Andrea Siegel sent me this awhile ago–some stories about her experiences working in a chain bookstore in NYC. My favorites are #6, #11, #16, #17, and #24, but there’s a pleasant total-immersion feeling from reading all of them.
My first 30 days at a mid-Manhattan bookstore
(c) 1999 Andrea Siegel. All rights reserved.
1. My co-worker A. asks me where I was before I came here. That
stops me. “Where was I?” I repeat. I know he means, “Where did
you work?” but I don’t know how to say I spent the last five years
writing a book.
2. B., a co-worker, says admiringly of another bookseller, “He
really has a photogenic memory.”
3. A pleasant looking young woman comes up to me and asks if we
have any books on taxidermy. “Like stuffing road kill?” I joke.
“Actually, no. I’ve had this squirrel in my freezer for
months and I don’t know what to do with it.” She’s serious.
I point her in the direction of the taxidermy books, “Look in
Guns and Hunting.”
She makes a face–she’s not a guns-and-hunting kind of girl.
“So this is serious for you? Like love?” I ask.
“Maybe just a romance, who knows where it will lead?” she
I mention the Museum of Natural History.
“I know, best program in the city. Hard to get into, very
competitive,” she says.
4. A gorgeous western European man with a slight accent, perfect
English, asks for our card. I drop it. He picks it up. “You
don’t have to,” I protest.
“Chivalry,” he says with a smile and a shrug.
“Oh, lovely,” I say.
Worst moment: in the back office C. finds some old signed
books he can’t return or put on the floor. He says he’ll destroy
them. I say, “That’s murder!” He asks if I want them. They’re
cheesy science fiction titles. I shake my head, No. He rips them
down their spines and throws them in the trash.
5. A young German woman says, “I’m looking for a book. Veal-ah
I haven’t got a clue. “How do you spell that?”
“Wih, ih, ella, ella …”
“Oh, Willa Cather.”
“Why are people gay?” asks an attractive young woman in the
Another woman pops up, “My friend told me a girl rejected him.
That’s why he turned gay.”
“They’re born that way,” I butt in.
“Well then their parents are sick and they’re sick. If a boy
rejected me you wouldn’t find me with no girl,” she says. I can’t
believe this conversation is occurring in 1999.
“Sea gulls are gay, some monkeys are gay, it’s normal among
all animals,” I say. Actually I’m not sure about the monkeys.
The conversation takes off without me among the six other
My break is over. I go to the time clock and someone near me
is hypothesizing that the book business attracts so many gay people
because it’s “creative.” HELP! LET ME OUT OF 1973!
6. A woman comes up to me. “R?” she asks.
I type it in: “R”. “R?” I ask helpfully, inviting the next
letter. She looks at the screen. “No no no no no. Rrrrrr,” she
“Rrrrr,” I type in.
“No no no no.”
I give up. I hand her a pen and piece of paper.
She writes, “Art.” She’s French.
I point to the Art section.
7. “I’m looking for Letters to Penthouse.” A beat. “For a friend,”
the guy explains.
“A friend. Sure,” I think.
As I’m keying in the title he says, “I bet you think that’s
I tell him, No, not compared to some I’ve heard. I tell him
about the taxidermist who had the squirrel in her freezer.
8. “I’m looking for a book. It’s the true-life story of a boy
who brought his polar bear on the Titanic.”
For a moment I can not respond. I feebly send her down to
children’s books. What else can I do?
I tell D., my co-worker this. He says, “Oh, Polar the Titanic
Bear. It’s about a big bear, but it was released at the same time
as the movie Titanic.”
9. My colleague E. comes up to me. I ask how she is. She says,
“My heart is like a squashed tomato.” I think about this a moment.
She continues, “And the worst part is, when I look real close, I
can see my footprints in it. I did it to myself.”
