Monday, June 2, 2008

You Think You Know What It Is To Be A Grunt?


My apologies for not posting in a few weeks - you see, I moved, and I have found myself both Internet-less and sleep-less for a number of nights. Plus, there are always new things to hang on the walls and new parts of the lease to break (pets? Why the hell not. No flags? Damn it, I'll hang the flag if I want to. Petty arson? You better believe it).

Anyway, so I haven't posted for awhile. But that doesn't mean that the customers at Booth and Noble have matured. No, if anything, like the hero of Martin Amis' Time's Arrow , these customers get less mature as they progress through time (although, to be fair, few of them are Nazi war criminals).

To whit:

It is summer reading time - the time when thousands of schooled children arrive in what, to the, must be a wondrous playground of imagination and joyous amusement: the bookstore. "Joy!" they think to themselves, "we get to read about mentally handicapped geniuses and strange men who hide things in trees -- all summer!"

No, the children are wonderful - full of bright vivacity and loveliness. It's the parents who mystify me.

Take, for example, the typical parent. Walking up to me while I'm near the children's department, she says:

"Do you have any books like this ," as she holds up a Matt Christopher sports book, "but for girls ?"

"Ma'am," I say, "girls can play sports too."

She looks at me like I just ate my own pants. "Not MY girl. She will like horses , isn't that right Betty?"

Betty, decked out in a baseball cap and a pair of cleats, nods her head, sadly holding onto a Pony Pals book.

Or, for example, the parents who says to their child: "you're not smart enough for this book," or, "this book is too long for you; let's find one a better length." These are the Oprah book club parents - the Secret generation, the Last Lecture devotees who like their literature like they like their literature like they like their politicians: white bred, old, and full of safe platitudes.

Of course, you often find those people that probably haven't given these things called "books" that much thought at all - the people, like this parent, who walks their daughter through the fiction section, trying to find a book:

"How on earth do they arrange these? It looks completely random!"

"Mom, it's by the author's name!"

"Oh, that makes sense."

"Yeah, duh."

"I always liked this alphabull organization. When it's alphabull, it's easy!"

But even some hardcore readers think they know what it's like to be a Grunt. It's a lot more than knowing the alphabutt. According to one gentleman who came through my cashwrap line the other day, it involves knowing things about money too:

He trailed a small daughter behind him like the detritus from sneeze. When she lagged too far behind, he would snort her back into his arms. When he arrived at the line, he said to her:

"When you give money to a clerk, you need to make sure it all faces the same way. This makes it easier for them to count!"

She nods her head; I begin to experience an emotion I haven't felt at Booth and Noble in a long time: understanding.

Then he takes six dollars, in ones, in his hand, crumples them all and throws them on the counter.

"Don't ever work retail, honey," he says to his daughter as he holds his hand out for his change.

Of course, it's not just the parents that know the best way to run things. Often, many customers of Booth and Noble believe that their way is the best way.

Booth and Noble, of course, has a cafe which serves many fine, overpriced, and much, much worse-for-you-than-you-think foods, some of which can be found at Starbooth. At seven o'clock in the evening, a woman comes up to the Information Kiosk and says to me:

"Excuse me. Is your manager here? I wish to complain about your cafe."

"Absolutely ma'am," I say. "Can I tell them what the complaint is?"

"Oh, it's not that big a deal," she says. "But. Your cafe is out of soup." She pauses. "Did you hear what I said? OUT OF SOUP." She looks at me. "THERE. WAS. NO. SOUP." My non-reaction starts to bug her. "It is dinner time. And YOU HAVE NO SOUP! What sort of establishment is this? I WANTED SOUP!" She starts to work herself up now: "I WANT TO TALK TO A MANAGER. THERE WAS NO SOUP! THIS IS UNCONSCIONABLE!"

Yes, it is. Unconscionable.

Let us not forget what "unconscionable" means. I quote from Merriam-Webster here:

"not guided or controlled by conscience" i.e., not answerable to "moral goodness" .

Let's list some other unconscionable things, shall we?

  • Torture

  • The Holocaust

  • Dog fighting

  • Not having "Chicken and Wild Rice" soup at Booth and Noble

Hey, guess what? We're right next door to a Panera, eh? They even have more than one type of soup at a time - imagine that, a choice! That's, what, super-conscionable?


