'Tis the Season · stuff I read

‘Tis the Season: I think we get to yell BINGO now #bookstorebingo

I haven’t done a ‘Tis the Season post in a while – none of the customers were uniquely strange or said anything funny. If I had a dollar every time I got asked where the Bibles were by a customer standing in front of the entire Bible aisle or similar….well, I could at least afford another student loan payment.

There is a Twitter hashtag #bookstorebingo (or #booksellerbingo, I’ve seen both) for booksellers tweeting about shit that only seems to happen to booksellers. Today the customers and staff were determined to get us to blackout on the imaginary bingo card.

I was asked:

  • To price-match Amazon (nerp)
  • To price-match Amazon after spending 20 minutes with the same customer and their long shopping list and offering to carry things and wrap gifts, etc. (yeah, websites don’t really do that for you)
  • To price-match Walmart (LOLwut)
  • To find a lost child (who was found by another bookseller when he came back into the store from outside)
  • To find a lost teacher (we had a school event today, oy)
  • To order a table lamp with the University of Iowa Hawkeyes logo (to start, we aren’t affiliated with the UI, and then lemme explain some things about trademarks and licensing, and then….we don’t sell bespoke lamps anyway)
  • To order a personalized, engraved bible (see also: things we don’t/can’t order)
  • To order A Song of Ice and Fire Book 6 (God laughed)
  • To order a desk calendar that didn’t exist (even Google couldn’t find this thing, so IDK what this person thought they saw in a magazine somewhere)
  • Why Patricia Briggs’s Mercy Thompson series wasn’t in the teen section, they looked like such good books for kids (I…are we sure we are talking about the same Mercy Thompson series? It’s not erotica or anything, but teens are not the target audience?)
  • We also:
    • Had a broken espresso machine for part of the day (again)
    • Had someone stick Bibles in the Stephen King section (thanks, jerk, because I have to put all of them back now)
    • Had a bookseller arrive late because he got in a minor fender bender (he’s fine)
    • Had a bookseller arrive very late because she had a flat tire and had to get it fixed (almost 4 hours late….use the donut that’s what it’s for)
    • Had a bookseller work only half his shift because the poor guy had two wisdom teeth extracted yesterday (that’s legit reasons to call out, imo)
    • Had a bookseller not show up because he couldn’t get his shift covered (idk about this one, the managers knew about it? So I stayed for a few extra hours because I like money and the store was a wreck and needed some sort of recovery so it didn’t look like a complete trash heap when I came back to work on Monday.)
    • Had a computer at customer service freeze repeatedly so we turned it off and I put a note that said “Frozen” on it and then everyone kept making “Let It Go” jokes (I did sort-of walk into that one)

    And competing for the center square:

    • Had a customer ask for a Harry Potter advent calendar, which we’ve been sold out of for weeks (look, world, the good/fun/cute advent calendars with LEGO mini-figures or toys or what have you sell out early every year no matter how many we order and are then unavailable until the following fall, so if you leave your advent calendar shopping until after advent has started you are left with a rather sad selection of “open the flap” and “chocolates of suspect age” advent calendars *whomp whomp*)
    • Had a kid barf in the children’s section which required both of our children’s booksellers to clean up and it was on the carpet requiring use of the weird stuff that “dries out the vomit” so it can be swept up and the carpet then vacuumed (this is the second time in almost two weeks that we’ve had a kid hurl in the middle of the kids’ section and our children’s leads are fucking metal about cleaning that up because I get even a hint of stomach smell and have to leave the area; also, we’re all probably going to die of norovirus now, it was nice knowing you, last Saturday I had to help unclog one of the toilets)
    • Had an unbelievably extra woman go up to one of the cashiers and complain about the booksellers cleaning up the vomit and couldn’t we do something else about it? (Like, what, stand around and smell it all day? Leave it there? Use the chunky vom as materiel for a story time craft project? The mind boggles.)

    Today’s BINGO squares brought to you by every tool bag customer who was absent that day in kindergarten when they taught patience, walked up to me while I was engaged with another customer, and interrupted to ask something stupid like if we sold magnetic phone chargers or whatever. If you aren’t on fire or missing a small child or need an ambulance, get in line.

