I read an entry in a bookstore employee's blog yesterday which posed the question: what was the most embarrassing thing you've had to find for a customer? Some mentioned erotica or romance novels, and others said they were had no problem selling any book to any customer. After eleven total years in the trade, I have sold books on every subject to customers, including books I thought were unoriginal, badly written, frighteningly esoteric or had the worst cover art. I cannot accurately say, however, that I've never been embarrassed selling them.
This holiday season our store is carrying several new items that have me shaking my head in wonder. We've stocked non-book items like Racing Grannies (in walkers) and Racing Grandpas (on motorized scooters), small plastic insects like killer bees and cockroaches, and Finger Drums. We've also begun carrying more mundane items like pencil sharpeners, erasers, candles, soap and. . . barbeque tongs? I thought we were a bookstore that also carried movies, music and coffee. More and more, now, though, we've become more of a knick-knack shop, too. I had the misfortune to display these prominently in the store, but I can't say I'll comfortably recommend these to customers.
But let's turn to books, specifically.
The situations that usually make me squirm have been when the customer gives me information I shouldn't have. I've helped plenty of customers who felt uncomfortable asking me to find them books on potty-training, puberty, sex, erotic literature and death. I've always handled them professionally and with little blushing on their part. I've sold plenty of titles on reading tarot, praticing witchcraft, growing marijuana, and coping with depression. However, when the customer decides to tell me their issues in complete detail when looking for books about his erectile problems, her desire to escape her physically and mentally abusive boyfriend and the death of another's infant daughter, I can't help feeling like I've intruded into their lives.
The single most embarrassing situation for me was in my previous store, a small mall-based store in the South. In the Bible Belt. In a conservative, sometimes backwater small town. The people of this town had no problem telling me how they felt: one customer frequently rearranged my shelves to show patriotic titles more prominently; another once told me he wanted to buy my store so he could stop us from selling non-Christian things; and every year, just before Valentine's Day, we got complaints about the displays of sex books, usually that they were too obvious to children. So one day, when my store was full of customers, a college-aged fellow came in and loudly announced that he needed to order a novel entitled The Fuckup. I immediately looked around, waiting for the exclamations of disgust and horror. Thank goodness I didn't get them. I wasn't comfortable, though, until he left the store.
I've ordered that title for another customer since then, and I've had customers asking for equally touchy titles, like Stitch 'n' Bitch, On Bullshit, and Sex for Dummies. I've not been uncomfortable since--except once. The first time I saw the title, Screw the Roses, Bring on the Thorns! was when we special ordered it for a couple in their 50's. One of my more naive employees called them to notify the customer that their book, which was on S&M, had arrived. Recently, more than 5 years later, I saw a special order for this book again--for my no longer naive former coworker. I am glad I didn't ring her up at the register, because I wouldn't have kept a straight face!