Maybe that's what being a Grunt is all about. I now offer, for your consideration, a virtually unedited transcript of a phone call I received yesterday at Booth and Noble:

[ring ring]

"Hello, thank you for calling your local Booth and Noble. How can I help you?"

"Yes, do you have [trying hard to pronounce] Charles ... and the Voyager of the Beagle?"

"Ma'am, do you mean The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin? I'm pretty sure we have that, let me just go check on the shelf."

[I check on the "evolution" shelf and, lo and behold, we have it.]

"Ma'am, I've got it right here for you."

"Now, is that in hard cover? This is a gift for someone."

"No, I'm afraid we've only got it in paperback. I can order you hardcover copy, thoug - it would come in in 3-5 business days."

"Don't new books always come out in hardcover?"


"...You know, like Stephen King always has a hardcover?"

"...Ma'am, maybe we're not talking about the same book. I'm holding Charles Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle in my hand."

"Yes, this is the book reviewed in this week's Wall Street Journal ."

"Well, ma'am, this book isn't new - it's over 150 years old. It came out in the middle of the 1800s."

"Yes, it's Darwin's Joyful Journey of Discovery."

"Yes, so would you like me to order the hardcover, or would you like the paperback?"

"I don't want either. I want the modern book."

"Ma'am, are you looking for a different book?"

"No, I want the one from the Wall Street Journal."

"...I'm holding Charles Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle for you."

"NO! YOU AREN'T LISTENING TO ME!. The article says," and she starts to read:

Next year is Darwin year: the bicentennial of the great man's birth and the 150th anniversary of "The Origin of Species." The book is not the easiest of reads, but it is less of a trudge than Charles Darwin's four volumes on barnacles or his 15 works on topics as distinct as climbing plants and the formation of mold by earthworms. They tell, in plain and sometimes pedestrian prose, the tale of a life of observation and experiment that founded modern biology.

"The Voyage of the Beagle," in contrast, sings. Its language is that of a young man intoxicated by the tropics

"That's the one I want!"

"Ma'am, that sounds a lot like the book I've got in my hands."


"I don't know what you mean, ma'am. Perhaps you could help me understand by providing me with some more information."


Darwin looked back in his attempts to understand the present. He scarcely considered what the future might bring, for in his view evolution was so slow, and life so stable, that no great shifts were to be expected. A glance forward on the 200th anniversary of his birth shows how wrong he was. The world is already a far less interesting place than it was when he set forth on his circumnavigation and will soon become even less so: and no future explorer will ever write a book so full of the joy of unspoiled nature as is "The Voyage of the Beagle."

"I want this modern book."

"Ma'am, perhaps Darwin was just prescient?"


I tell her.


"Ok, ma'am. How about I hold this book for you and then you can come in and look at it, and if it's not what you're looking for, you don't have to buy it and we can order something else."

"That's more like it. Find that book I want. Is it in good condition?"

"Yes, ma'am, it hardly looks touched."

"HARDLY? I don't want any books that have been touched!"

"Ma'am? You're not going to find a book that's untouched."

"Put it down! Wrap it in a bag!"


"I want you to wrap it in a bag, you ass. Stop touching it!"

"Ok." I wrapped it in a bag. "Under what name can I hold it?"

"Excuse me?"

"What is your name?"

"Why would I give you my name?"

"So that we can give you the book when you come in."

"I'll come in later today. Won't you have it?"

"Yes, but we won't know it's for you unless we put your name on it."

"You're not getting my name."

"Ma'am, I don't know how to identify the book for you if you don't give me your name."

"I'm not giving you my name! I DON'T WANT TO BE MANHANDLED!"

"Ma'am, I won't manhandle you."

"You may write down Nancy. It is not my name, but I shall use it when I pick up the book."

"Alright." I write down Nancy, put the slip of paper around the book, which is wrapped in a bag, and put it behind the cash registers.

The ultimate punchline to this story is that "Nancy" came in later and didn't buy the book. I don't know why - I like to think that it's because too many people had touched the book.

Or maybe she was looking for a book for a girl, and she found a book for a boy instead.


Hey, a friend pointed out this site for other great customer stories - very funny: Not Always Right .


Jefe said...


Wow. Just wow. I'm sending you some Zoloft as we speak, kind sir.

book wench said...

why is it always our fault? we should start answering the phone 'how can i enable you?' instead of 'how can i help you?'. or maybe 'this is blah blah blah, how can i be abused today?'

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