    'Tis the Season · customers

    ‘Tis the Season: Do you know all the capitals in the world?

    We are now into the hellish part of the holiday shopping season, the part where people have the most oddball requests and we have zero time in which to fulfill them before Christmas Day.

    Sometimes we just get lucky.

    Dad (with two teenage girls in tow): Do you have books about Portugal?
    Me (Reminder: we are in Iowa): Well….I’m pretty sure we have some travel guides right now.
    One of the girls (with a voice to match all her A&F gear):  We want a book about Portugal.
    Dad: Like about where the country came from.  We have a themed Christmas and they picked Portugal this year.
    Me (WTF, I bet you knew about this more than three days before Christmas, and who is “they” because I want to “have a discussion” with them): Well, let’s head over to the history section and see what we have.
    Dad: You have a history section?
    (Excuse me while my eyes roll out of my head.  So we get to history and lo, there with the books about Spain is one about Lisbon.  It’s the only book about Portugal in any way.)
    Me: Here you go.  This is about Lisbon, the capital of Portugal.
    Dad: Wow, do you know all the capitals in the world?
    Me: Probably.  At least most of them.
    Other teenage girl: Do you know where we can buy things made in Portugal?

    We are the whitest white people ever.  Oy.

    'Tis the Season · customers

    ‘Tis the Season: "Classics" isn’t really a genre

    The “Where are your classics?” question is a late-breaker this year.  I hadn’t got that one until yesterday when I had three of them.

    A sample conversation goes a bit like this:
    Customer: Where are your classics?
    Me: Well, we don’t have a separate section.  Some titles are on a display, but most are in their specific subject arranged by author.  Is there a specific title or type of book you’re looking for?
    Customer: *blink blink blink* A classic.
    Me: *headdesk*

    “Classic” really isn’t a genre.  If you talk to a Classics major, then you get the Greek and Roman Classics which encompass philosophy, history, and drama.  In more general terms, a classic work of literature is basically something approaching at least 100 years of age and is still read (more or less – this is one of those “definitions” that’s become very elastic) and those span every conceivable genre and subject.  Plain old fiction, romance, mystery, science fiction and fantasy, mythology, western, drama, poetry, essays, history, philosophy, cooking, sporting, economics, travel, religion, and on and on and on.

    All classics are not alike.  If you want something sort of crazypants and are a Lovecraft (who, depending on definition, is approaching classic author status) fan, then you’re probably not going to be over the moon with Dickens.  You’d be happier with Kafka or Stevenson.  If you are easily offended, then don’t read DH Lawrence.  If you’re looking for something short then Eliot or Milton are not good choices.

    So when the bookseller asks if you are looking for a particular book or subject that might happen to be a classic piece of writing don’t just say “classic.”  We do actually want to help you find something you like (or find something the recipient of your gift will like).  Put some thought into your answers to our questions.  “Anything” doesn’t count as an answer.

    Otherwise, we’ll leave you alone in the corner to cry over the thickness of Don Quixote and War and Peace (and be assured, we have found the thickest copies we have).

    'Tis the Season · customers

    ‘Tis the Season: My child has a Lexile score of…

    October has arrived.  Cool weather, pretty fall color, yummy drinks composed of apple cider or hot cocoa, and I get to wear scarves (I like scarves as an accessory).

    And standardized testing, if you are or have a school-age child.

    In my area of the country, it seems school districts have chosen testing that calculates a Lexile score for a child’s reading level with an associated score range.  Lexile is a company that uses a software program to analyze books for word usage, sentence length, etc. and produce a Lexile Text Measure for each book (I copied the description from the Lexile Analyzer site):

    The Lexile ® measure of text is determined using the Lexile Analyzer ®, a software program that evaluates the reading demand—or readability—of books, articles and other materials. The Lexile Analyzer ® measures the complexity of the text by breaking down the entire piece and studying its characteristics, such as sentence length and word frequency, which represent the syntactic and semantic challenges that the text presents to a reader. The outcome is the text complexity, expressed as a Lexile ® measure, along with information on the word count, mean sentence length and mean log frequency.
    Generally, longer sentences and words of lower frequency lead to higher Lexile ® measures; shorter sentences and words of higher frequency lead to lower Lexile ® measures. Texts such as lists, recipes, poetry and song lyrics are not analyzed because they lack conventional punctuation.

