Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Theories of the (Book) Universe

Last year I noticed that the car parked next to me in my parking garage kept changing. One day it would be an old Jetta, and suddenly for a couple of weeks it would be a new white Escalade, then revert back to the Jetta for a short run, and then to a new Black Escalade. Because we had assigned spots I was incredibly confused. It wasn’t like we could sublet our apartments, and there was no regularity to the car changes (from old to new and back again), but this whole vehicle revolving was really screwing with my head (mostly because I never memorized my space number, just who I was parked by. What can I say? I’m visual). I expressed my confusion to a friend one night, and this is what he told me, “Well, the way I see it; there are two possible explanations for this.”

“Please explain.”

“Well, the first is that you are parking next to a drug dealer who switches cars based on his cash flow. One day he’s flush with money and gets the Escalade, purely on a leasing basis, and the next he’s back to his old Jetta because some college kids aren’t paying up. Or maybe he just switches to the Jetta when he needs to do some dirty work.”

“Umm, okay.”

“Or possibly, and I really think that his is the more probable and logical explanation, the space next to you is haunted, and the only way to express this haunting is to make it appear that there are different cars sitting in the spot when in reality there has never been a car!”

“So you don’t see the Escalade right next to us?”

“Of course I do. The ghost is obviously trying to get my attention too.”

“I see.”

This story (which is greatly exaggerated from the actual conversation that I can’t remember verbatim—although that is the basic gist of it) is meant to illustrate a point. We’ve all heard it said that our ancestors created myths and legends to explain events or naturally occurring phenomena. The volcano gods were angry, that’s why the mountain blew. The harvest was bad because the Goddess was not appeased. The world was flat and that was why no one ever got past Asia (so don’t go tipping off the edge there, buddy). Eventually someone would come along with a new theory, and if they weren’t burned/poisoned/killed in some horrible fashion as a heretic (or even if they were) this new theory presided. We are compelled as humans to explain behavior and phenomena in any way we can if only to rest our minds, and if we can’t get scientific proof to back us up, well a story will do just as well.

No where is this more evident than in the bookstore.

At the bookstore we ponder the great universal book questions and create our own myths:

Why do they send us boxes filled to the brim with packing peanuts, cradling one horrible damaged book within the electrostatic depths?

(The guys at the warehouse are on crack, of course.)

How do the boxes get forklift holes ripped through them, and why are said boxes always packed in the center of the pallet, surrounded by completely undamaged boxes?

(See the crack answer from above with the addendum explanation of the rumored existence of forklift hockey/soccer.)

What is this mysterious blue book of which the customer speaks and where did they see it? Additionally, is there one blue book that could meet everyone’s criteria?

But no question is more pondered than this:

Who the hell is writing those Penthouse letters? No really, who? Because I gotta tell you that I’m seriously in doubt of the existence of some Bible belt cheerleader who found herself in a football sandwich on the fifty yard line and then felt the need to tell the world about her sexual awakening.

How do I know about Penthouse and its letters? Well, that’s easy. Once upon a time I had a coworker who—when the store was empty late at night and we were shelving—would have “story hour.” Story hour was never very long, thirty seconds or less really, and only happened when he was shelving relationships. There he would glance around to make sure there were no customers, crack up a Penthouse letters anthology randomly, and in his best British academic voice read whatever passage he first looked upon.

At was he (not I because was usually too busy reminding him that this was really not appropriate and trying to laugh and therefore encourage the behavior) that came up with the theory I’m about to explain.

Penthouse Letters, he believed, were all written by one woman who worked deep within the bowls of whatever building Penthouse is housed in. She was in her late sixties, a lifelong smoker, and had a special fondness for a man named Jack…Daniels. Every morning she would arrive to her desk late, take a sip from her Jack laden coffee, inhale a long drag off her cigarette (which she would then let hang between her bright red lipstick painted lips until the ash fell free onto her desk), and proceed to type letter after letter on a manual type writer.

“Dear Penthouse,” a manual slide across, ding, exhale smoke through nose, “I’m a Cheerleader from Austin…”

He couldn’t say whether she mumbled this around her cigarette as she hen-pecked each letter, but he did do a damn good impersonation of one of Marge Simpson’s sisters every time he told his story.