10. A man comes into the bookstore and my first impression is one
of unnatural astonishing beauty. When I glance back, my second
impression is that he has had way too much sex–not that he has
enjoyed it but that he has been used for it–he is perhaps a
prostitute or kept at some “high” level–among the rich. His pants
are exquisitely cut black leather so subtle that you don’t even
notice at first that they’re leather. He has perfectly mussed
moussed black hair. Something about the way he moves is too
sexual. He seems over-steeped in it. Sickened.
And I grieve a moment for what his beauty may have cost him in
humanity, in normal living, (in my projection) before he jauntily
He reappears at my desk–the information desk–a few minutes
later asking, “Do you know where I can find a copy of the
illustrated Karma Sutra?” His gaze is cold, cut off. With a
lurch in my gut I direct him to the sexuality shelf in the self-
A tourist asks, “Do you have bees nest cart?” I think for a
moment and hand him a business card.
11. “Hi, I work for Conan O’Brien,” says the young man. (NBC is
right around the corner from the store.) He looks blond and
beautiful with his stand-up polo shirt collar, designer polarfleece
and chinos. His face looks vacant, stupid, a lot like the kids I
grew up with, i.e.: Daddy owns the network or a friend of Daddy’s
does and that’s how I got this job.
He says, “Conan needs photos of Moses and Jesus for the show.”
When I tell him there are no actual photographs available as
photos hadn’t been invented at that time, he looks upset, even
affronted. His expression says: How am I going to explain this to
Conan? I direct him down to the religious books and suggest he
look for illustrations.
12. “Boys covers for entertainment,” says the small Indian woman.
It takes us awhile to discover she wants a new career doing voice
overs for film, radio and TV. I am silenced by what is either her
bravery or an astonishingly inappropriate career choice,
considering she’s unintelligible. I direct her downstairs.
13. European accent unplaceable: “I’m looking for a book on Sand.”
“Sand?” I ask, typing it into the computer.
“No,” she says, “I’m pronouncing it wrong. SAND.” She speaks
“Sand?” I ask again.
“Send,” she tries more quietly.
“Oh, Zen,” I say. She nods, relieved. I send her down to
14. The husband was looking for a book Il Duce and his Women. I
raised my eyebrows. “It’s not tilt-illating,” the wife assured me.
A woman looking for a book doesn’t know much about it
(including the author and the title). (Not as uncommon as you’d
think.) I ask, “Is it fiction?”
“No,” she says. “It’s unfiction.”
15. A woman looking for a book for a friend who lives in Normandy,
glances through her address book where she jotted the title down.
I look over at the book, thinking I might help her find it. She
opens the book to “O.” When I see the first heading is “Ovarian
Cyst,” I look away.
16. Up at the information desk we have a drawer that just doesn’t
close. It’s been like that at least since I started working here.
Today during a quiet period, F. and G. started reaching into
the drawer and through to the space behind it, and pulling out
papers, book reviews, address lists, a roll of stickers. Then F.
pulled his hand out rather quickly saying, “I thought I felt
something lick my hand.” After he got his nerve up to reach in
again, he pulled out some more stuff and the drawer closed.
17. A guy calls in and asks in a gruff voice, “I’m looking for a
book called How to Survive Federal Prison.” I look it up on the
computer. We don’t have it in the store but I could order it and
it would be in in two weeks. He replies, “I need it today.”
Unspoken are the words, “I’m going in.”
18. Young man of indeterminate European background: “I’m looking
for a book store called Ritz-Silly. I believe it’s in Gramercy
Park.” I direct him to Rizzoli’s on 57th.
“Where to pay?” a South American man asks.
I point toward the cash register thinking it sounded like,
19. An old man in a long grey leather coat bows to me before
saying in a German accent, “I look for a book. It is yellow. It
says New York Times 1999.”
Even though it’s a different color, I bring him the New York
Times 1999 Almanac. It isn’t right, he says, insisting the book he
wants is yellow. “Where to find these books?” he asks.
I send him down to reference. His wife, who has been standing
quietly in her full-length mink, follows.
