Shelve it under unfiction

Requests for books on send, R and taxidermy were the easy questions during my first month at a bookstore info desk.

By Andrea Siegel
Published August 3, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Up at the information desk at the Manhattan bookstore where I recently started working ...

A pleasant looking young woman comes up to me and asks if we have any books on taxidermy.

"Like stuffing road kill?" I joke.

"Actually, no. I've had this squirrel in my freezer for months and I don't know what to do with it." She's serious.


I point her in the direction of the taxidermy books, "Look in Guns and Hunting." She makes a face -- she's not a guns-and-hunting kind of girl.

"So this is serious for you? Like love?" I ask.

"Maybe just a romance, who knows where it will lead?" she says. I mention the Museum of Natural History. "I know, best program in the city. Hard to get into, very competitive," she says.


- - - - - - - - - - - -

A young German woman says, "I'm looking for a book. Veal-ah Kay-zer."

I haven't got a clue. "How do you spell that?"

"Wih, ih, ella, ella ..."

"Oh, Willa Cather."

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Worst moment: In the back office P. finds some old signed books he can't return or put on the floor. He says he'll destroy them. I say, "That's murder!" He asks if I want them. They're cheesy science fiction titles. I shake my head, no. He rips them down their spines and throws them in the trash.


- - - - - - - - - - - -

"Why are people gay?" asks an attractive young woman in the staff lounge.

Another woman pops up, "My friend told me a girl rejected him. That's why he turned gay."

"They're born that way," I butt in.

"Well then their parents are sick and they're sick. If a boy rejected me you wouldn't find me with no girl," she says. I can't believe this conversation is occurring in 1999.


"Sea gulls are gay, some monkeys are gay, it's normal among all animals," I say. Actually I'm not sure about the monkeys. The conversation takes off without me among the six other people there. My break is over. I go to the time clock and someone near me is hypothesizing that the book business attracts so many gay people because it's "creative."

- - - - - - - - - - - -

A woman comes up to me. "R?" she asks. I type it in: "R."


"R ... ?" I ask helpfully, inviting the next letter.

She looks at the screen. "No no no no no. Rrrrrr," she says."Rrrrr."

I type in. "No no no no." I give up. I hand her a pen and piece of paper.

She writes, "Art." She's French. I point to the Art section.


- - - - - - - - - - - -

"I'm looking for 'Letters to Penthouse.'" A beat. "For a friend," the guy explains.

A friend. Sure, I think.

As I'm keying in the title he says, "I bet you think that's odd." I tell him, No, not compared to some I've heard. I tell him about the taxidermist who had the squirrel in her freezer.


- - - - - - - - - - - -

"I'm looking for a book. It's the true-life story of a boy who brought his polar bear on the Titanic." For a moment I cannot respond. I feebly send her down to children's books. What else can I do? I tell J., my co-worker this.

He says, "Oh, 'Polar the Titanic Bear.' It's about a big bear, but it was released at the same time as the movie 'Titanic.'"

- - - - - - - - - - - -


My colleague Wendy comes up to me. I ask how she is. She says, "My heart is like a squashed tomato." I think about this a moment. She continues, "And the worst part is, when I look real close, I can see my footprints in it. I did it to myself."

- - - - - - - - - - - -

A man comes into the bookstore and my first impression is one of unnatural, astonishing beauty. When I glance back, my second impression is that he has had way too much sex -- not that he has enjoyed it but that he has been used for it. He is perhaps a prostitute or kept at some "high" level, among the rich. His pants are exquisitely cut black leather so subtle that you don't even notice at first that they're leather. He has perfectly mussed moussed black hair. He seems oversteeped in sex. Sickened. I grieve a moment for what his beauty may have cost him in humanity, in normal living (in my projection), before he jauntily disappears downstairs. He reappears at the information desk a few minutes later asking, "Do you know where I can find a copy of the illustrated 'Kama Sutra'?" His gaze is cold, cut-off. I direct him to the sexuality shelf in the self-improvement section.

"Hi, I work for Conan O'Brien," says the young man. (NBC is right around the corner from the store.) He looks blond and beautiful with his stand-up polo shirt collar, designer polar fleece and chinos. His face looks vacant, like those of a lot of the kids I grew up with. He says, "Conan needs photos of Moses and Jesus for the show." When I tell him there are no actual photographs available as photography hadn't been invented at that time, he looks upset, even affronted. His expression says: How am I going to explain this to Conan? I direct him down to the religious books and suggest he look for illustrations.


