Friday, September 9, 2011

“I’m looking for a book. It’s got half a woman’s face on it.”

Something stirs in my gut, and it’s not the dry Weetbix with butter and vegemite, the block of Golden Rough and the bottle of red that I had for dinner last night. (Although incidentally, that particular meal will produce an almost identical sensation five hours from now.)

This is something quite different. It’s an affliction that hits me in bookshops, particularly the big, who-gives-a-fuck-what-you’re-looking-for kind of book-supermarket that would rather you BYO dowsing stick than pay their staff enough to make them to actually want to help you.

Sorry, did I say that out loud?

Anyway, this particular affliction is commonly known as EBSNU. Before you say ‘Gesundheit!’, I should advise that EBSNU stands for Ex-Book-Seller Ninja Urge.

Ladies and gentlemen, I was not always the mild-mannered librarian you see before you. My name is Anna Ryan-Punch and I used to be a bookseller. I pulled all the moves. I told you your order would arrive in 7-10 days (which means I have no idea when your book will arrive but I really hope it’s not me who serves you when you come back to ask about it). I suggested a novel for your birthday present to your 9-year-old son who ‘hates reading’, when what I really wanted to suggest was that you get him something he’d actually like. I knew that you meant Rushdie’s Satanic Verses when you asked if we had the Satanic Bible, though I was always tempted to ring up a copy of the latter. I found you books for your daughter at university who you didn’t understand any more, books for your 80-year-old aunt who hates swearing and sex, books for your baffling 16-year-old son who knocks off two novels a day, and most importantly, I found you the books that you couldn’t remember the title or author of, but you definitely know there is a part where someone has sex with a bear.

I’m standing in Borders at the Jam Factory (this blog post brought to you by the wonder of memory combined with first person present tense). I’ve got The Subtle Knife in one hand and Guns, Germs & Steel in the other. The books, I mean. I may be an EBSN but I don’t actually carry throwing stars.

“I’m looking for a book. It’s got half a woman’s face on it.”

My EBSN aerial extends from my head and locks into place with an audible click. (This is a lie. I am not, in fact a cyborg. But I did imagine an aerial extending from my head, and I may or may not have made a little clicking noise with my tongue as I imagined it locking into place).

The book she’s looking for is Tully. It’s obviously Tully. The shop assistant (I can see at once he is not a true book-seller) hums a bit and asks the standard non-ESBN questions.

“Can you remember anything about the author or the title?”

The woman shakes her head impatiently. “You’d know it,” she says. “It’s got half a woman’s face on it.” I run out of willpower at this point; I relapse. I place my weapon-related books gently down on the bench and sidestep out of sight behind a wall of Frank McCourt. Then I scurry, head-down, to the fiction section and locate the Paullina Simons wing. Five seconds later I’m back at the info desk. The woman is still there, and by the look on the shop assistant’s face I can tell she’s now said “It’s got half a woman’s face on it” upwards of twenty times.

“Sorry,” I interrupt, “Are you looking for Tully?”

The woman turns towards me and for a minute I don’t know if she’s going to hug me or stick me with a nearby copy of The Subtle Knife. I hold the Simons out in front of me and she almost snatches it from my hands. “That’s IT!” She points angrily at the shop assistant. “He didn’t know what it was, and he works here.” I smile beatifically and melt into the night. By which I mean I pick up my two books and ask the shop assistant if they have an EFTPOS minimum.

EBSNU is a relatively common phenomenon. It’s about two-thirds as common as ex-booksellers, but half as common as remaining a bookseller for more than five years. I did first year stats at uni, just go with me on this.

And like any addiction, there’s the rush, the high, and then you need more. But hanging around in bookshops eavesdropping on customer service is as acceptable as drinking light beer at a B&S Ball. Or, should you prefer your references more high-brow, it’s as acceptable as ordering a Becks at Beer Deluxe.

It’s best to stay calm and let the EBSNU moments come to you. My personal crowning moment comes 10 years later, when the EBSN in me has been soothed by years of Dewey shelving and non-retail-related book dealings. I probably couldn’t recommend a book I hate if my life depended on it.

Let me preface my moment of glory by providing a piece of information: my mother collects books by relatively obscure and mostly out of print author Beverley Nichols, who wrote everything from children’s books to books about flower-arranging.

Fascinating, isn’t it? "Your parents collect pipes? That's really interesting!"*

Anyway, I am lurking in Readings Carlton, that haven for booksters and desperate parents whose toddlers love the train-set table. (Why are you all looking at me?) The Readings staff are most definitely book-sellers, and I suspect there may even be a few BSNs among them. I am hovering in the poetry section because I know I won’t have to move my bag out of anyone’s way.

“It’s by a man with a woman’s name, and it’s about people who live in a tree.”

I freeze. Did anyone hear a small ‘click’? I know what the book is, and I know it’s out of print. And this, dear reader, is where EBSNU goes meta.

“A man writing under a female pseudonym?” asks the book-seller.

“No,” says the woman. “He’s just got a name that sounds like a woman’s name. Like Evelyn, but not Evelyn. I think it’s a kid’s book.”

“Is it a new title?” asks the book-seller.

“I don’t know,” says the woman.

By this point I have fished out my iPhone, typed in the Abebooks web address with trembling fingers, found a second hand bookshop in Bendigo that has a copy of The Tree That Sat Down in stock and written the details down on a post-it note. (I always carry post-it notes. Librarian status: alpha.)

I glide up to the info desk, leaving my bag safely in the poetry section.

“I couldn’t help overhearing,” I say, because I am secretly Jessica Fletcher. “But I think the book you’re looking for is The Tree That Sat Down by Beverley Nichols.” Here I pause and wait for the ‘That’s IT!’

“THAT’S it!” exclaims the woman. Different emphasis, but pretty standard.

The book-seller looks it up. “I’m afraid it’s out of print,” she says. The woman looks crestfallen.

“It is,” I say, “but if you phone or email this secondhand store - ” here I proffer my post-it, “they have it in stock, and the others in the series too.”

The woman takes the post-it note from me with the degree of reverence reserved for dealing with people you suspect are a bit mental. “Thankyou,” she says uneasily.

I turn, and without another word glide out of the shop on a wave of adrenalin. Then I turn around, go back and retrieve my bag from the poetry section and slink out another way.

This is the life of the EBSN. We are not high mages or good fairies, do not worship us for our mystical skills. We are simple junkies looking for a fix. We are everywhere, dear reader.

And we’re listening.


*obligatory obscure reference. See here at about the 2 min mark.


Tyson said...

Truly extraordinary.

Jenny Chapman said...

Dearest Anna, it's been over ten years since I was a humble bookseller, and yes...I fair nearly yelled out TULLY! ( and nearly woke Crusoe) when I read the intro to your post. Then yes yes yes'd all the way through your post. What a cool, though sometimes embarrassing affliction we have!

Anna said...

Jenny! It never leaves us, does it.

nixwilliams said...

moment of recognition. my EBSN powers have been dulled of late, but yes!

mademoiselle délicieuse said...

Is it wrong of me to say that this reminds me of the (high commercial) movie, You've Got Mail?

Anna said...

Not wrong at all Rita, given that I've never seen the movie.

Sean said...

I have never been a bookseller, but I had to comment that this really made me laugh.

Anna said...

:) thanks!