Monday, June 29, 2009

Why I love—and hate—my job

Please welcome guest blogger Fran Fuller, one of the awesome booksellers at the Seattle Mystery Bookshop.

Fran is a former teacher who taught high school students English, drama, communications and various other literature-type studies. At a fork in her career path she decided to indulge her passion for books and went to work as a bookseller. She is an eclectic mystery reader and enjoys everything from cozies to humorous to historical to science fiction. She also enjoys discovering new authors.

By Fran

"I'm looking for a book. It's new and the cover's purple or something and it's set in the 1800's or so, and everyone says it's the best. About a girl named 'Sadie" or 'Janie" or something. Do you have it?"

"It's a true story about a crazy lady who blows up a school, and my friend said I need to read it, and she says I'll like it even though I don't like much violence. Or cursing. I don't like strong language. Do you know what book I mean?"

"It's about a lawyer, or maybe it's by a lawyer, and it's like that Grisham guy only not, because it's kinda funny, and the name sounds something like a department store. You know what I mean, right?"

"It's a mystery about finance. And it's not romantic at all, but I remember the cover was red. Or blue. And the hero's a guy. Or a girl with a guy's name. Where can I find that one?"

"I don't know what he writes, my friend said I had to read it. He co-wrote a bunch of books with this famous guy and everyone says his stuff is good on its own. It better not be fantasy stuff, 'cause I hate that, but if he's got something set, I dunno, in the city, or even in the country, that'd be okay. He's maybe a musician? Who is he, again?"

I'm sure by now you know who all these people are, but you're the smart one. You're the customer we love to see coming in the door, and we think you're the best possible person on the planet!

However, being a bookseller frequently means being psychic. And patient. Working in a specialty shop means that we have fewer totally clueless customers, but I have to say that there are times when I feel like I could use a Magic Eight Ball.

It's not the customers who wander in thinking that by "mystery," we mean "universal mystery." Those folks are fine. They want New Age stuff or religious stuff, and while we have New Age and religious mysteries, they generally just nod pleasantly and wander out again, and we wish them well.

But oh my, some of the questions we get!

"I want something for my dad, and he likes that Jim Grisham guy, but he doesn't like anything violent. He's read all the books by Jack Reacher and, is it Mallory O'Connell? But yeah, can you recommend something that isn't too, I dunno, mean because he doesn't like stuff like that."

Um. Okay.

Honestly, that does give us more to go on than "It's blue and has mystery in the title. Or death. Something like that," although we can work with that if we have to.

Because when you come down to it, people who buy mysteries are willing to experiment. They're willing to try new authors, new titles, simply because in general, mystery readers are voracious. They can read more than any twelve authors can write, and they can often do it in less than a week.

We love our customers. A lot. Even the clueless ones.

There was a young man who came into our shop and wanted the books by Sherlock Holmes. My co-worker at the time took him to the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle section, but he shook his head. No, he wanted the real stories, the ones written by Holmes himself, not the ones made up by Doyle. He was insistent. She was patient.

When it finally sunk in to him that Holmes was a fictional character, that he hadn't ever really been alive, she said she felt like the world's biggest heel. She wanted to give him a hug and a teddy bear, he was so completely devastated. His eyes welled up and he dragged himself out of the store, shoulders slumped.

That's a tribute to excellent writing, and that's part of why I love my job. Not because I get to destroy people's illusions -- that part's really the worst part -- but because the worlds that are created in the books written by the great authors around us and exemplified by the fine writers featured in this blog are so very real.

"I want a mystery with something strange in it. Like balloons. Or tarot cards. Or hurdy gurdies. Or accordians! Yeah, you got a mystery about accordians?"

Charlotte Armstrong has balloons.

David Skibbins has tarot.

Dorothy Gilman has a hurdy gurdy.

Accordians? Hold on, it'll take me a minute. . . Nancy Means Wright!

Now as to whether or not it's still in print, that's a whole 'nother question!



  1. oh yes fran, i know so well what you mean. we had a few of those when i worked at foyles in london. funny enough, the customers in any of the other bookshops i worked weren't that bad.

    i remember one customer asking if samuel pepys, who is famous for his diaries of 17th century london, had written anything lately.

    but my favorite is still the woman who came running into the shop and up to the desk in the ficton department and asked my friend sue, "where can i get total orgasm?" and sue just calmly replied, "downstairs in the medical dept!"

    oh there's one born every day.


  2. I owned an independent bookstore and had many funny questions. One lady wanted to know if I had any books on the "French way." I delicately asked if maybe she was looking for something related to the Kama Sutra. She said, no, a friend told her that it was all the rage, this French way, and she had purchased a book at my store all about it. Hmmmm....I was stumped. FINALLY, I said, "do you mean feng shui?" Yep.

  3. from Jacqueline

    Fran, what a great post. And for all the people out there who wonder why we love our bookstores, there's the reason right there - you care about helping us to find the next great read, even though my idea of a great read is not the same as the next person's.

    Thanks for joining us today - hope you come back again!

    Sybille - great stories about Foyles. I have terrible memories of having to get orders signed by Vic Stimac before they could be processed (that was when I was a rep) - and there was that sidekick of his, Robin, who reminded me of Radar in M.A.S.H.

  4. Loved both sets of stories! You two should collaborate on a TV sit-com. Too bad bookstore computers can't search by the random disjointed words customers give you.

  5. Ah, LOVE your job, and we know it.

    Bless the independent booksellers who fight the good fight. In 1991the American Booksellers Association had 5,200 members, today 1660.

  6. Judy Bobalik6/29/2009 7:58 AM

    As a former independent book store owner, I was laughing and nodding at your post.
    Have you ever watched the British comedy Black Books? It nails what owning a small bookstore is like.

  7. Fabulous post, Fran!

  8. jackie, stimac was in charge of the technical department when i worked there. he used to track down every single shoplifter - worse than the kgb. after him, my friend ortruds' husband, john cruickshanks took over.

    when i was in charge of the ordering, my boss was mr. rush. he was a tought cooky as well. but the reps soon found a way to get around him and came straight to me to get their orders sanctioned.

    that's how i met ian kiek who got me the job at hutch. those were the days, my friend.......!

  9. James O. Born6/29/2009 10:29 AM

    Hey Fran,

    I love your store.


  10. Thank you all for making me so very welcome here!

    Oh dear, Sybille, something new by Pepys?

    Ah well, there was someone who wanted the real book "The Princess Bride" by S. Morgenstern and refused to believe that William Goldman just made it up. What can you do?

    "French Way" for feng shui makes perfect sense to me! Heh.

    Judy, no, I haven't heard of it, but I'll have to look for it. Still, watching "Notting Hill" makes me smile, especially the Grisham cutomer!

    And Jackie, Patty, Paul, James, Cornelia, you're all why I do most seriously LOVE my job! Thank you for giving me great stuff to work with.

    Again, thank you so much for having me come visit!

  11. You are lucky to work in a bookstore....that would be a dream come true for me!