, but for God's sake buy something sometimes, damn it. Don't sit there, snapping pictures of our books with your cellphone. And don't complain to us at customer service because we don't have photocopy machines, you thieving mooch.

Please treat our merchandise with respect. Put it back where you got it, if you've got the mental capacity to do so. Or at least don't dump them on the floor. And please don't use a sweating, dripping gargantuan ice-blended coffee drink as a bookmark in an $80.00 coffee table book on Andy Warhol whose protective plastic wrap you just ripped off when you thought nobody was looking.

It's not a picnic area. Don't bring your own food, you deadbeat. You want a four-pounder SuperBurger with the works, jumbo fries and a five-gallon Diet Coke to plug that annoying clean spot in your last working artery, by all means, go for it. But eat it there. Please. You keel over, I'm not sure we have enough staff on hand to be able to move your carcass.

It's not a day care centre. Don't leave your runny-nosed screaming ill-begotten brats here to raise hell while you go to Target.

And it's not an ashram. Get your fat butt off the floor. Don't sit on that convenient stack of bargain books either. We do have chairs. You wanna sit on the floor, go to the supermarket. I'm sure they'd love your business.

We're not an auditorium. So don't give me that bullshit about there not being "enough" chairs. We're under no local or state obligation to provide seating. And sometimes we have to take away chairs to -- GASP!!! -- make room for books. Deal with it, lard-arse.

If there are no chairs available, STAND (if you remember how). Or go home and wait for the casting call for the theatrical touring version of WALL-E. I hear they're looking for "humans." You'd be a natural.

Don't give me this crap about a bad back, either. If your body is in such horrible shape you have to lie on the floor, have whoever delivered you here (because of course in your delicate condition you couldn't possibly have driven yourself, right?) take you home.

Because, believe me, some of our "heavier" patrons steps on your head, you'll have head problems too.

By the way, all you blushing young brides-to-be with the foot-high stack of expensive, glossy wedding magazines you're folding, bending and mutilating: we've hired an old gypsy to put a curse on you. "May your future groom respect your wedding vows as much as you respect our merchandise."

If this curse works out, we're having her back to lay one on nursing students as well. And people interested in tattoos.

No Dean Koontz hardcovers? Does he have a new hardcover out? Or are you looking for an older title? Here's a clue: the books on the shelves? We're hoping to sell them. A book unlikely to sell is not going to be on our shelves for very long. (Which is why we carry so few self-published novels -- nobody wants them).

Unfortunately, retail space is too expensive to stock books on a whim. And a five or six-year old hardcover edition of a book readily available in paperback definitely falls into the whim category. If a book's not selling, it goes back to the warehouse. But if you want it, we can get it for you, usually within a week.

Which reminds me: the next time we don't have some TV "journalist"'s latest hate-filled screed on who is destroying America this week, please let me assure you it's not because we're part of some vast left-wing liberal/socialist/Commie/terrorist plot -- maybe we're just sold out. Or the publisher seriously miscalculated demand.

It's a bookstore. We sell books. Hell, we sell Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler and friggin' cat mysteries. So why wouldn't we sell books by Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Riley or Al Franken or whomever?

And while I understand a small but angry minority didn't like the way the last election went, defacing or turning around any book featuring Obama on the cover won't change the election results.

And referring to him as "the nigger president" tells me more about you than it does about him.

As for this mythical little used bookstore where you can gossip away with the lady behind the counter reading the romance novel, well, how nice for you. I imagine that impresses the person behind you in line. Assuming there was a line. Or is the lady reading behind the counter because she hasn't had any paying customers for two hours?

Sorry but, as I said, we're booksellers. We sell books. We're far too busy helping real, hopefully paying customers to read behind a counter. Any bookstore where the staff has time to read a book during business hours is likely going to be gone in a year. Or less, if people continue to abuse their hospitality.

So go to Costco or Walmart or wherever and sprawl on their floor, read their magazines and books and eat your "muffen." And gosh darn it, you can't beat their selection. Plus their staff is so helpful and knowledgeable about books. Why, you can get any book in the world you want as long as it was on Oprah last week.

Unless, of course, they're also sold out.

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Blogger Guillaume said...

I love all bookstores, the nice indie ones like the big chains, providing the big chains have a lot of choice and not only the latest bestsellers (here I love Waterstone's, back in Québec I can't say Renaud-Bray and Archambault are half as good). I miss Olivieri a lot.

But yes, all this set aside, one has to be a good customer, i.e. someone who can understand that one does not look for books in a bookstore the way one browse on amazon.

3:04 PM, July 05, 2009  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

Renaud-Bray and Archambault never did much for me, since their miniscule English sections weren't worth the detour (although I did appreciate Archambault's appearance in the suburbs in the nineties -- they carried a a small but tasty assortment of English books and a great assortment of BDs in French). I loved the string of used bookstores in NDG, and I used to live at Classics near Crescent. And even Chapters and Indigo do pretty well for big chains. It's too bad they merged -- there used to be quite a difference in what they carried. Now... not so much.

