Monday, July 26, 2010

On bookstore stories

I may have given the impression that all the customers in my bookstore are annoying, rude, selfish and ignorant. This isn’t entirely accurate. Most of them are smart, funny and lovely people; they are normal people. Most of them are also erased from my mind the moment they leave the store (unlike the really bad ones). I don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about customers who weren’t difficult, who didn’t challenge my diplomatic abilities, or who did not treat me as though I was the stupidest thing since hot iced tea. Unfortunately, this means that one bad customer easily outweighs ten good ones.


Every now and then, though, there are customers who make an impression because of something else entirely. Like the old man who – while I was looking up a book for him – told me that he had been stationed in Korea during the Korean War. Until then I had no idea that Norway even participated in that war (so much for being a history student). Or the little kid who on the day of the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows vowed to learn English so that he did not have to wait for the Norwegian translation of the last Harry Potter book. He came back three times on the night of the release to have me translate various names and items for him... Or the drug addict who told me his life story one slow afternoon when I had a summer job in a bookshop in the dodgy part of the city. This man probably never had anyone to talk to about his misfortunes, so when he found me, he was happy to share. His story almost made me cry, and if I ever find I can do it justice, I might consider writing it down.

Even though there are many things I most certainly will not miss about my job when I eventually find a “grown-up job”, I will miss these tiny glimpses into people’s lives. My job may not be the most important in the world, but every now and then I feel like I am playing a small part in someone else’s life story.

Not long ago a handsome man in his early thirties walked into the store. He was looking for a box. Boxes are one of those things that people occasionally come into our store to get that always poses a problem. See, when he said “box”, he had a very specific type of box in mind. But if you don’t specify it more than that, a box might mean anything from a cardboard moving box to a chest to keep treasures in. Since I have not yet mastered the skill of reading minds, I asked him to elaborate.

He wanted a box to wrap something in. He had a rough estimate of the size, and it was important to him how the box looked. I showed him a couple of boxes (believe it or not, but for a bookstore we do carry a lot of crap. Including boxes of every shape and size). None of them were exactly what he was looking for, but he said he’s take a peak around the mall, and if he didn’t find anything suitable, he’d come back.

Ten minutes later he showed up again.

We have some boxes that look perfectly ordinary – the only “unordinary” thing about them is that they all fit into one another, like a Russian Matryoshka doll. When he spotted these, the guy suddenly lit up. Now he only needed the perfect gift wrapping.

We offer the service of wrapping presents, thus we have wrapping paper with our store’s logo printed on it. It’s usually pretty hideous. I showed him the options available – the only one of which I actually like was the one intended for children, with knights and princesses printed on it.

“That would not be appropriate at all,” he said, “even though it is for a princess.”

It begun to dawn on me what his hints meant, but he hadn’t yet shared what exactly he was wrapping in the box. It soon became very clear that this man was dying to tell someone, though...

He took his time to figure out the perfect combination of (non-logo-printed) paper and ribbons. Eventually he came back to the cash register where he finally couldn’t hold it in anymore. He showed me all the boxes, and then pointed to the smallest one.

“Guess what’s going inside!” He was like a little kid on Christmas Day. His eyes were lit up, and he was all giggly, blushing slightly. By then it was pretty clear to me that he was placing an engagement ring inside. I asked, and he confirmed.

He was about to propose to his girlfriend, and since it was a secret (to her, obviously, but also to his family and friends), he hadn’t been able to talk about this life-changing idea that probably had been on his mind for weeks. Thus he simply had to tell me all about it. He was making her dinner, and by the end of it he was going to give her an innocent present – much larger than a jewellery box. As she wrapped her way towards the middle, though, he would get down on one knee and ask the big question.

While his story touched me, I couldn’t help but see the comical part about him choosing to use me – a random stranger – as his confidante. I managed to keep a straight face, though, and wished him good luck.

What eventually made me laugh after all was when he returned once more – this time to show me three large rolls of “Love Hearts” that he had bought. The ring case he had gotten for the ring was one of those with room for two rings. The reason he hadn’t asked the store to give him a normal ring case was that he wanted the other room to contain two pieces of the popular candy – the one saying “WILL YOU” and the one saying “MARRY ME”. He had worked his way through several rolls already, but not yet found the appropriate one. As soon as he did, he was ready to pop the question.

So, Mr. Romantic, I hope you found the right piece eventually, and that your girl gave you the correct answer. And I also hope she knows how lucky she is to have a guy that bothered going through all that trouble for her!

Like Mr Romantic, I was only able to find one of the two pieces he was looking for...

22 comments:

welcome to my world of poetry said...

Loved this, I wish someone would go to all that trouble for me.

Yvonne,

Lynda Young said...

Awesome story. I used to work in a bookstore and a jewellery store..but people were more chatty in the bookstores... it was a place for stories I think.

Cruella Collett said...

Yvonne - don't we all? :)

Lynda - that might be true. We do get a wide variety of people, and many of them seem to think it is part of my job to listen to the story of their lives.

Jen said...

Isn't it funny who feels comfortable talking to bookshop people and owners.

Bookshop workers/owners are the bartenders of books. :)

Jen said...

PS I secretly hope that you have more of these stories up your sleeve, it's fun learning the stories of others, especially the super sweet ones!

