“Is She in a Coma, or Is She Dead?”

Elizabeth Bluemle - June 22, 2012

If you’ve ever worked in a bookstore — or, for that matter, shopped in one — you’ll know that booksellers do a fair amount of detective work. Every day, we track down books people have heard about on the radio or from friends, cobble together titles from fragments of customer memory, and plumb our own reading experiences to make matches with the keywords our patrons conjure.
The title someone is certain is Jesus’ Feet turns out to be Bruce Feller’s Walking the Bible.
The “book about dogs who can hear people’s thoughts” is slightly inaccurate, but gives us more than enough to lead immediately to Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go.
The Bill Bryson book about space that a customer read about in the Wall Street Journal  is actually Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars, which the customer in fact heard about on NPR.
“Not The Magicians, but that other book that came out around the same time that was also really really good” happens to be Justin Cronin’s The Passage.
I’m not exactly sure how we nail some of these, but those lightning bolt “Eureka!” moments happen all the time. Doing this for almost 16 years has given us a pretty strong foothold in what’s published out there, but we’re also convinced that sometimes titles just pop into the atmosphere like helpful ectoplasm, waiting to be plucked from the air. (Heck, it’s an old building; there are probably ghosts.)
Even fairly straightforward detective work brings outsized joy to a searching reader. Yesterday, Flying Pig staffer Kelly was helping a young teen in the YA section. Josie was in the office, and overheard this snippet of their conversation:
Kelly: “Can you tell me about the book you’re looking for?”
Girl: “It’s this book, and I think she’s dead in it, but she’s not sure….”
Josie, popping out from the back room: “Oh! Oh! Is she in a coma, or is she dead?”
Girl: “I’m not sure. My friend read it. I think she’s dead….”
Josie: “Is she trying to decide whether or not to die or stay alive?”
Girl: “Oh, yeah, maybe!”
Josie whips If I Stay by Gayle Forman off the shelf. “Is this it?”
Girl: (eyes alight) “YES!”
It’s delightful to make people happy with these (what seem to be) small miracles of identification, and I think it reinforces the benefits and serendipity of coming into a bookstore staffed by human beings. Until online stores add a super-sleuth algorithm to their search engines, we bricks-and-mortar types can add “Book Detective” to the long list of quirky hats we get to wear every day.
Readers, if you have any funny, improbable, or miraculous book identification anecdotes, please feel free to share!

33 thoughts on ““Is She in a Coma, or Is She Dead?”

  1. Josie Leavitt

    My all-time favorite was from someone who actually said, “It’s a two word title and the first word is The.” The customer just looked at us as if that was enough to go on. We pulled more info from her and found the book she wanted: My Sister’s Keeper.

  2. Nancy Bryan

    Publishers get these kinds of questions, too. My favorite is when someone is trying to find one of our backlist books, and they can’t remember the title, author, or even the subject of the book–but they’re sure we published it and the cover is green! Surprisingly, we can often identify those books, even when the cover is actually blue.

  3. yamster

    Had to admit failure when a customer requested “that book with the girl in the white dress on a blue background.” Pulled a bunch of titles, but none was the right one, alas.

  4. Judy

    A woman asked for a best seller of a few years ago.
    Do you have “Rocks in the Road?” I handed her Ursula Hegi’s “Stones from the River.”

  5. Rebecca

    A Christmastime customer wanted the coffee table book about black Labradors. What had she heard about it? Nothing. Had she ever seen it? No. But she was convinced there had to be such a thing, and she desperately wanted it for a friend. I looked and looked; there really was no such book. This was a pre-digital dilemma; today she could have published one herself!

  6. booksmatter

    This is engagingly funny and spot on! Everyone who cares about the survival of brick-and-mortar stores and the value of our nation’s booksellers–please pass this on! Thanks.

  7. Kathy

    “That purple book.” The Persian Pickle Club
    “That series by two guys.” The Left Behind Series
    “Final Destination” Without Reservations
    “Freddy the Rabbit Slept Late” Friday the Rabbi Slept Late
    “The Horse With Fur” The Horse Whisperer
    “You know, those one books” (from a high school student looking for a book for his next period class) Cliff’s Notes
    Then there was the customer who didn’t care what the book was as long as it was mauve. She was decorating her living room.

    1. Kitti

      I saw antique books in a show house once, picked them up and started reading. The realtor was stunned; he didn’t realize they were real books. They had people’s names written in the covers, pages bent, et cetera.

  8. Vicki

    I worked at the University bookstore in college. Beginning of the quarter was stressful in the textbook area, as everyone was rushing to get the used copies first, and trying to remember the name of the book/class/etc. My favorite was a student who came in and said, “I’m looking for a book. It’s a hardcover and is red.” Couldn’t tell us the class name, just that it was for a class in the Biology dept. (Sciences were a main focus of study, so that was no help.) Come to find out it was for a class that was offered 2 quarters before, with a visiting professor, and wasn’t even available anymore!

