“Is She in a Coma, or Is She Dead?”

Elizabeth Bluemle -- June 22nd, 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!

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