Creepy Query Girl said...

Awe, how romantic of him! And isn't it funny how working a job like that opens you up to so many different people, and sometimes, their different stories! So interesting! Great post!

Jemi Fraser said...

What a nice story :)

Most people are great and interesting - but you're right, we don't always remember them later - it's the bizaree and crazy who still in our memories.

Boonsong said...

There's nothing stupid about hot iced tea. Now if you'd said chilled Ovaltine that would have been a whole different kettle of water.

I too underwent trial by ordeal when courting Mrs Somboon (aka Very Lucky Lady). I had to wrestle a live crocodile whilst armed with nothing more than a bunch of flowers and a week old copy of Cosmopolitan - and that was just to get to her front door, before I even faced her mother (who is a lovely person).

Have a nice day, Big Brave Boonsong

M.J. Nicholls said...

I really thought he was planning to wrap a human head. Maybe yours. Though that isn't much of an engagement present. No. Anyway. Happy Monday to you.

Jennee said...

aw that's really cute. so there are guys like that still out there? huh. i just thought they were all low life jerks!

The only thing I like about working in a coffee shop is the random interactions with people. My favorite customers are homeless drug addicts. They're a hoot!

RosieC said...

Those are some amazing stories, and the guy's excitement really made me smile. I needed that today, so thank you :)

Cruella Collett said...

Jen - I like that, the bartenders of book! Definitely how I feel sometimes, wiping the glass.. uhm, books and listening to other people's tales...
And not to worry - there are plenty such stories up my sleeve (I only need to find the proper way of presenting them - not all of them are filled with sunshine like this one)

CQG - it's definitely one of the more interesting parts of the job!

Jemi - so true. And I guess even though most people have stories, there are only a handful that actually share them.

Boonsong - see now I had to google Ovaltine... It sounds - interesting - like cocoa but with malt? Beer flavoured? Huh...
Glad you survived the crocodile encounter, Big Brave Boonsong! The blogosphere wouldn't have been the same without you!

M.J. - I did realize while writing this down that the story had been a lot better had I played a more prominent part in it, but it felt as too much of an alteration to claim it was me he proposed to. And he would have had to be creative to fit a human head (especially mine) into that box. A shrunken head, maybe...
(Happy Monday to you too! May it be free of shunken heads!)

Jennee - oh, he could still have been a jerk. After all, I think that most guys (like most girls) have more than one side. So I think the best we can hope for in this world is to spend as much as possible time with those who choose to show us their good sides, and as little as possible with those who don't.
And it is interesting that you appreciate the homeless people. There aren't enough people out there who does that, I'm afraid.

Rosie - glad I could put a smile on your face :)

Marjorie said...

The story of the drug addict really resonates with me. I wonder how many people with addiction problems don't have anyone to talk to. I mean, I hear all the time about how drug addicts are looked down upon. People don't have much sympathy for them. They are human beings and are worthy of love and comfort like the rest of us. I don't even think that I got this truth until the problems hit my own family.

Cruella Collett said...

Marjorie - his story was so sad. He had grown up with abuse and a father who was an alcoholic. He told me that he himself never touched alcohol. Unfortunately, he could not disguise that he was not as virtous when it came to other substances.

You are right that these people are as worthy of love and comfort as the rest of us, and they often need it more. Also, we often forget that there might be a reason why they ended up this way.

Deb and Barbara said...

One of the best parts about working retail is all the people you meet -- for better or worse. Keeps you in touch with the diversity. And the gentle men, of course!
B

Cruella Collett said...

Barbara - I couldn't agree more. It certainly can be entertaining! Of course I might have been even more entertained had this man not already had a particular girl in mind ;)

KarenG said...

I feel so at home here with that lovely giraffe at your heading LOL! I've got to put you on my sidebar so I don't keep missing your posts. I wish I could sit down and have a long talk with you about your bookstore. I'm wondering if things are as bad for the booksellers in Norway as they are in the US.

Cruella Collett said...

Karen - glad to make you feel at home!

And I am terrible at keeping up my sidebar too. There are so many great new blogs I have discovered that I haven't put up there yet - wish there was a way of including everyone without making it so loooooong!

As for a long talk about the bookseller business - I would love that. Perhaps I could do the second best, though. You just gave me an idea for a blog post...

sue said...

What a relief to finally have internet again, and while away the evening catching up with your writing.

I've often thought that our local coffee shop waiters play a similar role with lonely marginalized people - they seem to take more time with them. Like Marjorie said, when you have been touched personally, you tend to be more tolerant.

And for Boonsong - Ovaltine with cold milk is lovely :)

Cruella Collett said...

Sue - I just realized I completely forgot to reply to your email. Please, please excuse me - I'll do it right away. In the meantime let me say it is good to have you back :) No internet can be good for a while, but in the long run I'd miss it. I'm taking a few days off next week, and I'm looking forward to that, but I will be longing for my laptop after a little while!)

Amanda Sablan said...

Aww, how romantic! You sure do get to meet some interesting people in retail.

Cruella Collett said...

Amanda - I think a year of mandatory retail work would be quite useful for the general population. Both so that they would be more respectful for the people working in the shops, but also because it really is a great way of seeing people from every walk of life. The stories of my customers could be great life lessons for more than me!

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