I am standing in an aisle. I am stone-faced serious to the populace and I am standing in the middle of the aisle, just waiting. I am waiting for the moment to pass, so I may continue on in this conversation; but see, I have just been asked who the author of “The Diary of Anne Frank” is, and I am not permitted to laugh. I am being paid a breath above minimum wage to not make a snarky comment, roll my eyes and walk away, so I am standing in an aisle, silent, staring at the rows of books in front of me. Forget alphabetizing or shelving, or putting away magazines. I have not made a single noise of mockery; I am earning my wage.
And this is my life. Day in and day out, I see faces, and they tell me they are looking for a book. And minute after minute, hour after hour, I don’t make fun of their plainly obvious statement, for as we all know, they have entered a bookstore. I don’t gesture around the room and respond, “well look away, we have several.” No, I smile, and I ask which book he or she is looking for. I am asked for the book with the green cover. I am asked for the book by that one guy who wrote that other book about travelling to Africa. I am asked if I have read that book. I am asked why we don’t have every single book they’re looking for in the store. And still, I smile.
Okay. Sometimes, I don’t smile.
People are funny. The way we walk around, genuinely assuming that the planet, and all of her minute, little players, revolves solely around our happiness. And heaven forbid anyone stand in the way of anyone else’s happiness. This is America. We are a “want” society. Therefore, if Average Joe wants an obscure Christian Inspiration book published last in 1984, then Average Joe had better have it in his hot little hands before his parking validation wears off. And if Average Joe doesn’t want to buy anything other than that book we don’t have, then who are we to say that he isn’t allowed to have free parking? This is America. We pay for parking now? We have to actually purchase things to get the “parking validation with purchase” type deal? Bullshit.
I can’t say the variety of the customers that ebb and flow through the doors of our humble bookstore don’t keep things interesting. The parentless children that think the escalator is some sort of carnival ride that they are permitted to climb all over. Because of these rascals inability to learn from other’s mistakes, I have perfected my teacher voice. “Please do not play on the escalator,” she raises her voice, cocks one eyebrow as the children double back to make sure she’s still watching. ‘That’s right,’ she thinks. ‘You’re still visible. I can still see you.’ And yet, where would I be without them? Surely the presence of unsupervised underlings is nothing but job security. If my job were to be a bookselling Mary Poppins. But it turns out, I don’t know CPR, and I hate kids. And if they run out of the store while Mom and Dad are enjoying coffees and reading 17 different magazines in the Café section, I will not be tried by a jury of my peers. But that’s just another way the world revolves around Average Joe. If he doesn’t want to watch his kids, well, it takes a village, right? I live in the village of Oakland, Joe. That’s like 4 villages over. Find a new babysitter.
But nothing holds a candle to the first-time bookstore visitor. Wide-eyed, awkwardly thumbing through display table items, unsure of what bookstore employees actually look like. But then, she snags one of us, after a few failed attempts with some of the bookstore veterans mulling around. And she asks where the dictionaries are. So I stroll with her, metaphorically handholding, as is our policy, over to the dictionary and reference section, and point them out. And then she looks at me, takes in my appearance and estimated knowledge on the subject of reference guides and asks, “what’s the difference?”
“The difference? With what?”
She picks up a copy of an Oxford dictionary, turning it over and back again, inspecting the outside cover and responds, “between this, and this Webster one?”
I stare at her. And suddenly, it dawns on me, I don’t really know. A dictionary is a dictionary to me. So I ask her to clarify the question. I simply must have missed the point.
“Well, which one has the best words?”
I bite down on my lower lip. Hard. Because now my mind is blank, aside from the fire of a thousand snarky retorts, all of which I am unable to allow escape from my mouth. Which one has better words? It’s a freaking dictionary. It has all the words a regular, average American human is going to need to know to make it in this dog-eat-dog world. But this puppy dog-eyed lady is looking to me, the wise bookseller, to give her life some direction.
“Well, I guess I’d go with Oxford, because it has the word, “muggle” in it.”
Yep. That’s my answer. And the kicker is, she nods along, like I’ve just said something profound. I haven’t. I’ve just made a joke of an answer because there isn’t REALLY an answer to that question.
She stares at the bay of dictionaries, in what I can only assume is thoughtful silence. Running her hands over the volumes, I'm tempted to just silently slip away, despite the fact that her body is still positioned openly towards me, indicating a presumed continuation of our little chat.
"What about this one? Is this one better?" She has now picked up the Collegiate Oxford dictionary. Words are failing me. What about it? Yeah, lady, that's still a dictionary. It's a dictionary with a fancy word in front of it, designed to encourage college students to use it, as to insinuate that it was created specifically for them. Up until now, I didn't understand the purpose of putting the word "collegiate" on there. I do now. It's to confuse people like you. Oxford is trying to be funny. Oxford is trying to break me.
"It's got a better cover."
Time is moving slower now, as I have found myself unwittingly trapped in the reference section with no rescue in sight. It’s like a smoke signal has gone up above my head that says, “dumb conversation happening, steer clear.” So when I think she’s distracted with something else, I start to act upon my emergency exit strategy; Then she calls me over to the thesaurus section.
“What are these?” she plucks out a fifth edition Thesaurus from the top shelf.
“Those are thesauruses,” I respond. Thesauruses? Thesaurusi? Hmm, not sure. I probably should have just made it singular. 'That's a thesaurus.' Oh well. Really don’t think she’ll notice.
“Well, is this better than this?” She is gesturing to the Oxford Dictionary, clutched tightly against her chest.
“Better?" My words are coming out too slowly now. "No. They’re different things.”
“What’s the difference?” Silence. Stone-faced expression. I am not going to laugh. I am not going to cry. I am going to count the books on this shelf until I don't want to punch her. I will be counting for a long time.
“Between a dictionary and a thesaurus? A dictionary has the definition of words, and a thesaurus has synonyms and antonyms,” and let’s rephrase that, “like meaning, and opposite meaning words.”
“Well which one should I get? I need it for college.”
HOLD THE PHONE. I have spent the past fifteen minutes explaining to you which dictionary is best, the apparently subtle differences between a dictionary and thesaurus, and you’re telling me you need to use this for college? Now, back in my day, you had to graduate high school before you got the thumbs up for college. And I know I can’t tell you all that crap about compounds and solutions and I never quite got the hang of that “two trains are headed towards each other at different speeds” question, but by God, I could tell you the difference between these two ENTIRELY SEPARATE reference materials.
But I am a professional. And I am getting paid to not say all these things. I am earning my money, painfully, self-loathingly, minute by minute. So I take the thesaurus from her hand, I smile reassuringly, and push the Oxford dictionary towards her.
“This is what you need. Trust me.”
And now, before my brain explodes and blood starts to leak out of my ears, I walk away.
This is my life.
And if anything cuts it short, this is how I will die.