Now that you’ve read my review for I Can’t Remember the Title But the Cover is Blue and laughed your ass off, get read to laugh more, because the author, Elias Greig answered a few questions for me about the book, and how he got the idea for it, and the life of a bookseller.
Elias, what was the interaction with a customer that finally made you realise, you know what, there’s a book that needs to be written.
The book really started as a series of social media posts. After work, usually on the bus, I’d write up the weirdest, funniest, grimmest, and/or most memorable customer interactions of the day, partly as a creative outlet, and partly as proof: this really happened – tell your friends – send help!
After a few years I realised I had a heap of material – A-grade, industrial strength human weirdness – and only really thought of putting it all together then, with a lot of encouragement from friends and family who’d been “tuning in” over the years.
But I’ll never forget the customer that prompted my first post – The Buff Suckler.
He’s first up in the book, the uber-buff gymgoer drinking an Up-n-Go who banged on the door ten minutes before opening to tell me he was “switching to the iPad”, then tried to sell me some used books in terrible condition, then asked if we sold sex tips; then left his empty Up-n-Go on the counter and walked out. I stood there, flat-footed, and thought: “Wow. Wow. Where am I? What is this job? What happened to me?”
Can you describe for readers what they can expect in the book? What do you hope the book shows about bookstores and customers?
Readers can expect full-contact, no-holds-barred retail combat with a literary twist – encounters with monstrous bowl-cut children, listless hipster dads, dangerously sleep-deprived mothers, rampaging boomers, and seniors that run the gamut from delightful to mind-bendingly strange, to name a few. This is a kind of customer bestiary – you’ll find many fantastic beasts within, and watch me try to wrangle them.
Bookshops, partly because of what they sell, and partly because of the special place they hold in the popular imagination, attract and seem to encourage all kinds of strange and suspect behaviour, even from perfectly “normal” people. What I hope the book does is put readers in my place – feeling my trepidation and amusement, my horror and delight. Partly for the window into human eccentricity my job offers, and partly as a reminder that the person on the other side of the counter – selling you books, fitting your shoes, bagging your groceries, making your coffee, bringing your food – inhabits their own life just as fully as you do yours, has thoughts and feelings, and, crucially, is watching all the time. So much of life is now spent wrapped up in service interactions of one sort or another, and this book, in a (very) small way, tries to make visible what placing a counter between people does to us
What sorts of interactions didn’t make it into the book?
I’m pretty pleased with the range and variety of customers I managed to get in the book, but there’ll always be some that got away.
Some customers were too strange – I just couldn’t find a way to get them down on paper (ask me sometime about the man wearing three belts). Some were too gross – we get a lot of kids, and where there’s kids, there’s “accidents” (you’ll find no vomit in the book – I wish I could say the same thing about my shop). Some interactions were too private or specific – the nature of what we sell means that booksellers often deal with people made vulnerable by one thing or another, and looking, sometimes desperately, for help.
As a bookseller, this can be exhausting to deal with, but it’s something I think we all take seriously. Finally, and most importantly for me, I hope readers won’t find anything cruel in the book – mischievous, bleary, exhausted, bitter, sardonic, ironic, sure, but never deliberately cruel.
How have bookstores changed in your opinion?
The obvious thing to say is that the internet has changed everything, but not in the way you might think. Obviously Amazon has put terrible pressure on bookshops – if it ever lands properly in Australia the results will be catastrophic – but the main change I’ve noticed is in customer’s expectations. People have this idea now that everything should be available, all the time, instantly – they’re often shocked and angry when I explain that I don’t have what they want and that it might take a week (“a WEEK?”) to get it.
There’s also this new thing – new enough that it isn’t in the book – where people are beginning to treat us like human search engines. Instead of “Hello” or “Good Morning” you get keywords barked at you – “Ships!”, “Taiwan!”, “books for my father-in-law” – or a phone with a picture of a cover (or sometimes a hyperlink they haven’t opened yet) on the screen shoved in your face.
On the other hand, people have really rallied around bookstores in the last few years, and I get told constantly how much people love our shop and how grateful they are to have it. So, as always, it’s the best of times, and it’s the worst of times
What do you wish most of all that people understood about bookstores?
That, in the grand scheme of things, they’re nowhere near as important as libraries. Libraries do all the things we do, and so much more, and they do it for free, as a public service. Walking into the State Library in Sydney, this quiet, beautiful, superbly run, free space where you can do so much – it’s like stumbling across a bubbler on the surface of the moon.
And there you have it — so go right now and thank your favourite bookseller for being your best friend in reading! What do you think of a bookseller’s life??