They come back up happy. They have a blue copy of the Time
1999 Almanac. She whispers to me: “My husband is color blind. I
was afraid to tell you.”
20. I ask my colleague H. why he is so bored. He says, “The white
men all come in wanting books on how to make more money, as if they
don’t have enough already. And the women all want books on
relationships and how to get married.” He then says the black
people usually are looking for books about black topics and he just
got lectured about his lack of loyalty to his race when he informed
a customer the black literature is mixed in with all the other
21. A publicist comes in and says, “I’m here with Ed McBain, he’d
like to sign his most recent book The Big Bad City.”
His new books are nowhere to be found. F. tells him they’ve
sold out while my boss tells me to tell him they didn’t come in.
I go all over looking for them and feel terrible that we don’t have
ANY. He’s standing by his older books and I can’t help it, I try
to do something nice, I gush that he’s my dad’s favorite author and
I’m so sorry we can’t track down the new books. He’s very nice
about it. On the way out, he says, “Tell your dad hi from Ed
For a moment I’m very disoriented. I smile and wave goodbye.
I don’t mention Dad’s been dead 25 years. I don’t even know if Dad
22. “I’m looking for a book for my son,” she says. “I wrote it
down. Two words.” She spells it for me, “S-I-D A-R-T-H-U-R.”
She adds helpfully, “I think it’s about King Arthur.”
“No,” I say, “It’s about Buddha,” and I send her to Hermann
23. An Asian woman comes in and asks for “Gracious Beaches.” I
type it in. Nothing comes up.
I ask for the author.
She’s getting impatient, “President.”
“I didn’t know he wrote Gracious Beaches,” I say generously.
I read her his titles in print. “We have Emancipation Proclamation
and Great Speeches.”
“Gracious Beaches,” she says.
Finally I realize she’s saying Great Speeches.
24. “It’s like Tuesdays with Morrie, only for girls,” she says
chewing her gum.
I’m baffled. She can’t remember the author or the title.
“It’s like Pristine or Celestial?” she says.
She comes back a few minutes later with the book: Celestine
25. A guy comes in with his friend. “I’m looking for a book by an
Irish guy. His brother has a book out. The book I want is called
I give him the book he wants. It’s actually called A Monk
Swimming. He looks at it and bursts out laughing. He laughs until
he weeps, holding the book to his chest. Then he shows it to his
friend and they both burst out laughing.
26. Into the bookstore today comes an older woman in a brown tweed
coat swathed in scarves of neutral hues, swathed in scarves as if
they were bandages around her throat and head. Only her face
emerges from this ersatz wimple.
She asks for a book by Bliss Broyard and I look it up–not due
till August. And I say, “Oh, related to Anatole?”
She says, “His daughter,” and asks how I know of him.
I tell her I loved his reviews when I was younger.
Then she starts talking about how the Village was back then,
that “the girls just romanticize Kerouac today but he was just a
disgusting drunk. And Anais Nin not only couldn’t write but she
was such a bore, just sat there with her drink and didn’t say
anything. How ______________” [some famous poet, I forget] “said
that walking around the Village was like carrying around a dead
baby and that eventually you had to put the baby down and leave
forever and how ____________________” [another famous poet, I
forget who] “said he couldn’t bear running into anyone he knew in
Washington Square Park” … and how her name was Lila and when X
[I forget his name] named his book Lila, she wrote him a letter and
he wrote back and how at least Djuna Barnes got Nightwood down but
how Anatole only had one story published and how he used and walked
over people to get this published but he never wrote more then
reviews. He never wrote his great book. How he was such a ladies
man and about his terrible end…
I didn’t even have the curiosity to ask Lila about his
“terrible end,” flattened as I was by illness. Lila confides she
slept with Anatole. Apparently no one didn’t.
Hard to figure what Lila did with her life but I was in my “I
have a cold” zombie state so I could not respond properly to her
faint murmured interesting critical ramblings about how Anatole
married an 18 year old and then had a “white” son who could pass
but never told his “dark” daughter about his heritage, about why
she was black. Although everyone knew, Lila tells me. Then she
says something about “that Cheever girl” writing about her father
and how she’s good, but then she comes from good stock.
