Working in a bookstore is kind of like being a free, walking public therapist. I know this seems like a brash statement, but hear me out.
Barnes & Noble is a large establishment meant to have the appearance of coziness, with two entrances for the public to stream in and patronize. There are oversized armchairs and nice lighting and warm, sweet smells that hang in the air, heavy and sleepy. There are benches and tables and outlets for the consumer to plug in their electronics as they nibble high-calorie desserts and sip sticky-sweet coffee drinks through green straws. And, of course, there are seemingly endless amounts of books to peruse, to pull off the shelves and paw through, books with subjects like Art and New Age, Philosophy and Sports, Current Affairs, and piles and piles of Cookbooks. There are magazines: Lifestyles, Hobbies, infinite Entertainment. The floors are carpeted and the walls are papered and sound is not bounced around aimlessly off the walls, but surefooted as it moves between myself and the variations of customers that come through those two entrances, so many different types of customers, ultimately acting in much the same ways, but so varied in their appearances, their sounds, their heights and presences.
So Barnes & Noble beckons you to come in and stay awhile. It asks you to treat it like a library, but better because you get to shop and better because you can have food and better because you can leave your screaming children in the Kids sections without worrying that their crying will interrupt someone else’s shushing. You are not as heavily advertised to in this store as others, and with the added attempts to comfort, you trust Barnes & Noble almost instantaneously, as soon as you cross the threshold, still bundled in the accoutrements of winter, your scarves and coats and hats met with a wall of warmth, and the Nook person smiles and says “Hi, how are you?” with what can only be interpreted as sincerity and warmth. You smell maple scones. You hear the soft instrumentals of Muzak. And you trust.
And somehow, in a way that makes little to no sense to me, this trust of the corporation, this trust of the store and the atmosphere and this feeling of comfort, of loosened collars and easy breathing, transfers to its employees. The details of this process are hazy to me, because it’s the part that seems most like a leap, but I have no other explanation for the customers that tell me their secrets, their privacies and the details of their intimate lives.
Not all of them, of course. Most customers are pleasantly normal, or at least benignly frumpled. The majority of my conversations as a Bookseller are casual and polite exchanges that run on rails, train track scripts that start and end in the same place. I love people, love talking and shooting the shit with anyone, and it is because of this that I’ve built relationships with some of our regular customers (some of the normal ones).
Perhaps it is something in the smile, for me, genuine, accompanied by a Southern greeting of “Hi, how you doing?” Perhaps something in the fact that I stand behind a very low desk, suggesting my professionalism and a certain sanitized sense of know-how while still being approachable and accessible to the general public, especially when the person standing behind it is a twenty-three-year-old woman with a big smile and a “Hi, how you doin’?” Perhaps it is the glowing CUSTOMER SERVICE sign suspended above our interactions, the ring of computers, the countertop and monitor that separate you and I as I search for your title. Whatever it is, there is something in my position as a Bookseller that implies knowledge, but not only a general knowledge of a variety of subjects (true Renaissance employees we are assumed to be), but accompanying that assumption of knowledge is a false sense of trust. For whatever reason, there’s a confluence between the trust of the store and the trust of its workers. The way you trust B&N and the way you trust me.
So customers treat me like a free therapist, someone who’s open to the public and can’t really turn you away, not unless you make a scene, say or do something wildly inappropriate, or try to steal something. I am a friendly person by nature, and have always attracted some pretty strange people to my periphery, perhaps due to some kind of pheremonal-like smell, something that indicates to needy folks that I am a sympathetic ear.
I have had customers relate to me the intimate details of their sexual lives, usually women, expressing sentiments they don’t whisper to their husbands, sensing a knowledge base in me that I question. I want to ask these women, what the fuck do you think I know about this? or want to know? But usually, I smile and nod along, grappling with the correct words, but smiling and acting understanding. I’ve worked for Barnes & Noble off and on for almost four years, and in that time I’ve had women complain to me that their husbands: didn’t make them come, wanted to look at other women, wanted to fuck other women, did fuck other women, wanted to roleplay with a nurse outfit, wanted to roleplay with a French maid outfit, didn’t satisfy them anymore, didn’t interest them anymore, didn’t love them anymore. Usually, these women are asking for help finding a Self Improvement title, or perhaps Sexuality. Once, a woman was telling me about her preference for erotic fiction over sex with her husband. She expounded on the merits of masturbation and fantasy over real-life husband sex as I walked her to the Sexuality section, in search of “Letters to Penthouse III” (available online from Barnes & Noble here).
Not that the strange ones are solely women. I have had men tell me about their pornography addictions, their gambling addictions, their alcohol problems, their multiple girlfriends, their depression, their ailing family members, their problems with drinking and being unable to get a hard-on, their problems with cheating on their wives. And the customers I’m talking about here are only the ones who’ve treated me like a free therapist. The creepers are an entirely different sense of discomfort, and an entirely different blog post.
Now I think I’ll end on the best customer quote so far:
“I don’t believe in spreading the message of peace and love.”