Booksellers: "A Very Special Class Of Condescending Nerd"

 

“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. 

 

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  • And most important in the realm of what a book store is ” not ” . Is that a book store never is a lounge like place where perspective clients can muck about in comfy chairs and couches read the inventory , then saunter out the door an odd hour or so later to return home to purchase their browsed book via amazon .com. Oh’ did I forget the part about the clients sticky little clandestine sack of sweety snacks that they kept sucking on , while posing about as if some literary lion , lioness , or cub while browsing your book , with no intent of ever purchasing it ? And it should come as no surprise why Borders bit the dust , after encouraging this form of deviant behavior disguised as customer service?

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    • Mark, I agree, bookstores are not libraries, or lounging places–I wrote an article about that very thing–my husband and I spent a day in B&N, sitting at a table, using the free wireless, eating snacks, and researching our trip from things we brought with us and some of the stock. They encourage that sort of thing! But I can’t visit a bookstore without needing a book or two, so of course purchases were made. But for the length of time we spent, there is no way that it would come out as a profit for B&N.

      That being said, businesslike is one thing, superiority and hostility to a ‘browser’ is not productive either. Not that I’m saying you have been either, but sometimes the bookseller becomes so immersed in his world, he forgets there are potential customers who may not be as serious a collector as the seller, but who can appreciate and purchase many books, if given half a chance and hostility isn’t thrown the customer’s way. People should be able to browse without the pressure and expectation of a sale, but naturally, it shouldn’t last all day either. I’ve entered used bookstores and felt immediately unwelcome, as if sized up as wanting. Others are warm interesting places where given a free hand to peruse the shelves had me come away with an armful of treasures.
      It’s a tough call, but I’d always err on the side of the potential customer, until proven differently.

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  • One of your best pieces, Diane. Or maybe I just think that because I totally agree with what you have written.

    In my store I try to have something for almost everyone. OTOH, my own areas of interest are disproportionately large – which perhaps encourages people with similar interests to my own to come in more often. I like talking to my customers. As I come to understand their interests I can point them to books that will expand the perimeters of their interest – or perhaps point them to related fields that they hadn’t considered.

    I can do this, not because of superior knowledge, but because this is my occupation, my central interest. And often, because of the depth they have achieved in their area of interest, they increase my knowledge which I can then pass on to others. It’s a give and take by which we all gain.

    I love being surrounded by books, but it gets even better when I can also spend my time talking to people who also love books, sharing ideas and bits of knowledge.

    I know I’m doing my job well when people come in and tell me that a friend told them that they had to visit my store – and then they come back with their friends. It’s very gratifying.

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  • I feel fortunate never to have encountered such obnoxious characters/employees! But then again, I don’t ask for recommendations, or even read reviews, as I prefer to enter the magical realms of the bookshelves unescorted and to float from one section to the next, collecting books as I go. (Actually, these days I can’t afford new books; my reading material is found in second-hand shops,libraries or is loaned to me by friends.)

    I’ve never understood why some bookstores provide reading areas for customers, especially after reading Mark’s comment! I used to think that people were first buying their books and then resting a while with refreshment until I noticed folks entering the lounges straight from the bookshelves without first purchasing. Crazy. That’s what libraries are for! Minus the snacks and coffees though.

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    • Nancy , I operated an open door book store in a downtown area of a fairly large City prior to closing our doors a few years back to concentrate on the internet. Never really wanted to shut our doors , though the store remains , the downtown we work from has no remaining retail business around us save bars , strip clubs , and restaurants . I guess my point here is if you are running an open book store , run it as a business , not a clubhouse for literary wannabes , and those who have plenty of time upon their hands. Enough time , say to waste a batch of yours . Our book store was a great destination for folks all over the world who were true bibliophiles , and we would still be open for business if the city had not turned into a randy honky tonky themed sports / entertainment venue. Our loss , and it still breaks my heart to not greet clients and meet new clients. Understand , however , that save our annual Holiday coffee and cake day [ usually the Saturday before Christmas ] we would be about business , the rare book business to be specific , and not a club house for wonky folks who wandered in from the sidewalks and decided to make a day of browsing without purchase . Call me old school , though I will tell anyone who will listen to pay attention to the mechanics of the book business for survivals sake . As you might have gathered I am not very entertaining these days.