In the States, at least Borders and Barnes & Noble seem to be in no danger of merging, and there are still slight but significant differences between the two. B&N seems a little more mainstream, Border's a little edgier in its selections. And of course, there are good stores and bad stores, good booksellers and bad booksellers.

But the point is that one should always be a good customer. And a good person. And really, most people are. As horrified as I am by the actions of some customers, it's very gratifying to see most of the other customers equally horrified.

We had an angry eighty-year old grandma the other day telling some middle-aged lady to "Get up off the floor so I can see my books. What were you, born in a barn?"

The younger woman was so embarrassed she left the store.

Leaving behind her giant stack of books and magazines, as well as her cellphone and her giant Slurpee.

10:18 AM, July 06, 2009  
Blogger OmenSpirit said...

You know, there's not enough seating in this blog. Oh, and crapochino machine doesn't serve frothly lattes with vanilla. Oh, and the big cookie in the snack department of this blog, is nearly 3 dollars. I miss the little indy blogs that you could just snuggle up to your comp screen and have a fresh cup of nescafe and be entertained by the angst-ridden blogger.

hahahahahahaaah, ah Kevin, flip some of that post around, and we all deal with those people.

11:41 AM, July 06, 2009  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

Oh, definitely.

But there's something about working for a large company that makes a portion of the public feel they have the right to treat you like crap. And far too many people have no sense of personal responsibility, etiquette, or plain common sense -- all they have is a misplaced -- and impatient --sense of entitlement.

In the course of helping to serve the public I've been called an idiot, an asshole, a dickhead, ignorant, a freak and a few other things I'm still trying to figure out. Hey, I'm a human being too.

Oh, and do you want whipped cream on that crappucino, sir?

11:52 AM, July 06, 2009  
Blogger Graham Powell said...

We used to have little independent bookshops in Shreveport, where I grew up. Their selection sucked, now they're gone.

On the other hand, there used to be a mystery bookstore in Dallas with an extensive selection. Not enough people shopped there, so they went out of business.

I personally tend to haunt the used bookstores, just because so many of the books I like are out of print.

12:38 PM, July 06, 2009  
Blogger Guillaume said...

Anybody noticed that so many bookstores are now invaded by cafés?

And Kevin, sometimes the French section of Archambault and renaud=Bray is not worth the detour either.

1:04 PM, July 06, 2009  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

Paragraphe in Montreal was the first bookstore I ever saw with a small cafe, back in the eighties, I guess, and at the time it just seemed very funky.It served small coffee and very light snacks.

Now, the cafes in most bookstores (and everywhere else) are essentially Dairy Queens, squirting out what are essentially sticky sweet coffee-enhanced milk shakes, and heart-clogging lumps of super sweet dough.

But I'm surprised to hear the selection even at the downtown French chains wasn't that hot. They just always looked so impressive to me, especially the mystery sections. But then, except for a few graphic novels, I didn't read much French fiction. It was too much work. I'm envious that you can switch back and forth so easily.

And wasn't there a chain called Betrand's? It might have been before your time, but I seem to recall a store near McGill College -- maybe in Les Terraces? -- that always fascinated me. All those (almost) familiar titles, all those strange covers (the prices, though, just scared me). The famed "serie noir" with some of its decidedly non-noirish titles (Jonathan Kellerman, maybe Mary Higgins Clark?) was particularly fun. A moody, black and white photo can make any book look "noir."

On the other solitude, through the nineties, Montreal was still a great book town for Anglos, partially due to copyright laws which would allow American, British and Canadian editions of books to fight it out simultaneously -- sometimes in the same store. And the Anglo exodus was great for those Anglo bibliophiles who stood their ground. There were always great deals to be had in the used bookstores, as grandma sold off grandpa's books so she could go live with the kids and the grandkids in Mississauga.

4:33 PM, July 06, 2009  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

I am grateful for any bookstore-because I remember when all we had was Walden and Daltons. I try to buy at least a book a month in my local Borders and usually two. I do use amazon but only for out of print books. You raise some good points here-and as the music/dvds disappear from bookstores perhaps the book selection will grow. I'd like to see some of my favorite authors win a permanent spot on the shelves.

4:46 AM, July 07, 2009  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

A related topic is how the internet has pretty much gutted the old used bookstore. With ABEBOOKS and all those other on-line vendors and dealers, plus both Amazon and Barnes & Noble now selling used books online, actual used bookstores are disappearing fast.

The choice, of course, is amazing online, and the prices can't be beat (although the gougers who wouldn't know William Shakespeare from Dr. Suess should just be beaten). But I miss some of those dusty funky stores tucked away in a basement or around a corner, where some old crank could give you a two-sentence opinion of any book in the store, and name five more like it.