    I’m not a huge fan of putting a “score” on a book based simply on a computer generated metric because the software doesn’t take into account context or content of a book.  Or form, cf poetry.  But this seems to be accepted by the educational powers-that-be, so it’s here for the time being.  However, I don’t know how well or often the scores are explained to parents, because I wind up in a lot of parent-bookseller conversations like this:

    Parent: My child has a Lexile score of XXXX.  She has to read books in the range of XXXX-XXXX.  Will this work?
    Bookseller [thinks]: Fuuuuuuck.
    Bookseller [says]: Well, lets pull up the Lexile site to see what it suggests for that range and go from there.

    The major problem here is that the parent hasn’t THE FOGGIEST IDEA what books go with the child’s Lexile score or how score ranges line up with likely grade-levels.  They don’t have/haven’t been provided with a list of suggestions for the range.  They haven’t looked up Lexile on the Internet to get a handle on what this thing is (I mean, hello, the Internet is the Information Superhighway, Google it).  And their poor child is off in the corner trying desperately to read another Warriors book by Erin Hunter or Wimpy Kid or the new Babymouse before the “grown-ups” force her into reading stuff that she thinks she doesn’t want to read.

    As booksellers (and by extension librarians, a population I am not a member of but respect greatly), we are the information gatekeepers the parents turn to in this situation.  We are the ones to take an abstract range of numbers and turn it into a physical pile of titles and authors.  We have to differentiate between editions because scores can fluctuate wildly and Lexile isn’t very informative (type “The Sun Also Rises” into Lexile – the old Scribner edition has a score of 610L, the ISBN for the reprint isn’t found, and the Modern Critical Interpretations edition is listed with a score of 1420L….confusing, right?).  And we are the ones who have to know what stories lay between the covers of those books so we can explain the contents to the parents.

    In almost every customer interaction regarding Lexile, I have had to find books for a child who reads significantly above grade level (at grade level is generally pretty easy and parents with children under grade level often have a list of recommended titles as a starting point; for some reason, those children who read above grade level don’t have many recommendations).  For reference, Lexile gives a grade approximation for the score ranges:

    Even though the approximate ranges are pretty wide, a book or series that is popular among peers isn’t often in the “right” score range for an advanced reader.  Some titles are marked “NC” meaning a non-conforming score (higher than intended audience) but it’s hard to tease those out of a range during a search (I’ve tried).  It can get pretty emotional when the child cannot find anything he or she wants to read or that parents will allow them to read that “counts” for their Lexile score.

    The biggest grade-to-score discrepancy I’ve come across was a seventh grade boy (and a bit young socially for his age) who had a Lexile score greater than 1100.  His Lexile range was approximately 1150 – 1210.  The boy had to read at least five books that semester in his range to pass English and he was already behind. His father had done some online research and was at a loss – he was having trouble finding content-appropriate books in that score range (there was also a religious consideration, so a lot of recommended fantasy titles were automatically out).  The boy was very open to reading Stephen King, who has a lot of high-Lexile score titles, but the idea was vetoed by Dad due to language (and probably the religious consideration as well).  Dostoevsky was perfectly acceptable to Dad, but the kiddo really couldn’t get excited about it (he was into Gary Paulsen’s Brian series, but that wasn’t even close).  Some Dumas was in the right range but not the more appealing titles (The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask are both under 1000).  Gary Paulsen’s My Life in Dog Years was just in range, so I was able to interest both parent and child in that.  I sold them on The Hound of the Baskervilles and then hit paydirt with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.  The boy had a friend with an Asperger-like syndrome and they were friends in their advanced math classes. Whew.  Finally, three books and a reasonably happy father.  But I couldn’t help but think – what are they going to do as the child continues through the school system?

    You’re probably wondering where I’m going with all this since this isn’t quite the usual tone for a “‘Tis the Season” post.