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      • Mark, it is always sad to hear another book store operator who loved the business is no longer interacting with the special people who make up the book clientele.

        We operate five general used books so our clientele is different that yours was and we have always provided tables and chairs in a comfortable area for customers to relax – I don’t think I would have done the same were I in your end of the business.

        In 23 years I doubt that we had five incidents where customers abused the hospitality the seating areas provided – in each case the problems were quickly and easily dealt with when they were brought to my attention.

        We have had very few employees who behaved as though books were more important than people but our staff wouldn’t tolerate working with that type of person for long – and, has been previously discussed here, when devoted staff notice peculiarities their employment is cut short.

        And Diane, don’t you think it’s strange that you took a humorous piece about the books business so seriously?
        To date your own perspectives pertaining to your experiences in the business seem more harmful than helpful.

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        • George. In case you haven’t noticed, you are a lone dissenter and woefully ignorant in regard to a single thing about my work, past and present. I must really bother you for the need to come here and find fault every so often. Something a respectable fellow bookman wouldn’t do. For example, I’m not on your forum, hurling insults at your posts–mostly because I have better things to do with my time. This kind of tit for tat sparring hurts other posters heads, therefore, this is the last time I will address any of your obnoxious statements. Either move on, or be aware that if you continue to express your ‘opinion’ about me, it will be ignored.

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          • I understand your notification and your desire to ignore my comments that don’t agree, and take offense, when you put yourself forward as possessing expert insider knowledge about the books business.

            You come across as someone who, with the aid of your admitted interest in the mystery genre, sees the people around her as characters involved in some sort of plot you can easily see right through. It might be nice if life was that simple – so we could take everything at face value and would not be required to make the real effort it requires to delve into and learn and relearn how to deal with people as complex individuals who can, and do, change with their circumstances. Most of us are either too lazy or too busy to attempt to present another viewpoint into the mix – but Socrates tried.

            Over the years the Bookshop Blog has done a remarkable job of adding to the books business so it is not pleasant for any of us to speak up against it when we know its history and its potential for good. But it was not built to be a bully pulpit.

            As Frederick Douglass said:
            Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.

            or … “All it takes for evil to prevail, is for good men to stand by and do nothing.” – Edmund Burke

            A little bit strong, I agree, but when the books business is being gored – it is my ox being gored.

            None of this is meant to be a matter of hurling insults – in previous exchanges you have shown little inclination to consider another’s point of view.

            I have taken a defensive posture here in an attempt to ward off blows to the books business but people should also be alerted to damaging instances of “friendly fire”.

            You are in a position to help the book business on a blog whose followers are mostly determined to do just that – just do it!(as Nike would say)
            Neither you or I matter very much – except for the good we do when we are in the right spot at the right time.

            And I sincerely hope you can construe this as being helpful (for the good of the blog) – hurting you does not help me and is not in anyone’s best interests.

            I’m fine with you not responding – good luck.

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          • If I may,

            The Bookshop Blog has done a decent job in promoting books and bookselling. This is due to one lucky property…for some reason, unknown to me, I’ve been able to attract some very interesting people. Folks who thought the idea of sharing their varied experiences was a grand idea. At the very top of this list are Diane & George – with supporting actor oscars going to many other fine readers and contributors (hello Paul). It pains me to see you two disagree as you’ve both been so helpful to me. I hope that you can agree that you see things from a different perspective and certainly voice opinions in your own unique voices – but are both an important (and I hope continuing) part of this site. I worry that traditional bookselling is in a precarious position and I truly hope that our small band of vocal supporters can at least agree that (although they employ different styles) they have the same aspirations. Getting good books into the hands of good people.

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