When I grow up, I want to be that crank.

9:44 AM, July 07, 2009  
Anonymous Keith Logan said...

Oh Kevin, let me be the first to say that you have grown up to become that crank! Just in slightly different circumstances, that's all. And I write that with much affection.

5:39 AM, July 08, 2009  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

Keith Logan? THE Keith Logan?

Speaking of good people (and crank idols) I've met in bookstores... Keith worked in Montreal finest sci-fi/fantasy/mystery/comic book/voodoo/alternative press bookstore ever, the late-lamented NEBULA.

It was Nebula, in fact, where I first encountered (because I always was in there -- they had a great selection and a great staff) fellow crime fanatics. And how some people who visit bookstores really don't process what they're reading.

Every other time I was in there, it seemed, someone came in looking for cookbooks. Or books in Greek. Or maps. Or a map in Greek of all the places you could buy cookbooks in Montreal...

7:37 AM, July 10, 2009  
Blogger Guillaume said...

kevin, maybe I was harsh on Archambault and Renaud Bray, but it really depend of which shop. Some small franchises are basically glorified newspaper stands. That said, the Renaud Bray which once was Champigny on St-Denis is pretty good, and so are many Archambault shops, once you can get through all the Québécor products. That is what irritates me with Archambault: the "convergence" of products. The two Renaud Bray on Saint-Denis made me discover the Série Noire, which is full of both famous and less famous works. I still have to read François Barcelo, the first (and only?) Quebecker to be published by Gallimard.

But the bouquineries in Montreal are great, especially on the Plateau. The employees there are often very knowledgeable too. And of course I am not sure any big chain can beat Olivieri.

1:54 PM, July 11, 2009  
Anonymous Keith Logan said...


I have CADAVRES on the shelf but have yet to read it. I am worried because my wife read it and found it funny, and we do not frequently find the same things funny. Also, I read an interview with him somewhere and he mentioned that his book was more of a satire of the traditional hard-boiled genre. Satire is not usually my cup of tea, as so often it is done badly and ends up more as a spoof than anything else. There is a film version coming soon as well, so I will want to read the novel first. I'll let you know what I think.

6:31 AM, July 21, 2009  
Anonymous bibliochef said...

Once upon a time. many may years ago, I worked in the very first huge B. Dalton's when it opened in Chicago downtown in the loop. It was several stories high and at the time was an innovation. So, I have some sympathy for you. On the other hand, huge bookstores have exerted heir power in relation to the publishing industry and had some negative effects for independents too. And if I had a third hand, I would say -- some uses of bookstores are worse than those you critique.

One of my faves is Octopus Books in Ottawa in case you go above the 49th again

9:20 PM, July 31, 2009  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

Isn't that on Bank Street?

I used to love doing the Bank Street stroll, starting at Prime Crime and ending way down at the Sparks Street mall.

Mystery book stores, some good used places, a few indies and remainder places, a couple of funky newstands, and even one or two big name places.

It was always worth a bus ticket from Montreal once or twice a year.

8:37 AM, August 01, 2009  
Anonymous Kari said...

Just got around to reading this terrific entry and I had a vivid sensation of déjà vu, to the time I worked in an independent bookstore while I was in graduate school.
Using the expensive coffee table book as a coaster for an ice blended, check.
Turning books by authors you don't like to the wall, check. (Only it was in a very liberal part of L.A. and it was the books by conservatives that got turned to the wall...)
Children's area as a day care center, check. (The child using books she had placed on the floor for a game of hopscotch + the angry glare from mama when I picked them off the floor.)
The customers who are writing down all the ISBN's so they can go order them more cheaply at
The ones who order those Dean Koontz hardbacks to add to their collection... and then never come back in to buy them once you've ordered them.
Right now it's time for the dreaded "suggested summer reading" list. I see you carry 7 paperback versions of "The Canterbury Tales" Why don't you have the edition MY child's teacher has assigned?!

But isn't is all worth it when that kid comes in, the one you thought would never read anything but the next installment of Harry Potter and says: "I really liked that last book you recommended, can you recommend something else?" Good customers, buying customers (of whom the stories don't make for such delicious skewering) outnumber the boors and the slobs on most days.

9:50 PM, August 03, 2009  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

Oh, hell, yes.

Turning a kid onto Raymond Chandler or an older guy onto Tom Russell and Ian Tyson (I used to work music) makes up for all the yahoos and leeches. And to be honest, the ungrateful parasites are few and far between.

But they can sure screw up a great shift.

11:22 PM, August 03, 2009  
Blogger Ali Karim said...

Excellent post - and agree with your sentiments and patience


3:33 AM, August 04, 2009  
Blogger Seth Harwood said...

Wow! What a great post here! Love to see someone finally open up and blog about how they REALLY feel about something.

Good to see the feelings flowing!


11:38 PM, November 06, 2009  

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