Elias Greig, author of the wonderfully titled (but sure to invoke involuntary shudders from booksellers) I Can’t Remember the Title But the Cover is Blue discusses his new book, and how it exposes the realities of working in retail, and in particular many people’s idea of a dream job – working in a bookshop.
This book, like most books, began life as a kind of therapy. After years of selling overpriced shoes, I’d gotten what I thought would be a calm, dignified job at a bookshop on Sydney’s leafy, beachy North Shore. I’d just started a PhD in literature and, at last, I thought, here was a part-time job where the product I was selling was something I knew and cared about; where I might be genuinely helpful, rather than sly, enabling, and mendacious – key attributes for any worker hoping to make it in Australia’s vast retail and service sector.
As any customer service worker will tell you, customers can be kind, thoughtful, funny, and full of pathos – but also irrational, demanding, intrusive, abusive, over-disclosive, and brain-scramblingly, mind-bendingly strange. The fraught interaction between patron and worker – the counter between us; the commercial imperative brooding above – dims down certain inhibitions and has a hothouse effect on eccentricity. To work in customer service is to be paid (hopefully) minimum wage to remain polite in the face of rudeness, to pretend all requests are welcome and reasonable, and to encourage impulsive behaviour in hope of making a sale.
All this, I thought, would be behind me. I was on my way to a better place, a place of culture and harmless entertainment, where my colleagues and I would take turns answering what I imagined as the most difficult question we’d be asked: ‘I can’t remember the title, but the cover is blue?’ And I wasn’t alone.
The special place of bookshops in the popular imagination meant that many of my friends expressed something like envy: ‘Oh, how lovely! I’ve always wanted to work in a bookshop’. Bookshops were a place of comfort, a pocket universe of humanist decency only incidentally involved in the grubby business of getting and spending.
The truth is that, far from being insulated from the absurdities of retail, bookshops seem to throw them into starker relief. Our curious position as nostalgia property, cultural dispensary, and ersatz community centre means customers feel no qualms asking for help that contradicts or has nothing to do with our status as a ‘business’ – from free day-care (‘Just for an hour, they’re no trouble’) to internet research (‘Thanks for the info, mate, I’ll get it on Amazon’).
And while all retailers encounter angst and human misery, the nature of the product means this misery is uncomfortably explicit. In the shoe shop, certain purchases hinted at midlife crisis or divorce; in the bookshop, titles like Healing from Infidelity leave no room for doubt. Finally, as one of the few remaining places where you can spend hours without being expected to buy anything, bookshops are the natural resort of the idle, the elderly, the lonely, the romantic, and the legitimately mad.
For my own sanity, and as a small creative outlet between part-time work and a PhD thesis, I started writing up my interactions with customers. My aim was to capture something that happened to me almost every day, to put the reader in my place, feeling my trepidation and incredulity – but also my sympathy, amusement, and delight.
This book isn’t or shouldn’t be a simple record of misanthropy and spleen. Rather, it’s a collection of weird, sometimes appalling, sometimes touching, and hopefully funny anecdotes about our bizarre historical moment: to listen to customers in a bookshop is to hear the Zeitgeist come roaring out like the Devil at an exorcism. It’s a record of what the placing of a counter between people does to us, at a time when the consumer is replacing the citizen as society’s basic political unit, and service culture looks set to conquer the world.
If nothing else, I hope these pieces remind readers that the person on the other side of the counter inhabits their own life just as fully. You might be curious to know what we see – particularly since what we see is you.
Extracts from I Can’t Remember the Title But the Cover is Blue:
Here’s a selection of extracts from Elias Greig’s book, and some tips not to upset booksellers this Christmas:
Tips on what not to say to booksellers this Christmas:
More from Elias Greig:
Hear Elias Greig discuss the book and the realities of working in a bookstore with 6PR below or with Radio National, and watch him on Studio 10, with more interviews below: