Working with Used Books, or Rooting Through Other People’s Stuff

by Liv Lansdale

Having failed to nab a number of internships at showy magazines, I’d thought of my new job as a bookstore clerk as settling. My first impression of my bosses didn’t help quash my snobbery—six straight hours spent talking sports and handling books without a single mention of their own literary tastes disappointed me more than I’d like to admit. I don’t remember what I expected going in, but a staff of former frat brothers jamming to "Gangnam Style" on a loop doesn’t quite fit the description.  All the same, channeling my inner Aeneas, I stayed the course.

Thank goodness I did.  Sure, the hope of improving my writing by working at a bookstore may have been as idiotic as thinking I could master culinary techniques by moonlighting at SuperFresh, but as it turns out, there are some benefits I didn’t expect. I get to see what goes on behind the scenes, explore places I’d always wondered about: the staff-only rooms. My workplace is like a tent in Harry Potter: delightfully larger and busier than it appears from the outside.  From one side of the customer service desk, we look like a normal college bookstore—rows of shelves, a few chairs, walls decked in Towson Tiger paraphernalia, the works.  But behind the desk is a kind of chaos (my kind). Aside from some packing material, a couple dozen bins, and a row of touch-screens and barcode scanners, it’s mountains upon mountains of books. Big deal, you may say.  But when I snuck up to the warehouse and read some of the titles we’d catalogued, it was like putting a microscope to a drop of water. There was all kinds of weird stuff in there.

One feature of this store is that its customers can sell us their books for cash or credits for more books. Since we’re located near a number of colleges, we get to thumb through a lot of textbooks that you’d normally have to order online. Our location is also in close proximity to some of Baltimore’s oldest planned communities. The residents of Roland Park, for instance, have given us some of the weirdest and most wonderful books I’ve ever seen. The best so far have been Play the Guitar in 30 Minutes, a collection of short songs from Tony Motolla, sixties idol and ex-husband of Mariah Carey; a pile of vintage scuba reproduction manuals (not what it sounds like); the out-of-print Collect Fungi on Stamps (probably not what you’re thinking); and the best for last, a gem called My Invisible Friend Explains the Bible.

I’m reminded of a conversation I once had with a poet and graphic designer whose collage-like work I greatly admire. I asked how she comes up with her ideas. She gave me a face that translated pretty directly to duh! and replied, “Rooting through other people’s stuff!”  People may have given us their books entirely of their own volition, but something about this job still feels clandestine,  especially when I’m caught lingering over a passage in, say, The Unwritten Laws of Foxhunting, instead of scanning its ISBN.

What can I say, I’ve got to stay entertained somehow. And who knows, maybe I’ve got a first line for a short story on my hands: It was a truth universally acknowledged that a man in the pursuit of a good fox must obey certain tacitly assumed laws . . .

Bonus: Book Activities for Writers Who Aren’t Allowed to Read Them

  1. Fifty-two Pick-up Lines: Don your innuendo glasses and read the first sentence of fifty-two non-romantic books. Make it the first line of your very own love poem. For example, “Call me Ishmael” (Melville's Moby Dick) “It was a pleasure to burn” (Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451), “For a long time, I went to bed early” (Proust's Swann’s Way), or “Where now?” (Beckett's The Unnamable).

  2. Sentenced to Death: Open a random book to a random page and write down a random phrase. Repeat a gazillion times. Arrange some or all of the recorded phrases into a sentence, aiming for a balance between magnificence and coherence. I may have fallen to one side of that with mine: “Our unknown friend,/the woe of all mankind,/a parody of a Westerner/whose feet were easily three feet off the ground/surrounded by standing stones and mysterious clumps of spotted purple foxgloves/made an important discovery/in the darkness beside/quite a few dogs/and began laughing.” (From Christie’s And Then There Were None, Goethe’s Faust, Pamuk’s Snow, Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, Byatt’s Possession, Borges’s Ficciones, Strayed’s Wild, and Rawls’s Where the Red Fern Grows, and Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar, respectively).

  3.  Famous Last Words: Shamelessly steal the last sentence of a famous book and use it to end a short story about aliens.  Some promising lines include “Let us cultivate our garden.” (Voltaire’s Candide), “He waited for someone to tell him who to be next.” (Evenson’s, The Open Curtain), “Maybe I will go to Paris. Who knows? But I’ll sure as hell never go back to Texas again.” (Crumley’s The Final Country), “How could he leave? How could he go? Everything he hated was here” (Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater), and “No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them.” (Chandler’s The Long Goodbye).