Lila, who rarely stops talking, frequently mentions how
Interesting I am. I don’t say much.
Finally I disengage from her by excusing myself to help other
customers. I wished I found her more interesting. Even though she
seems to have had a bird’s eye view of the Village in its MOMENT,
(though her face is very lined, it’s obvious she was once
dazzlingly beautiful) there’s some way in which she only rambles
incompletely, never tells a story, often criticizes. Maybe she’ll
come back when I’m well and I can have another go.
27 “They’re like the cockroaches in my kitchen,” my colleague I.
says of the store management. “All they ever do is sit back there
in their offices and eat.”
28 J. in the fiction section says a woman asked him for Hermann
Hesse by Siddartha.
29 Today I’m sitting in the break room and it’s only me and our
local goddess K.–5’9″, fashion-mad, dark-haired and gorgeous–who
plugs into headphones and sings aloud in the break room during her
break, ignoring everyone.
She’s growling, “I’m your fantasy girl” while I’m eating my
peanut butter sandwich and staring at the pile of plastic bags and
containers that was cleared out of the staff fridge–Sunday I
guess–and left on the table. I don’t know for sure but I remember
seeing the plastic container of spaghetti yesterday on this table.
I bet toxic mold is spreading rampantly across its strands as I
“What is that pile?” she asks me.
“I don’t know,” I say, startled that she’s slipped out of her
little self contained universe to speak with me. “But I think vast
quantities of mold are growing. It’s been there since yesterday.”
“Don’t say that!” she tells me with mock anxiety. “My uncle
was looking for his little container yesterday and I think I forgot
to eat my lunch one day and left it here.” I’ve never forgotten to
eat my lunch. She starts rummaging through the pile. She has the
most dramatically pencilled artificial eyebrows I’ve ever seen on
a person with a day job. She leans over the table (tight tweed
trousers, tight tweedy sweater, breasts as big as mine and–get
this–suspenders. Her breasts look like they’re escaping past
prison cell bars).
“Oh no!” she cries and holds up the little square rubbermaid
container. She looks at it and tilts it, sliding the old salad
back and forth. “Can this be mine?” It’s slimy.
It is hers. She takes it to the trash. Every step is pure
theater–her breasts bounce, her lips (outlined in dark pencil)
pout, her brow stays serene. Her shoes are platforms suitable for
Elton John. They clomp. She’s still listening to her headphones.
She empties it. “It smells!” she cries with mock dismay.
“Don’t tell anyone?” she asks me. I say OK. “Promise?” she asks.
I promise I won’t. All of a sudden we’re friends.
She goes to put it in her locker. I tell her, “I’m not your
mother but I think you should probably wash it or everything will
“Watch my stuff?” she says and dashes, clomping to the ladies
When she gets back, she sniffs it, wrinkles her nose. “My
uncle’s a chef. He puts vinegar in everything. Everything
smells.” She puts it away, sits down again. The headphones have
never left her head. She says, “I’m thinking of joining the Peace
Corps. What do you think of that?”
Words cannot express my astonishment. I tell her what I know,
that people I know have done it, and she can get more information
at the library.
She says, “I take care of my grandma who’s had a stroke. When
she passes, I’m thinking I’ll do my music and I’ll join the Peace
Corps.” God she seems young. Is she even 20?
She says, “I hear they send you into war zones that it’s
dangerous.” She likes this idea. She has beautiful eyes. Blue?
I tell her I think it’s more of an educational thing, not in war
zones, that you teach what you know.
“I’d like that,” she says. “I’ll need a change.”
My break is over. I leave there refreshed.
30 Yesterday I had to console a customer over the phone after the
person who she spoke with before me told her emphatically that Jane
Eyre did not exist.
I don’t know who said this.
Just to repeat: this is by Andrea, not by me. I’m just posting it.