- - - - - - - - - - - -

"Boys covers for entertainment," says the small Indian woman. It takes us awhile to discover she wants a new career doing voiceovers for film, radio and TV. I am silenced by what is either her bravery or an astonishingly inappropriate career choice. I direct her downstairs.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

The husband was looking for a book called "Il Duce and His Women." I raised my eyebrows. "It's not tilt-lillating," the wife assured me.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

A woman looking for a book doesn't know much about it (including the author and the title). (Not as uncommon as you'd think.)

I ask, "Is it fiction?"

"No," she says. "It's unfiction."

- - - - - - - - - - - -

A woman looking for a book for a friend who lives in Normandy glances through her address book where she has jotted down the title. I look over her shoulder at the book, thinking I might help her find it. She opens the book to "O." When I see the first heading is "Ovarian Cyst," I look away.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

An old man in a long grey leather coat bows to me before saying in a German accent, "I look for a book. It is yellow. It says 'New York Times 1999.'"Even though it's a different color, I bring him the "New York Times 1999 Almanac." It isn't right, he says, insisting the book he wants is yellow. "Where to find these books?" he asks. I send him down to reference. His wife, who has been standing quietly in her full-length mink, follows. They come back up happy. They have a blue copy of the "Time 1999 Almanac."

She whispers to me: "My husband is colorblind. I was afraid to tell you."

- - - - - - - - - - - -

I ask my colleague X why he is so bored. He says, "The white men all come in wanting books on how to make more money, as if they don't have enough already. And the women all want books on relationships and how to get married." He then says the black people usually are looking for books about black topics and he just got lectured about his lack of loyalty to his race when he informed a customer the black literature is mixed in with all the other literature.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

A publicist comes in and says, "I'm here with Ed McBain; he'd like to sign his most recent book, 'Big Bad City.'" His new books are nowhere to be found. Q tells him they've sold out while my boss tells me to tell him they didn't come in. I go all over looking for them and feel terrible that we don't have any. He's standing by his older books and I can't help it, I try to do something nice. I gush that he's my dad's favorite author and I'm so sorry we can't track down the new books. He's very nice about it.

On the way out, he says, "Tell your dad hi from Ed McBain." For a moment I'm disoriented. I smile and wave goodbye. I don't mention Dad's been dead 25 years. I don't even know if Dad read him.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

"I'm looking for a book for my son," she says. "I wrote it down. Two words." She spells it for me, "S-I-D A-R-T-H-U-R." She adds helpfully, "I think it's about King Arthur."

"No," I say, "It's about Buddha," and I send her to Hermann Hesse's section.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

"It's like 'Tuesdays with Morrie,' only for girls," she says, chewing her gum. I'm baffled. She can't remember the author or the title. "It's like Pristine or Celestial?" she says. She comes back a few minutes later with the book: "Celestine Prophesy."

- - - - - - - - - - - -

A guy comes in with his friend. "I'm looking for a book by an Irish guy. His brother has a book out. The book I want is called 'Amongst Women.'" I give him the book he wants. It's actually called "A Monk Swimming." He looks at it and bursts out laughing. He laughs until he weeps, holding the book to his chest. Then he shows it to his friend and they both burst out laughing.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Into the bookstore today comes an older woman in a brown tweed coat swathed in scarves of neutral hues, swathed in scarves as if they were bandages around her throat and head. Only her face emerges from this ersatz wimple. She asks for a book by Bliss Broyard and I look it up -- not due till August. And I say, "Oh, related to Anatole?"

She says, "His daughter," and asks how I know of him. I tell her I loved his reviews when I was younger.

She starts talking about how the Village was back then, that "the girls romanticize Kerouac today but he was just a disgusting drunk. And Anais Nin not only couldn't write but she was such a bore, just sat there with her drink and didn't say anything. How [some famous poet, I forget] said that walking around the Village was like carrying around a dead baby and that eventually you had to put the baby down and leave forever and how [another famous poet, I forget who] said he couldn't bear running into anyone he knew in Washington Square Park ... and how her name was Lila and when [I forget his name, too] named his book "Lila," she wrote him a letter and he wrote back and how at least Djuna Barnes got "Nightwood" down but that Anatole only had one story published and how he used and walked over people to get this published but otherwise he never wrote more then reviews. He never wrote his great book. How he was such a ladies man and about his terrible end ...

