“Book stores employ a very special class of condescending nerd…
“If bookstores fall, America will be inundated with a
wandering snarky underclass of unemployable mock purveyors of useless and arcane esoterica.”
The Daily Show on Comedy Central usually targets politicians, pop culture, movie stars, and finds hilarious behaviors to out and bring to the forefront. Either by Jon Stewart, or by one of his many ‘correspondents’, a point will be made about something highly ridiculous and whatever the subject be, it gets its comeuppance.
So imagine my surprise when Stewart and John Hodgman, one of his regular cohorts, begin discussing the downfall of Borders and the future of bookstores! Stewart begins the segment as though the audience needs to be informed of what ‘books’ are.
“Books. You may know them as the thing Amazon tells you, you might be interested in, when you are buying DVDs. But did you know that books used to be available in what was known, , , as ‘bookstores?’ (The audience winches) Stewart: “Well, They were.”
Flashbacks of news covering Borders bankruptcy play behind him. Hodgman is introduced as the ‘resident expert. Hodgman is famous as the Microsoft PC on the PC vs Mac commercials and plays a supercilious know-it-all usually making outrageous suppositions against Stewart’s grounded questions. Stewart was plying Hodgman with reasons why we need bookstores, and Hodgman was doing his best to disagree, yet at the same time, pointing to what many customers have felt about independents and some chain bookstores all along. To summerize, a bookman is a nerd. But not just a nerd, a snooty, condescending twit of a nerd, who looks down upon the customer as not good enough to brush their elbows against the shelves of the store. (This last flourish is my own-reflecting the tone of Hodgman)
Hodgman in his dry acerbic manner, expressed why society doesn’t need bookstores or sellers. He points out that for bookstores to compete, they need to create a better ‘home’ experience, since books are downloaded right into someone’s living room. Stewart points out that there are things that brick and mortar stores can do, that the internet cannot.
Hodgman : “You mean shelter the homeless?”
“I’m talking about authors visiting stores,” Stewart responds.
“Now you’re just splitting hairs” –Hodgman.
Stewart makes the case of authors needing a place to sign books, read excerpts etc, while Hodgman points out how few people ever come to see an author read. He suggests tying a writer to a desk and make him write a book to the customers’ specifications. They’re clearly mocking the recent sense in the publishing world that customers are dictating the genre of books available, and demanding faster and faster output.
Stewart now broaches the subject I was waiting for–the human element in buying a book. He explains that there are interactions between customer and bookseller that the internet simply can’t provide, like customer recommendations. And this becomes the crux of the matter for so many. Hodgman replies : Oh, yes, oh thank you, pudgy neck beard counter guy for cluing me into Philip K. Dick, , , , AGAIN. What’s the matter, are you sold out of A Confederacy of Dunces this week?”
Yep, that’s the area that some indie bookstores are notorious for, obnoxious, all-knowing, disdaining booksellers who act as though doing you a favor to even discuss a title.
Hodgman goes on to describe the type of employee as ‘a special type of condescending nerd, who used to work in video stores until they went under.” Asked by Stewart, where they were employed before that, Hodgman replies: “Record stores, of course.” Anything that’s become archaic appears to be the booksellers venue.
And this is where the quote from above comes in.
“If bookstores fall, America will be inundated with a wandering snarky underclass of unemployable mock
purveyors of useless and arcane esoterica.”
Stewart says: “I don’t understand.”
Hodgman, “No, YOU wouldn’t.”
And that’s it, in a nutshell. If certain bookstores continue to maintain an elitist attitude towards what to stock, what to recommend, and strike that ‘condescending’ attitude, they are sure to destroy themselves. I’m not certain that The Daily Show was shooting towards that–I think the joke was to see how condescending John Hodgman is–about the very thing he’s claiming is condescending. Whatever the point wanting to be heard, the reality is that certain bookstores do have a reputation for off-putting behavior, of treating a potential monetary transaction as if cleaning the bathrooms. And it isn’t unnoticed by the customer, they know when they’re being treated as beneath contempt.
Why? Why do so many booksellers create an atmosphere of being in some higher realm of learning, of a knowledge cathedral, almost, with a bookseller the priest who moves the populace away from the sins of the bestseller or newest thriller towards the Confederacy of Dunces shrine? And if the sinner won’t comply, the priest turns his back upon the hapless soul, mumbling some vague remonstrances honing in on his next unbeliever. I don’t get it!
Not that I haven’t dipped into the condescending pool once or twice. Usually not in the job, but nonetheless, obnoxious know it all behavior. Once someone asked why a certain author stopped writing, and I guffawed at her innocence as if authors decided their own fate and not publishers! She took me down a few hundred peg, as well she should have. Why on earth should a reader know the inner workings of the publishing world? I don’t know the internal workings of a car engine, for example.
I would watch and listen to fellow booksellers as they spoke on the phone with customer questions, and see the contortions of annoyed expressions when they were ‘forced’ to answer another ‘idiotic’ question. I listened to a superior trash the very people who afforded him his home and livelihood. And I didn’t understand it then, either. Imagine if in all sales related areas, the sellers affected a supercilious attitude? The car salesman shows disdain to the possible sale of a 20,000 dollar coupe, as opposed to the Mercedes he thinks they should buy. A Tiffany clerk ignores the couple who come in to purchase a small diamond, instead of a huge solitaire. None of these anti customer scenarios make sense.
The elitist bookseller will tell you that it’s about bringing the ‘community’ around the store valuable contributions. What these contributions are, is a mystery to anyone other than the elitist bookseller. Being a good part of a community is swell. Serving them with a variety of subject matter, even better. However, if the subject matter strictly reflects the owner’s taste, and not the community in which the owner serves, the store is not bestowing valuable contributions. A bookstore is not a college of higher learning. It’s not a library. It’s not the playground for one person’s personal views of what makes suitable reading material. In my opinion, the best bookstore out there caters, yes, caters to their customers, learning what they like to read, finding material along those lines, and hopefully slipping in a recommendation or two along the way to expand the customer’s criteria. And, if a store works in this fashion, it’s more likely that recommendations will be followed, because the customer has free will. To chose or not. If a venue has nothing a particular customer wants to read, no amount of esoteric cajoling will change the fact. So, either the store loses a potential customer, or the store acclimates to a broader base. Giving the people want they want allows sometimes to give them what they think they don’t want, but end up wanting because it wasn’t foisted upon them in a superior manner. Convoluted, but true.
What is it that the famous titled book says, How to Win Friends and Influence People? Maybe some priests of the Confederacy of Dunces should sample a copy. Who knows, their stores just may survive.