books, retail

Riding on Slippery Pavement

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.)


19 thoughts on “Riding on Slippery Pavement

  1. I know what it is. But I didn’t get there until you gave the dog clue.

    (I’m not sharing the title so as not to ruin the game for others.)

    My story about that book involves the week I spent in Richmond with the family whose mother and youngest daughter die in a car wreck. I spent most of my waking hours in the hospital with them, but wanted a book with me for the few times I was on my own and needed a change of pace. (Meaning: I’m 12 hours from home, I’m with a family enduring unspeakable tragedy, I’m essentially living in the ICU unit with them, and because I came directly from a work site with a youth group mission team, I’ve been wearing the same paint-covered t-shirt and shorts for the whole week.)

    A friend loaned me that book to read.

    I read the first page, slammed it shut, and said, “Books about dogs always end with dead dogs, and I will not read this right now!”

    This is somehow coming across as a horrible and depressing story. Sorry about that.

    But I’m curious: was she able to give you the dog clue, or did you figure it out with only that very incorrect title to work with?

    Either way, well done.

    1. I knew you’d be all over this one, McDevitt. And you were wise to stop reading as early as you did. There’s nothing worse than dead dog books.

      The author of said book passed through Cincinnati prior to its release. His publisher was sending him around the country to do some early publicity and meet with booksellers. A group of us had lunch and afterwards he asked if any of us wanted our advance readers copies signed. I had not read the book, and I felt terrible about lying and saying I had. So I told a different lie: That while I had not read it yet, my wife had and she absolutely loved it. Could he make it out to her?

      I do this every time I’m in this scenario. We have a whole shelf of the most random titles, all personalized to Erin.

      Every time we do a book purge, Erin pulls one or more of her titles and says, “Why are we holding on to this?” I say, “Because it’s made out to you.” She sighs and puts it back on the shelf.

      And to answer your question, I didn’t get it until she finally said, “It’s all from a dog’s perspective, like the dog wrote it.” Otherwise I would’ve never figured it out.

      1. I read it a couple of months after my initial review of page one. As with every dead dog book ever written, it made me cry.

        I once had someone ask me to help them find a story in the Bible. “The one where God has always been with us.”

        I suggested a rather long list of options before figuring out that they were talking about the Footprints poem.

          1. I recently heard the Dark Night of the Senses described as “you can’t see God because God has drawn so close” and was gobsmacked to realize this pretty much the same concept as “It was then that I carried you.”

            Footprints echoes Juan de la Cruz. I did not see that one coming. I may need to be less snobbish henceforward.

            (As for the dog book, I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t even recognize the correct title. Alas!)

  2. 1.) Let me say, unironically, this is a great little post. The verbs and the nouns are dancing.

    2.) One of my favorite aspects of Voreblog is the tacit agreement for the person speaking in the first person to identify themselves (parenthetically) given the fact that Scooter posts are usually called out in the title, and Sam probably has another 6 to 7 months before he starts posting. So I will readily admit to being really confused with the ‘Spilled Milk’ post (not a lot of domesiticity happening at Chez Hoobler) and it took me a good hot minute to figure out Ben had a.) neither taken a number of weeks off work, b.) nor was upset that Sam would prefer the bottle to his breast.

    1. I (Ben) appreciate your comment. Erin really wanted to write this year’s Utah Jazz preview, which we feel would be confusing to our readership, given that she has not previously been vocal (or even expressed the remotest interest) in this space about her beloved Salt Lake City ballers, unless we continue to identify our first person selves parenthetically. We did, however, forget to do so in last week’s “Spilled Milk.” We apologize for your good hot minute of confusion.

      1. Not gonna lie. Would probably prefer Erin’s posts on the Jazz to yours. I am imagining an alternate world with Andrew Bird as a point guard. Huh, I wonder if he is related to Larry Bird…

  3. I saw more than a couple of these in my day.

    One of my more memorable ones was the lady who asked for an autobiography of China. I was on at least year #8 of bookselling and decided to turn on my seldom used, but remarkably effective you-must-be-a-moron-for-asking-this attitiude (yes, the classic Mike Allen sigh was present) and informed her that a country can have not an autobiography or a biography (how many times did a customer ignore that distinction?) and began to lead her to the history section.

    It turns out that there was(is?) a female wrestler named Chyna.

    She was buying a wrestler’s autobiography. That should count for something (against her), right?

    Is the book Art of Racing in the Rain? I didn’t need the dog clue, as I haven’t read it. I do think there’s a dog on the cover, right?

    1. Mike-whoever-you-are,

      You are an elitist bigot. Everyone in the heartland knows who I am. Were you born on the East coast? With a silver spoon up your ass? I bet you were.

      If I ever meet you, I’ll pile drive your ass to Kansas.


      1. Mike, you would’ve guessed The Art of Racing in the Rain without the dog clue? Good night nurse. No one could touch you in your bookselling prime.

  4. I experience the same thing most days…but in plants. I knew I had finally arrived in the plant selling world when I was able to identify plants by really terrible descriptions. (you know-that one with leaves, I think it flowers and it is somewhere between ankle and shoulder height??)

    I’m sure your book talents are more impressive than my plant talents 🙂

    1. I will be the first to confess that I would be a complete idiot buying plants. “That one with leaves” is probably all I could give you. Maybe color too. But that’s it.

      This is why Erin buys the plants.

  5. There’s so much here!

    I’ll admit I thought the whole milk post was from Ben. Still not apparent even after a re-reading. Weird.

    You know from doing it, that you just develop an almost sixth-sense about getting them when the customer hacks the name. The one that I remember getting mauled the most was Water for Elephants. I think it fits your Glass Castle formula nicely (hugely popular, relatively simple title).

    Also, “Being tough on prawns” was a common mis-request.

    A customer also once asked for “That stupid dog book that your stupid buyer overbought”.

    That was a tough one to narrow down.

    1. Yes, pretty much just like that. But I will acknowledge Ben is in much better shape.

      When will Voreblog develop the technology so that you can ‘like’ a comment on a post? This technology is available, I have seen it and used it on other sites.

      1. Said technology appears to remain beyond the capabilities of Voreblog. But our crack IT team (three guesses as to who this is) is working night and day to find a solution. And by “night and day” we of course mean “in between naps and Proust.”

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