Inside the Whale
by Alex Boyd


Illustration: Craig Small

“Heaven!” the man announces to me, blissfully gazing around at the books, piled row on row to form a kind of ladder to the sky. He’s certain that to work in a bookstore, surrounded by books, is as dreamy as sitting on your own personal cloud. Well, yes and no. Having spent three years in my twenties working as a bookseller in Toronto’s first large-format (as they were then called) bookstore, I can safely say that the heaven of bookselling has its share of little demons.

In an amusing, perceptive and slightly sad 1936 essay called “Bookshop Memories,” George Orwell complains about the customer who “doesn’t remember the title or author’s name or what the book was about but she does remember that it had a red cover.” The fact that I can relate to this so many decades later is amusing but also a little worrying. Orwell was struck by “the rarity of really bookish people,” explaining “our shop had an exceptionally interesting stock, yet I doubt whether ten percent of our customers knew a good book from a bad one.” True, it’s difficult to help those people who’ve “read everything by Tom Clancy” and want another author “just like him.” It strikes me as admitting that you want to read the same book repeatedly. I tried to get customers like this to take a step up, and once convinced a teenager to skip from John Grisham to Arthur Conan Doyle. But I was often frustrated to be directing people to Danielle Steele when I knew they could be setting their sights higher. Orwell mentions that authors like Hemingway were not the big sellers, but that many went home with “Ethel M. Dell.” I’ve never heard of Dell, which suggests there’s always an author as popular as they are transient. It’s difficult to recommend something when an author’s books are all the same to you. Orwell is right to point out that sometimes “a bookseller has to tell lies about books.”

I found that people appeared to have an aversion to short stories. Orwell found this as well, blaming it on a lazy desire to spend energy on one concept only, to luxuriate in it for a while. I didn’t make a habit of asking for their reasons, but people told me simply that they didn’t “read short stories,” that they wanted something they could “sink their teeth into.” This helped explain the general lack of interest in poetry as well. The shorter the format, the more the perception of work involved, though of course it’s worth the work: I’ve finished some outstanding short stories feeling like I just finished a good novel.

Orwell, similarly, noted that Dickens was one of those authors whom people were always meaning to read, and that, “like the Bible, he is widely known at second hand.” One of the saddest experiences I had as a bookseller was with a woman who wanted Great Expectations—not the book by Dickens but rather the novel based on the screenplay for a new film. We sold five Dickenses a month before the release of that film, and sixty a month for a while afterwards, meaning not everyone went for the novel based on the screenplay, though it’s unfortunate that it takes a film to galvanize interest in such an enjoyable, readable novel.

Linguists should spend time in bookstores, not for the books but for customers’ speech patterns. Many customers avoid complete sentences like the plague, little realizing that any time saved is often lost in the confusion that follows. I had people walk up and say, “Schlink,” from which I understood, barely, that they wanted The Reader, by Bernard Schlink. Successful communication of a particular wish was often dependent on the experience of the bookseller. It was tempting to pretend the whole thing was a word association game and blurt out a nonsensical reply. I once saw a businessman approach a fellow employee and say “Business books?” When she didn’t quite hear and asked him to repeat what he’d said, he began flapping his arms like an alarmed penguin, saying “Business books! Business books!” Forming an actual question might have helped. At the other end of the scale, some people would ask a question by telling a story, explaining, for instance, that they were in the store “last Tuesday afternoon, about three, with my mother…”

When Orwell mentions the “vague-minded” customer, I think of the people who wanted me to literally take them by the hand to the book they wanted. I’d was asked why our fiction and nonfiction weren’t together, and why one had to go “all the way down to the first floor to pay,” as though the customer planned to pay on the third floor and then leap out a window. Or why there weren’t scientists to help them in the science section (as well as, presumably, doctors in the medical section, and so on). Anybody who works in retail is paid too little to be patient with whatever vague or spiteful person walks in off the street. Forget the year of military service some countries make you do, everyone should be forced to work in retail. And listen up, authors: if you’re going to arrive spontaneously to sign copies of your books, remember to turn on the politeness, because you’re dealing with the people that will sell them after you’re gone.

This is not to suggest that there weren’t kind people at the shop, but as much as considerate customers are appreciated, memories of them quickly wash away. There is no heavier ink than bitterness. Orwell doesn’t mention hostile customers, perhaps because he worked at a bookshop in a more reserved era and culture, but the people I dealt with could get offended at the most minor inconvenience. It was more or less expected that we’d have any title, or could get it in “a couple of days.” A man asked me why it took weeks to get a book from England when he could fly there “in six hours,” and I had to explain in polite terms that his buying a forty-dollar book didn’t mean someone rushed out to buy a six-hundred-dollar plane ticket.