    Well, I really just wanted to put this out there to maybe help save parents, children, and teachers (and possibly other booksellers and librarians) some grief.  I would like to ask school administrators and teachers to work with children and parents to come up with lists of possible books appropriate to both grade-level and Lexile range (and I understand if you do this and the parents forget, are obstinate, or leave the list at home when they head to the bookstore).  For parents, Lexile provides a map with lists of titles for score ranges.  It’s a good place to start when trying to find books.

    I would also like to ask teachers to be less rigid when assigning Lexile-related reading assignments because this seems to be where children have the most trouble.  I have so often helped kids who love, love to read but have found that none of the books they find appealing “count” for a reading assignment because they aren’t in the “right” Lexile range or have no score because either the book is too new or has an un-evaluable format.  These kids feel disheartened, that they’re failing, that the things they love are unimportant, and I hate seeing their disappointment when I’ve gone through the entire stack of books they’ve picked out and not a single one was in the right range.  I had a little girl just burst into tears once when I told her The Last Olympian  – the book she so desperately wanted to read – had a score of 620L; she had to have books greater than 700 or her teacher wouldn’t count them at all.  Please let children with high Lexile ranges count some of those lower-scoring books toward their reading assignment (say, an exchange of two non-Lexile books for one Lexile book, not to exceed half the assignment) or perhaps give them extra credit for those books as long as they’re keeping up with the Lexile assignment (if you’re already doing that, bravo!).  These kids are reading because they love reading and they’re already reading outside of school, which is sort of the point of those types of assignments.   I rarely hear of a child being penalized for reading above his or her range so I think there’s a compromise that can be reached for those kids who want to read but have trouble finding books due to age or content.

    So bring your Lexile ranges to me and I and my fellow booksellers and librarians will do our best to find what you like to read as well as what you need to read – if we’re very good, that book will fill both requirements.  ‘Tis that sort of season.

    'Tis the Season

    ‘Tis the Season: As the school year winds down…

    The end of the school year (both K-12 and college) brings a flurry of odd bookstore encounters.

    Two high schoolers (likely boyfriend/girlfriend) are looking around the history section with that utterly lost look on their faces.
    Me:  Can I help you find something?
    Girl:  Well…we need to read 1984 but it’s not here. (Waves at US History)
    (Oh honey, no….)

    Two teachers are wandering around in the fiction section.
    Male teacher:  Do you have any Faulkner?
    Me: Yes we do – which book are you looking for?
    Female teacher:  Oh, any are fine.
    (I showed them the shelf of Faulkner, they made appreciative noises, and I left them to browse.  About 15 minutes later, they come find me.)
    Female teacher:  Do you have any shorter Faulkner?
    Me (shorter?):  Are you looking for short stories?
    Female teacher:  Not really.  These are pretty dense.  (Shows me Absalom, Absalom, As I Lay Dying, and The Sound and the Fury)  We were hoping for something like this but shorter.
    Me: Well…I don’t see any abridgements available in the catalogue.  There are literature guides like Sparknotes.
    Male teacher: Oh, those will work.  We just need it for Contest Speech.
    (I’ve never come across a kid who did Faulkner for Contest Speech – I can’t decide if that would be interesting or just plain nuts)

    Parent with an armload of AP biology and calculus study guides: Are these books guaranteed?  The tests are next week and my son needs a 5.
    (Unless the courses and exams have changed greatly since 1996, which I doubt, the result is more dependent on whether one paid attention in class all year rather than the cram session but, no, a study guide is not a guarantee of a perfect score.)

    Customer (college-aged male): You don’t have any copies of Paradise Lost.
    Me (finding this very hard to believe because I saw some not long ago): Well, let’s go look on the shelves in poetry.
    Customer: Poetry?? But I don’t want to read a poem.
    Me: Here it is, under Milton in poetry.
    Customer: Do you have one that isn’t a poem?
    Me: No. Milton wrote a poem about the fall of Satan.
    Customer: Do you have it in English?
    (Give up while you’re ahead, big guy)

    Very pleasant college student on the phone:  Do you have a copy of Ulysses?
    Me: We do, do you need a particular edition?
    (She needs the Knopf with the 1961 text, which we had on hand)
    Student: Great! I’ll be in to pick it up tonight.  Will it take long to read?  I have to have my paper done by the end of finals.
    (Finals were about 10 days away when she called.  Um….)

