Tag Archives: used book shops

The Smoking Bookgun (from the declassified Whalen files)

Sometimes people walk into Tales of the Lonesome Pine bookstore. I believe they are what keen observers of human society would call “customers.” These customers are a varied and mysterious breed. And while my previous training had suggested their intent was most often to “buy” things using “money,” I have been surprised by the variety of encounters possible within this scenario.

What follows is just one of the many stories from…

The Declassified Whalen Customer Files

A common story from people who have worked with titles, whether it be videos or books, is the customer asking after something that’s just on the tip of their tongue. And while they can’t quite remember the ISBN, title, genre, or author, there is always a single fact: The Smoking Bookgun (I’d watch a movie called that). It may be the book’s shape or size, or the main character’s maiden name, but they’ll definitely remember something.

Of course I now have those stories of my very own. In fact, I was tempted to thank the first customer who brought me my first Smoking Bookgun Mystery. But while I knew about these encounters beforehand, I was surprised by two new elements.

The first is how often the mystery ends up solved. People have come in with little more than a twinkle in their eye, but given enough time we’ll eventually find the right thing. My first guess after you say, “I’m looking for this book… it’s blue,” may very well be, “Oh, you mean Laguna Beach: Season 1 on DVD? Yeah, we’ve got that.” But humans have a remarkable capacity for seeking common ground and paring down large groupings into small. It turns out we’re all pretty awesome at it.

Plus, the Internet exists now.

So yes, it may have taken 45 minutes, but eventually I’ll get to mispronounce most of: “here’s your copy of Verlag Von Gerlach & Wielding’s Völkerschmuck! Auf Wiedersehen!” So it doesn’t matter if you’re not sure exactly what book you have in mind. Roll the dice. Your odds are better than you think.

The second element that surprised me was a novel new twist on the quest for that one book you heard about that one time at the family BBQ from your cousin who is totally in the CIA and carried it with him for like six months until the cover wore off and he could really use a new copy before flying off to I-Can’t-Tell-You-Where-Because-It’s-Top-Secret-Stan. I have now been asked on several occasions to track a book based on another fictional character reading it within a movie. That’s right, the only smoking bookgun is a fictional recommendation from Tom Hanks before he went off to make out with Meg Ryan or date a mermaid or whatever else Tom Hanks is up to these days.

Sometimes I can help with this. But if you want that one scroll that Gandalf was reading in the library in the Tower of Ecthelion, we probably don’t have it.

All this said, I make no promises and have no special powers. We may never find that one book that was about this big and about this thick. But I have now my own small contribution to the long and storied tradition of “customers not knowing what they want” narratives. With that complete, I look forward to your stumpers and promise not to respond with any variety of droll, knowing smirk.

 

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, folklore and ethnography, humor, shopsitting, small town USA, Uncategorized

An Intimate Evening

The last stop in Philadelphia was in Manayunk, with Ann (and staff cat Amelia) of the Spiral Bookcase. Spiral Bookcase is full of recessed shelving in white wood with graceful arches and elegant long-necked martini-shaped lights hanging from the ceiling. In short, it’s gorgeous–and Jack’s worst nightmare, because I aspire to “gorgeous” instead of “cheerfully chaotic” in our own store. Ann and Amelia keep the place tidy without it looking military, and its charm swings between the old world gentility of Philly overall, and the energy that young Ann, a DC escapee trained as a folklorist, brings to the mix. (Folklore and ethnography are the same degree, BTW. Ethnography is the “cover” name for folklore on the academic market, as it sounds more encompassing of power structures and psychology, while folklore rings redolent of fairies and plant lore.)

And Ann has LOTS of energy. She is in with the bricks, only two years into her shop. As Jack and I wandered the streets of Manayunk, weaving in and out of wee specialty shops, the Philly-friendly shopkeepers often asked what brought us to town. Well, ask an author in for a book signing that question, and you’re going to get the mother load. Inevitably, the shopkeeper would say, “Oh, so you’re the author Ann has in! I got her email.” Turns out that Ann is not only known, liked and respected (three different things) by the Shopkeepers of Manayunk, she also runs a fall festival and with her husband tries to keep nearby Pretzel Park green and family-friendly. Community: Ann builds and guards it.

We talked about this as we prepared for the signing; she said her shop was as much a space for like-minded minds as a retail concern, that she sold books but also anchored a growing community of “the new kids on the block” —literally. Manayunk has seen recent upgrades and accompanying upheavals, and while it hasn’t quite got everyone on the same team, it has a big enough team of same-siders to be getting stuff done.

I guess all that was on my mind when we started the book signing. A dozen people crammed into the tiny space, knees toward the center and inevitably touching someone else’s, so it was intimate from the word go. Intimate in a nice way, because almost all the attendees were customers Ann knew by name: Suzan the poet; Brittany the part-time shop assistant; Joanna, a local grant writer for the resident dance company; Carol an avid reader who along with another attendee had serious thoughts about starting a used books store someday.

In fact, the whole evening hinged around two concepts: starting a bookstore, and creating community. The participants asked erudite and deep-reaching questions about what each entailed, like “how did you know when you were actually bringing community together, as opposed to people just being quiet and muttering?” Everyone offered thoughts and observations, and laughed at our earnest statement that we thought Manayunk pulled together more than any of the other places we’d seen, and that although we’d only been here two days, we considered it the New Jerusalem of “save downtown and shop local.”

The evening couldn’t have been nicer. On the silly side, Jack discovered “Peeps,” those seasonal marshmallow candies covered in day-glo sugar colors. He found them rather “more-ish” and ate about half the box Suzan brought–which Suzan considered very cute.  Guys with Scottish accents can get away with anything.

On the lovely side, Ann is a kindred spirit, a student of one of my academic folklore heroes, Dr. Erika Brady. As we traded notes and munched pizza after the event, Ann said that she used her ethnographic background more as a community bookshop owner than she had in her job in the archives of DC, which had required the degree to get in the first place.

“Knowing and understanding the people who come in, discerning the patterns of the community, supporting both: that’s the best use of my degree yet,” she said.

Amen, sister.

These photos were mostly taken by Joanna “Jo” Mullins, the grant writer mentioned at the beginning of the blog. That’s shop owners Ann and Amelia (on Ann’s lap) to the right, downtown Manayunk on the left.

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Filed under book reviews, folklore and ethnography, humor, small town USA, Uncategorized