When my store opened it was one of the first large-format stores in downtown Toronto, the kind that invited people to browse and sit and drink coffee. At first, people seemed to think it was some kind of library; some asked if they could buy the books. But people quickly became accustomed to the indulgence, adopting the idea we should have every title. I soon came to anticipate the anger that was ignited as soon as I mentioned the two-to-six-week delivery estimate for special orders (we couldn’t change how fast publishers would ship a book) and it sometimes felt like we were educating the city one outburst at a time. Yes, we had a wider selection than smaller bookstores, but couldn’t summon a book in an ambulance if we didn’t have it.

The idea you actually buy something in a large-format store is a rule that can be bent. If you want to abuse the system you can come every day and stay for hours on end. I used to find bookmarks in books. The man I called Tom Clancy (because he looked like the author), eventually took to tipping a garbage can over to serve as an ottoman for his feet. A woman once verbally blasted a co-worker of mine because one of her favourite authors’ books had been split between two bookcases. When I was working at the special orders desk one quiet morning, a man came along and scooped up my paperwork and then gave the pages back slowly, one at a time, while asking me questions like “Do you think I’m crazy?” Orwell, noting this trend, comments, “In a town like London there are always plenty of not quite certifiable lunatics walking the streets, and they tend to gravitate towards bookshops, because a bookshop is one of the few places where you can hang about for a long time without spending any money. In the end, one gets to know these people almost at a glance.” The difference between Orwell’s times and ours is that we now invite them to hang around.

Orwell also explains his frustration with his bookstore’s various sidelines, including selling second-hand typewriters and stamps (“Stamp collectors are a strange, silent, fish-like breed”). Christmas cards and calendars, he writes, are “tiresome things to sell.” I, too, often wished our large-format store concentrated on being a good bookstore and didn’t bother with magazines, software, cards, and candles. Nothing made me look more incompetent than getting caught by a customer in the multimedia section. People failed to recognize that a single person can’t be familiar with the content of a forty-thousand-square-foot store. Sometimes, the greater your diversity, the weaker you are at each of those things, and you can’t be as selective about staff when you need an army. When Maya Angelou visited our store, she asked a cashier, “Do you have the works of Maya Angelou?” to which the cashier replied, “Who’s she?”

We didn’t suffer from cold, unlike Orwell, whose store had to be kept chilly to prevent its display windows from fogging up. We did, however, have the air-conditioning woman, who cornered staff to complain about how cold it was (we didn’t agree), and who slept in a chair, sometimes cutting her own hair in the store. Orwell talks about the bluebottles that loved to crawl into books and die. I don’t remember any dead bugs, but I did leave the store dizzy from the paint fumes that hung around in our bad air-circulation system.

Orwell undoubtedly worked alongside the owner of his store, if the novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying is any indication, but I rarely met head-office people. When they did appear, unannounced and without introduction, we were expected to know who they were. Once, one of them poked me in the back without introducing herself, and said, “Can you go help that person?” I could never figure out what head-office people did to deserve their salaries. We lowly floor workers were the faces that represented the company in public, the ones forced to read the titles of the erotic books to the creepy old blind man, as much as we tried to scatter like mice whenever we saw him arriving.

Today I prefer to shop at independent stores, though I’m not entirely disdainful of large-format stores. Creating a large-format bookstore chain may have caused a head-on collision between those who only cared about books and those who only cared about business—both are shortsighted, for various reasons—but I did find many real and lasting friends among my coworkers, and there were many pleasant customers who recognized me as a person and who wanted to chat about books. It’s been said before, but the biggest problem with large-format stores is the way they hurt small publishers with large orders (that are expensive to produce) followed by large returns. This could potentially be remedied with a small-press section—one reliant on small orders and a no-returns policy. I think Orwell would agree smaller presses are important, and frequently the first to publish writers who become more successful or recognized later. And he might agree that, whatever the size of the store, bookselling is bookselling: the tune changes, but the dance remains the same.

—From CNQ 110 (Fall 2021/Winter 2022)

Alex Boyd’s last book is Army of the Brave and Accidental, a retelling of The Odyssey. He’d be pleased to find a home for his book of essays.

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