    Most often-heard response to the statement “Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy in the store but I can get one in about a week”:
    “But I need it tomorrow!”
    (And then when I mention things like libraries and ebooks I get a withering look in return)

    I also have a more generalized comment about Lexile scores, but will save that for a different post.

    'Tis the Season

    ‘Tis the Season: My favorite request of 2012

    This request from Christmas Eve pretty much took the cake:

    A very smart-looking, well-appointed lady (chic overcoat, lots of jewelry, conservative haircut, good handbag) asked:
    Can you recommend a book for an aging, leftist hippie who likes Carl Hiaassen?  Oh, and he’s really smart.  He’s a genius.

    Hot. Damn.

    Aside from the fact that on Christmas Eve I was extremely limited in what I could recommend since I couldn’t order anything and get it from the warehouse by the time we closed (which was in about 3 hours), what does one recommend in this instance.  Is Carl Hiaassen a hippie?  He doesn’t look like a hippie.  Is it the mystery what he likes?  The only things I could come up with that were hippie-ish and genius-ish were John Irving and WP Kinsella.  Would those be good for Carl Hiaassen fans?  Especially aging ones?  What about geniuses?

    I was torn between recommending something really snobbish like Naked Lunch (which an aging, leftist, genius, hippie has likely already read), laughing because everyone is a genius (I mean everyone – if granny asks for a book for her 11 year old grandchild, he/she is always an advanced reader, always, and therefore needs Dickens even if the poor kid is trying to suture the Wimpy Kid box set to his/her arm), and just grabbing a whole load of thrillers in the let’s-throw-some-things-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks philosophy.

    'Tis the Season

    ‘Tis the Season: The "Things You Want But Can’t Have" Edition

    So, amongst all the gift requests for “I need a book about wolves for my fourth grade son” and “Where’s the Oprah book?” we get requests to order books that are existentially challenged.  They are either in process, planned, or completely non-existent, but completely unavailable to me as a bookseller.

    Welcome to a list of “Things you want but can’t have”:

    • Entwined With You (available in May, sorry)
    • The fourth Fifty Shades of Gray book (announced but likely unwritten as yet)
    • A Dance With Dragons in paperback (maybe May, since the last release date got pushed back)
    • The sixth A Song of Ice and Fire book (in progress, not finished yet – GRRM has a blog where he occasionally posts tidbits and updates)
    • The new Robert Jordan book (A Memory of Light is not available until January 8 – save your gift cards)
    • The new Patrick Rothfuss book (I’m not sure when The Doors of Stone will be available; I have heard May but the date hasn’t been officially announced)
    • The new Rick Riordan book (well, since your kid already read The Mark of Athena I don’t have any newer than that)
    • A new book by Christopher Paolini (sorry, no dice)
    • Catching Fire and Mockingjay in paperback (unfortunately that format is not available for retail sale, blame Scholastic)
    • Any Wimpy Kid books in paperback (again, blame Scholastic)
    • The Twilight-from-Edward’s-perspective book (likely never to be published since it got “leaked” years ago)
    • The new Harry Potter (which was really a request for The Casual Vacancy, which the customer didn’t want after learning it wasn’t a Harry Potter book)

    And in the line of regular, random, crazy-pants requests/incidents:

    • A non-fiction novel (eh? And what he actually wanted was a local-yokel author’s book of history)
    • A book about Ohio State football (which we don’t have on hand since we’re in Iowa and the University of Iowa is down the road making OSU football anathema)
    • Gabby Gifford’s gymnastics book (er, do you mean Gabrielle Douglas?)
    • A customer told me how much more he gets laid now that the Fifty Shades & Co. books are out.  (TMI, dude, beyond TMI.  Also, please bathe.  Ack.)
    • Books on panning for gold (which have to be ordered since we don’t really have a market for those here in a breadbasket state)
    • I tried to hand-sell Thurber’s The Thirteen Clocks to a woman who told me it sounded “weird” then turned around and bought Gaiman’s Coraline (which is also a “weird” book, but whatever)

    Only five more bookselling days until Christmas!