  9. Kitti

    I was not able to help the woman looking for “That cookbook with the red cover, you know!” This occurred before Google or Amazon existed.

      1. Christie

        Hmm, maybe it was the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook with the red-checked cover. Nah, too easy and undoubtedly the wrong ‘red.’

  10. Sharon

    Working in the children’s room of a public library means that I get these sorts of questions every day. My favorite of the week: ” It’s a baseball book about a guy.” Well, we are in Red Sox Nation, so that narrowed it down a bit. Turns out she was looking for Legend of the Curse of the Bambino by Dan Shaughnessy.

  11. Carol Chittenden

    Can’t remember a single one — but must salute the collective wisdom and generosity of the ABC and NECBA listserv correspondents. They are the FBI of retailing: Fabulous Book Investigators.

  12. Robin

    Customer:”My son needs a book for school. It’s called Boll weevil.”
    Me: “might that be Beowulf?”
    Him: “yes, that’s the one!”!

  13. Jazz

    “The book that was on Oprah today. I don’t know what it’s called, who it’s by, or what it’s about, but I know I want it. Something about ‘my neck’.” I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron (She came in 15 minutes after Oprah aired.)
    “I’m looking for a book for my grandson. He needs it for school. It’s called Boy and His Dog. Or Boy and His Wolf. Boy Wolf, yes, it’s called Boy Wolf.” Beowulf

  14. mary marg swift

    Our local librarian recently got these two: “the book with the cover of a little Indian girl on a pole”…turns out to be “A Fine Balance” and a request for “Falling Forward”. Librarian came up with two options: “Failing Forward” or “Falling Backwards”!

  15. Mary

    My favorite ever was from years ago, when I worked at a chain store. Customer saw the book on Oprah a few weeks previously and couldn’t remember anything except, “it was written by a woman. Or maybe it was a man?”.
    Needless to say, I was unsuccessful in helping her.

  16. CarolK

    Loved this post. We get these all the time and are amazed at how many we can answer. Now I wish I had recorded all…Might be fun to keep a list and keep this topic going.

  17. Jess

    I once had a request for “Harry Potter and the Bloody Footprints” (Half-Blood Prince) – at least that one was easy. I also had some doozies for The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society when it was newer – if the request included the words “society” and any kind of baked goods, I knew what they wanted.

  18. Caroline

    Back in the days of microfiche, I helped a grandmother looking for “Solomon Dastra” for her grandson. Eventually we figured it out: Salamandastron, by Brian Jacques.
    On the other hand, the person looking for a dessert cookbook with a purple cover went away empty-handed. Can’t win them all!

  19. Josie Leavitt

    We had a kid last week ask for Diary of Whipping Kid. He wanted Diary of Wimpy Kid, we had a great laugh about that at the end of the day.

  20. Mez

    Customer came up to the counter, leaned over and very quietly whispered…Do you have “The Whore With The Amber Eyes”…???? Very quickly realised she was after the “Hare With the Amber Eyes”

  21. Sofiya

    That is so true. In the past as a bookseller I’ve even found the right title with someone just describing the color of the cover.
    One man described the book he wanted had something to do with a woman naked which we later figured out was “the bride stripped bare.”

    1. Christine

      I ran into the same question many times as a bookseller. One time a woman asked, “What was the name of the red book that was on that table last month?” She pointed to a display table that we changed out weekly. Yet somehow I know. I used to say a bookseller was like a game show contestant…always playing for the prize of a satisfied customer!

  22. Sharon

    It didn’t take a genius to figure out what she was after, but I’ll never forget the day an older woman came in looking for “Admiral Underwear”. 🙂

  23. Sarah M

    ah…one of my favorite moments was a few years back. I got a request for some garbled multi-syllable title and replied ‘Do you mean Shantaram? ‘ The customer was thrilled and the newbie bookseller I was training looked suitably impressed…

  24. Kym Lindsey

    Teenaged customer: I need a book about for class. Something about hands (puts hand up in the air and vaguely waves it around)
    Us: Farewell to Arms?
    TC: That’s it!!!

  25. Anais St.

    I’m not a bookseller, just a student/customer who loves to read Publisher’s Weekly. I remember going into a Borders store once for a book that I read as a kid. I couldn’t remember the name of the book but I approached the bookseller asking, “Do you have that book with the kid and the lion looking thing and it has letters at the beginning?” Very, very vague description but somehow he guessed that I was searching for The Neverending Story. I was so excited! Booksellers are saviors.

  26. Annie

    I’ll never forget the angry library customer who couldn’t find a catalog entry for the “classic” Little Richard’s Almanac.


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