He’s long gone from the book business now, trying to find himself and write a screen play worthy of Tarrentino, but I think of him every time I have to shelve Penthouse (the magazine or the anthologies), and I think of his myth of the Penthouse lady.

It’s a hell of a lot more imaginative than my theory on the crack-headed warehouse workers.

So what about y’all? Any myths of the bookstore that you want explained or have explained through some crazy story? Booksellers do you have your own stories like these? How about for other jobs?

Let’s hear them.


Megan Frampton said...

I don't have any burning bookstore questions (or any questions about burning a bookstore, either), but my husband's friend works at Playboy, and she's written a few of the advice letters to their answer guy.

And he had another friend who wrote letters for Forum, I think, or something way sleazier.

Which does beg the question 'what kind of guy is my husband?'

Thanks for the fun post. I always like reading your blog.

Anonymous said...

Stop it! You keep bringing back all the good memories of working in a bookstore. We too pondered the big "meaning of life in a bookstore" questions. Our book was "the green one with a white tree on the cover" but I understand your pain and the desire to finally locate said book.

Story time sounds awfully familiar - we had it in the back room after closing only our guy read in a Indian voice (think 'the guy from India who works at a 7-11 store' kind of accent). We had porn stories, kid's books ('The mole who went in search of whodunnit' was a favorite), and more. We also gave each other neck and shoulder massages in the back room and on those holidays that we had to work late - we brought in the little airplane bottles of alcohol and mixed them with drinks from the cafe. That certainly made reshelving loose books loads of fun.

*sigh* Good times, good good times.


Ms. Librarian said...

Those books of a certain color are not confined to the bookstore - did you know we have mysterious red books in the library?

I had a patron come in and ask for the red book on medicine, but he couldn't remember the title. Turns out he was looking for the Merck Index and it was gray.

I've always wanted to work in a bookstore (like at Christmas, just for the fun of it), but I've always suspected that it didn't just involve walking around the store recommending books to customers. Do you recommend the experience, or will I be terribly disillusioned?

lady t said...

I always believed that some of the best fiction writers in America worked for the tabloids-remember the days when the National Enquirer had such fun items as "test your pet to see if he's a space alien"?

The closest we ever had to Story Time at my bookstore was an inpromptu reading of poetry done by me for the amusement of my co-workers. The poetry came from a book written by a local author who was incredibly pretenious and twee(big name dropper as well)that I had to see what his work was like.

For weeks afterwards,the easier way to get a grin from one of my fellow booksellers was to say"O immigrant sparrow!" Ye gods and little fishes:)

Nicole said...

lol Ms. Librarian, but maybe he wanted the Mosby's Nursing Drug Reference book. That's got a red cover. :-)

Ms. Librarian said...

Hi, Nicole - Well, I narrowed it down to Merck cause it was the only medical book on Ready Reference, which is where he said he'd seen it!

Also relating to the color-theory of books, I had a couple of profs in library school (reference profs not cataloging profs) who insisted that books should be put on the shelves by size and color, 'cause that's how people remembered them.

Bonnie said...

Ms. Librarian, I agree with the prof in library school. And incidentally if anybody can help me locate the thin black hardbound book that may or may not have had a male fae on the front cover and cost $16.95 or $17.95, formerly in the YA section of Borders, I would be forever grateful, 'cause I can't find it. It was last seen a month ago.

Lisa Hunter said...

I once worked on a magazine with a man who'd written Penthouse letters (and other selected porn) when he was starting out. Now he's very distinguished.

Who knows? The author of the cheerleader naughtiness you cite may someday win the Booker Prize.

christine fletcher said...

I'm late coming in on this one -- but what I've always wanted to know is, why is it when I'm at home I have a clear, crisp mental list of books to buy, and the instant I step into a bookstore, I can't remember a single title? Which means that I browse for an hour (one of life's delights, no complaints there), buy three or four books that I know aren't on the list, which I still can't remember, but which -- the moment I'm home -- I recall with perfect clarity. Which means another trip to the bookstore, which infinitum.

Is it something you booksellers spray in the air?