    'Tis the Season

    ‘Tis the Season: Football, School, and *sigh*

    Weekends are heating up at the store.  Lots of traffic, lots of questions, and lots of *headdesk*

    Related to football season:
    – “Why don’t you have books on [insert name of visiting football team from across the country here]?”  Because they aren’t the home team or even in the same state.
    – “Do you have a book that explains football to kids?” The child in question is using a teething ring, no lie.
    – “Do you have the game score?” And he wasn’t even interested in the game being played in town, which was the game I had up on ESPN.

    Related to school:
    Customer: “Do you have books on Egypt?”
    Me: “Like a travel book?”
    Customer: “Uh…sure!”
    So we go to the travel section and I get out all six books on travelling in Egypt.
    Customer: “My daughter has to write a report on the Sphinx.”
    And I turn to see a kid who is maybe ten years old, possibly eleven.  Unfortunately, we do not have books about the Sphinx specifically in the store, at all, or at any store in the area, and none of the books in the history section (adult or child) have much information on the Sphinx at all.
    Customer: “Well, how is [my child] going to get her report done by Monday???”
    Seriously???!???!!  Perhaps you could try the library since those books are already purchased with your tax dollars.  

    Customer on phone:  “Do you have City of Glass?  It’s a graphic novel.”
    Checks computer – unfortunately we don’t have Paul Auster’s graphic novel adaptation of his novella.
    Customer on phone:  “Isn’t that by Cassie Clare?”
    Me: “I believe there are planned graphic novel adaptations of the Mortal Instruments series but those aren’t available, yet.”
    Customer on phone: “Oh, yeah, so I guess it is by that guy you mentioned.  Do you know where I could get this? I have to have it read for class by Tuesday.”
    *headdesk* Ugh, seriously?  Library?  Has the general population forgotten about this very valuable resource for getting homework and school work done on time?

    Customer (walks up to me): “Chaucer.”
    Legit, that was the opening to the conversation.  No, “Excuse me” or “Can you help me find something?” just a word.
    Me:  “Er, are you looking for something specific?”
    Customer: “Chaucer.”
    Me (ARGH!):  “Do you need a specific title or translation?”
    Customer (blinks a bit at me):  “Poetry?”
    Me (not the answer I was expecting): “Er, right.  There are a couple of different major poems.  The Parliament of Fowls or The Canterbury Tales, perhaps?”
    Customer:  “Oh, yes, tales!”
    And hands me a Post-It with “Chaucer Wife’s Tail” written on it.  And, yes, it was spelled like that.
    Me: “OK.  This edition here is probably the cheapest if you don’t need a specific edition.”
    Customer:  “I need an easy one.”
    Me:  “OK.” (hands her a different volume) “This is the No Fear edition which will have a modern English translation on the facing page.  It’s pretty user-friendly.”
    Customer: “Does it have the Wife’s Tale?”
    Me:  “Yes, it has the entire set of Tales so that would include the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale.”  And I show her where they are in the book.
    Customer: “Oh, good.  Do you know where I could get a summary?  I’m a tutor and don’t have time to read this.”
    *headdesk*  I hope they aren’t paying her very much.

    Customer:  “Where are your Christmas sales?”
    Me:  “We don’t have our holiday sales out yet, ma’am.”
    Customer (aghast):  “Why not??”
    Um, because it isn’t even Hallowe’en yet?  Keep your shirt on, we’ll have them out the first week in November.

    And in the “Awwwww” department:
    I’m back in the Kids’ section and the cutest little girl with pigtails and glasses comes up to me.
    Girl: “Excuse me please, could you show me where you keep the Percy Jackson books?”
    (and of course she has the cutest lisp, too)
    So I show her where the books are on display.  She very solemnly looks over the table, chooses Percy Jackson #4, and turns to me with a great big smile.
    Girl: “I love books!  Don’t you?”
    Me: “I do!”
    Girl: “When I grow up I want to read books all day!”
    She hugs the book and scampers off but turns around and comes straight back.
    Girl: “I forgot to say thank you!  Thank you for helping me!”
    And off she goes again. Dear parents of this child – your kid is adorable and I hope she stays that way.  Kids like her go a ways toward making a long day shorter.