One of the joys of being a bookseller is deciphering what exactly customers are looking for when they can’t tell you exactly what they’re looking for. I (Ben) am not talking about customers who want recommendations for, say, a historical romance they can escape into or the next Scandanavian thriller writer to tackle after Stieg Larsson (Henning Mankell). Nor am I talking about customers who ask for the best guide to Windows 7 or a nice coffee table book on small towns in Italy. I’m talking about customers who know exactly what they want but have bad information. Like the woman who asked me yesterday, “I’m looking for that book everyone’s reading, something like Riding on Slippery Pavement.”
So far as butchering book titles go, this one may have topped them all. I’ve encountered numerous slightly incorrect queries that are nonetheless still easy to figure out. “I want that book, The Accident with the Dog at Midnight” is, given the book’s actual (confusing) title, rather elementary to sleuth out — especially the fourth or fifth time you hear it mangled. Other creative interpretations, like The Vatican Code, Really Loud and Even Closer (or, “That book with the hand on it”), The Purpose of the Driving Life and The Guernsey Pie Eating Society are simple fixes. These customers are like lost drivers who pull over for directions and just need a gentle course correction.
(The Glass Castle is, for whatever reason, perhaps the most frequently abused book. What is it about this title that is so mind-boggling? Maybe because it’s relatively straightforward? I’ve heard The Ice House, The Glass Building, Brass Castle, Brick House and — inexplicably — The Ice Pyramid. I also once took a woman who asked for The Castle to Franz Kafka. “Is this about a woman who lives in New York and has homeless parents?” she asked. “Um, no,” I said. Then, recalling my teenage difficulties with Kafka, “At least I don’t think so.”)
Occasionally you get a customer so flummoxed by his inability to remember the title of a book that he takes you to task for your inability to read his own mind. “You really haven’t heard of this book?” he asks, indignation rising. “It was just on the radio last week. I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s asked for it!” Or, “It’s a book with a picture of a girl in pigtails on the front. Can’t you just search for book covers with girls who have pigtails?” Or, “You don’t know of any books about an immigrant family whose son wants to become a boxer but the sister has polio? None??” These requests, needless to say, are almost impossible to fulfill, and leave both parties deeply frustrated.
The customer who wanted Riding on Slippery Pavement was in a league all her own. She knew that wasn’t the exact title but kept saying, “You know which one I mean!” She was cheerful and a bit comical, waving her hands as if emphatic movements would jostle my memory. When we finally figured out which book she wanted (thankfully we had it in stock), I had to scribble down her request on paper so I wouldn’t forget it. Riding on Slippery Pavement? Really? And yet, helping a confused customer find what she wants (or what she thinks she wants) is one of the most satisfying feelings I get in my line of work. You feel as though you have solved a riddle, and fixed someone’s problem to boot.
(For a clue on what book the woman actually wanted: Dogs.)