This Is Only a Test

Leslie Hawkins -- December 4th, 2017

In her recent post Tinsel and Lists, my fellow ShelfTalker Cynthia mentioned the customers who have to make sure you stock [insert classic book title here] before deeming your bookstore worthy. We’ve all had those customers, as well as the oft-chuckled-about customers who test our knowledge base (albeit in a less haughty way) when they ask us for that book with the blue cover that used to be in the window and might have the word “the” in the title. In my experience, there are myriad ways we are tested every day.

Bad Kitty Takes the Test by Nick Bruel (Macmillan, January)

Bad Kitty Takes the Test by Nick Bruel (Roaring Brook/Porter)

Anyone who works with the public will have their patience tested daily, and children’s booksellers are no exception. Although I do count myself extremely lucky in this regard, especially after having worked in much less idyllic retail environments. It’s extremely rare that I have to deal with a real sourpuss. (Not counting the occasional toddler tantrum, of course.) I think there’s just something about the atmosphere in a store like ours, a children’s only specialty bookstore, that tends to put people in a good mood, and that makes life much easier for the staff. However, my patience and acting skills are often tested when I have to act like it’s the first time I’ve heard, “Oh! This is just like that movie….” You know the one.

Something that tests both my knowledge and my patience is that pseudo-customer (you’ve had one or two, I’m sure) who likes to come in and ask about several titles, usually somewhat obscure, but never actually wants to follow through on buying them. Not the ones who get recommendations to go home and buy from the Big A, but the ones who just want to know how much we know. It’s almost as if they’re playing Stump the Bookseller for sport.

After more than a decade as a bookstore owner, I still get tested on my resume with some frequency. “You were a teacher?” No. “A librarian?” No. “You’re a writer?” No. Sometimes it’s genuine interest, perhaps in pursuing the bookstore dream for themselves, and sometimes it’s just small talk, but I always feel that I come up short with my answer to the inevitable “What made you open a bookstore?” One day when I’m luxuriating in all kinds of spare time I need to compose a more satisfyingly pithy answer to that question.

Sometimes the test is more subtle. I might find myself having to switch gears from approachable to uber approachable—like, getting a butterfly to land on your hand approachable. I’m often privy to exchanges between parent and child in which the parent is encouraging the child to come up to the counter and ask me something. Maybe the child is shy as a general rule, or just in interactions of this sort, and they seem to be working on a certain set of social skills. For whatever reason the parent is having to coax / coach the child to walk up to me and ask the question. And I have to act like I haven’t heard the whole thing, to avoid embarrassing the child. I smile and make eye contact, but not too much or said child will feel pressured, get skittish, and fly away.

And then there are the oddball tests of my interpretive skills. Yesterday a little boy asked (not at all shyly) if I had “balance trays.” I have to admit, I had no clue what he was talking about. After emphatically repeating the request a few times, frustrated at my inability to understand him, he held his hands out, moving one up and one down, and I finally got it.

Unfortunately, we don’t sell scales at the bookstore, but the boy and I both got great satisfaction from my decoding of his request, so I’ll call that a passing grade for now.

“Balance trays”

2 thoughts on “This Is Only a Test

  1. Peter Glassman

    I was a bit surprised to read that Leslie goes through this so much. I tend to think of New Yorkers as being very much the “check them out” sort of folk, but it doesn’t seem to happen much to me. Perhaps it’s just at my age (57) I look old enough that people assume I know my stuff — or that having been in business for over 37 years, they figure I must have seen everything (hardly!)

    Not that I’m not challenged on a regular basis! People are regularly asking the most obscure questions. Two of my favorites are from many years ago. Back in the 1980s, a woman came up to my late partner, James Carey, and asked if we had that book about the “magic rabbit.” Like a magician pulling said rabbit from his hat, James replied, “Do you mean “Masquerade” by Kit Williams?” Which was indeed what she was looking for. My moment came when a customer came up to me and asked if we had that book about all the trolls. Don’t ask me how I did this, but it just came to me that he was looking for “Where the Wild Things Are” — and he was! It’s those sort of moments that makes one wonder about telepathy.

    On the other hand, whatever telepathic powers I might have certainly failed me starting in the mid 1980s, when every so often someone would ask me if I could identify this book in which a witch turned adults into flower pots. The first time, it instantly brought me back to a teacher reading us that very book in 2nd or 3rd grade — but for the life of me, I couldn’t recall the title. Over the next few years, it went from evoking a lovely memory to being a slow torture as I was repeatedly asked by various customers to identify this same story. I just couldn’t recall the title! All my attempts at research came up dry. Then one day, while walking past a stack of just received special orders, there it was sitting on the top! Two gold stars to those of you who already identified it as “Little Witch” by Anna Elizabeth Bennett. What a relief it was to solve that mystery!

    But I am ever thankful that customers remember their childhood books so lovingly that they are forever asking us to help them find them! It’s a source of reassurance to me in a very unsure world.

    1. Leslie Hawkins

      One of my most frequent tests, and maybe my favorite because it’s so easy, is for the book loved in childhood that was “about a little house and everything grew up around it.” Well, the title is right there in the line that everyone says while describing the book: THE LITTLE HOUSE by Virginia Lee Burton. Without exception, though, people are surprised, delighted, and impressed when I know what book they mean and hand them a copy. (It’s also a childhood favorite of mine, which makes it extra sweet to satisfy that request.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *