The Hardest Thing About My Job

Elizabeth Bluemle - July 24, 2018

If I gave you three guesses about my most difficult aspect of bookselling, you’d might guess that it’s the laughably low pay. Or the ever-increasing competition. Or the disquieting act of cleaning toddler pee off a cushioned ottoman and sterilizing the furniture afterward (*sigh*—yes, it happened). All of those qualify, but the true answer is one you might not suspect: it’s greeting my customers.
I’m a pretty friendly person, especially by New England standards, and I love welcoming people to the bookstore. It’s not the social interaction that’s hard, but something much simpler and more mortifying: calling up names I should know cold. The problem is a fairly significant and deeply pesky facial recognition deficit. It’s not age-related; I’ve always had it. Josie used to look at me like I was crazy when we watched movies and I’d say, “Now who is that guy?” and she’d say, “It’s the guy from the last scene with a hat on.” (To be fair, a lot of movie stars look similar and have the name Ryan or Colin or James, and I’ve never been able to tell one frat guy from another, so that isn’t a completely reliable litmus test for facial recognition. But it was a clue.)
I used to think that I was just distracted, lost in my dreamy writer brain, but it’s not that, or not solely. I’m not sure if this is an inherited tendency, but my sister has it, too, and I think my father struggled with it. This may seem like an unusually personal topic to blog about here in ShelfTalker, but because relationships—with customers, authors, editors, publishers, sales reps, and colleagues—are so vital to indie bookselling, the fact that I have trouble calling up the names of people I do know and should recognize is an issue. People understandably take it personally when you can’t quite place them.
There’s a very well-known author who never remembers me, and I used to take it personally myself. Over the years, though, I’ve heard many author friends complain that she never seems to recall meeting them, and it finally occurred to me that she likely has this same issue. It’s a horrible feeling to know that someone recognizes you and you can’t return the favor. It has nothing to do with how warmly you appreciate them, and everything to do with some glitch in dendrites and receptors. It’s also hard to explain, because it’s not that you’ve forgotten the person—once they’ve (re-)identified themselves, the whole picture comes back into place.
“Facial recognition issue” is actually a slightly inaccurate term. It’s not that I don’t recognize people; I do. I know their faces immediately, I even know how I feel about them; I just can’t fully place them. It’s as though I have names on one side of my brain, and faces on the other, each with their set of memories and associations, and putting the two together hits a snag. This is especially true of customers I don’t see on a regular basis. Someone will walk in the store, and greet me with a big hello, and I am wracking my brain, riffling through the mental Rolodex to find them. Once I’ve got the name to go with the face, it’s an instant click and I’m back online with the full context of their identity.
In the early days of the store, back when I was a mere lass in my early 30s, Josie and I had all kinds of strategies to deal with this issue. I’d call her over to the register and say, “Hey, my screen is frozen,” and she’d pop over, type the customer’s name into whatever program was in front of us, and say, “I think that fixed it.” Whew! Or I’d just look at her with slightly widened eyes for a second, and she knew I needed a lasso. It’s a very very strange issue to have, one of those conditions that people who don’t have it tend to judge.
As a result, the busy summer tourist season at the bookstore is one I adore and dread in almost equal measure. I know favorite families we see only once or twice a year will walk through the door, and I will be so happy to see them—and I’ll be praying that someone in the room mentions their name so that I can corral all the proper associations that go with it.
So friends, if I (or another colleague) have ever greeted you oddly vaguely, you now have an inside track on why that might be. It’s not you—you are lovely and memorable and funny and smart—and in fact, having been on both sides of that experience, it secretly feels 10 times worse to not quite recognize someone than it does to not be recognized. People who struggle with this want the Lego pieces of association to click back in place, so if you can throw out a clue, we will be eternally grateful. “Hi, Elizabeth,” you might say, “It’s Allie from the bakery.” You will see the mists of confusion swept aside by the beautiful clarity of continuity and recollection, and it will be a marvelous thing for both of us. “Yes, of course!” I’ll say, beaming. “That pizza bagel bomb you gave my nephew was a huge hit! And I just read a book I think your daughter would love.” And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.
When I was young, I used to think that my eyesight would be cured when I reached middle age, the nearsightedness reversing itself as far-sightedness encroached, until I had perfect 20/20 vision. (No one told me that instead, bifocals.) Now I like to entertain the illusion that, because I started out with difficulty remembering people properly, as I get older, my perception will grow sharper and sharper until I can distinguish every frat boy in a Van Wilder movie.
Except that then I’ll have to watch one.

10 thoughts on “The Hardest Thing About My Job

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle Post author

      I’m so sorry to hear about your sister’s accident. I don’t have such a good excuse for my lapses, but it’s another good reminder that we never know what’s going on with people, and the benefit of the doubt is never an unkind choice!

  1. Linda Sue Park

    Terrific post (which immediately brought to mind the brilliant book BONE GAP by Laura Ruby). I’m glad to know this, Elizabeth, and though our paths cross too seldom, I’ll try to remember it. Thank you! xox, Linda Sue

  2. Pamela LaBarbiera

    My late husband was great with faces, terrible with names. Some people just can’t remember names.

  3. David

    Oh, thank you so much for this post, Elizabeth! I have struggled with similar issues my whole life. I often fear I’m developing Alzheimer’s, but then I remember that even when I was back in elementary school, at times I struggled matching names to the faces of kids who had been in my class all year. As someone who visits many schools every year, I always feel terrible when I meet a teacher at some event and can’t recall his/her name. As you said, once that connection is made, everything falls into place. I hate making people feel bad because they think I don’t care about them (which is not the case) and it’s not a matter of just trying harder to remember names. It helps knowing that others struggle with this as well!

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle Post author

      David, we are pals in this (and likely other ways, too)! I will say that meeting so many people in so many contexts does add to the challenge. But some authors have steel-trap memories for names and faces that puts us to shame. I’ll never forget Laurie Halse Anderson encountering a kid she’d met once at a school visit in our town, and upon seeing her three years later, not only remembering her, but asking a follow-up question about something she and the child had talked about. Now that’s a memory! Holy cow.


Leave a Reply

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