I didn't even have the curiosity to ask Lila about his "terrible end," because I was half-stunned by a bad cold. Lila confides that she slept with Anatole. Apparently no one didn't. Hard to figure out what Lila did with her life, and I could not respond properly to her faint, murmured, interesting critical ramblings about how Anatole married an 18-year-old and then had a "white" son who could pass but never told his "dark" daughter about his heritage, about why she was black. Although everyone knew, Lila tells me. Then she says something about "that Cheever girl" writing about her father and how she's good, but then she comes from good stock. Lila, who has been talking nonstop, frequently mentions how interesting I am. I don't say much.

Finally I excuse myself to help other customers. I wish I found her more interesting, for she seems to have had a bird's-eye view of the Village in its moment. Her face is very lined, but it's obvious she was once dazzlingly beautiful. There's some way in which she only rambles incompletely, never tells a story, often criticizes. Maybe she'll come back when I'm well and I can have another go.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

"They're like the cockroaches in my kitchen," my colleague Q says of the store management. "All they ever do is sit back there in their offices and eat."

- - - - - - - - - - - -

European accent, unplaceable: "I'm looking for a book on Sand."

"Sand?" I ask, typing it into the computer.

"No," she says, "I'm pronouncing it wrong. SAND." She speaks louder.

"Sand?" I ask again.

"Send," she tries more quietly.

"Oh, Zen," I say. She nods, relieved. I send her down to Eastern Thought.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Today I'm sitting in the break room and it's only me and our local goddess, Z -- 5 foot 9, fashion-mad and gorgeous -- who plugs in her Walkman headphones and sings aloud, ignoring everyone. She's growling, "I'm your fantasy girl" while I'm eating my peanut butter sandwich and staring at the pile of plastic bags and containers that was cleared out of the staff fridge -- Sunday I guess -- and left on the table. I don't know for sure, but I remember seeing the plastic container of spaghetti yesterday on this table. I bet toxic mold is spreading rampantly across its strands as I watch.

"What is that pile?" she asks me.

"I don't know," I say, startled that she's slipped out of her self-contained universe to speak with me. "But I think vast quantities of mold are growing. It's been there since yesterday."

"Don't say that!" she tells me with mock anxiety. "My uncle was looking for his little container yesterday and I think I forgot to eat my lunch one day and left it here." I've never forgotten to eat my lunch. She starts rummaging through the pile. She has the most dramatically pencilled artificial eyebrows I've ever seen on a person with a day job. She leans over the table (tight tweed trousers, tight tweedy sweater and suspenders. Her breasts look like they're escaping through prison bars).

"Oh no!" she cries and holds up the little square container. She looks at it and tilts it, sliding the old salad back and forth. "Can this be mine?" It's slimy. It is hers. She takes it to the trash. Every step is pure theater -- her breasts bounce, her lips (outlined in dark pencil) pout, her brow stays serene. Her shoes are platforms suitable for Elton John. They clomp. She's still listening to her headphones. She empties the container.

"It smells!" she cries with mock dismay. "Don't tell anyone?" she asks me.

I say OK. "Promise?" she asks. I promise I won't. All of a sudden we're friends.

She goes to put it in her locker. I tell her, "I'm not your mother but I think you should probably wash it or everything will stink."

When she gets back, she sniffs it, wrinkles her nose. "My uncle's a chef. He puts vinegar in everything. Everything smells." She puts it away, sits down again. The headphones have never left her head. She says, "I'm thinking of joining the Peace Corps. What do you think of that?"

Words cannot express my astonishment. I tell her what I know, that people I know have done it and that she can get more information at the library. She says, "I take care of my grandma who's had a stroke. When she passes, I'm thinking I'll do my music and I'll join the Peace Corps." God she seems young. Is she even 20? She says, "I hear they send you into war zones and that it's dangerous." She likes this idea. She has beautiful eyes. I tell her I think it's more of an educational thing, not in war zones, that you teach what you know. "I'd like that," she says. "I'll need a change." My break is over. I leave refreshed.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Yesterday I had to console a customer over the phone after the person who she spoke with before me told her emphatically that "Jane Eyre" did not exist. I don't know who said this.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

A tourist asks, "Do you have bees nest cart?" I think for a moment and hand him a business card.

Andrea Siegel

Andrea Siegel's most recent book, "Open and Clothed," will be published by Agapanthus Books this fall.

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