The Millions and the Masses

I enjoy reading The Millions occasionally, but I always suspected their writers had a certain attitude toward the mainstream. Not that I don’t share it in some respects, but I do talk to mainstream readers on a daily basis. If I didn’t, then I imagine I’d write something like this, too.

“Dispatch From Borders-land?”

C’mon, dude, did you go to a chain bookstore or did you scout the irradiated landscape of a nuclear meltdown?

(Barnes and Chernobyl?)

But kudos to the journalist for venturing outside the ol’ comfort zone, in any case. As you can see, the worlds collide, and the exchange can be boiled down to:

“You don’t know who David Foster Wallace is?”

“You don’t know who Patricia Cornwell is?”

This is funny.

It also brought both high- and lowbrow readers to weigh in on the discussion. If you look through the comments thread, you’ll see the Fast Food metaphor getting some mileage–as in the Nicholas Sparks’ of the world being the cheeseburger of literature. But I have to say, “because it’s better than nothing” is never a very stirring defense of one’s preferences. (It’s like Morgan Spurlock ending Super Size Me by saying, “The point is, at least I ate food. Can you imagine if I’d *starved*?”)

But aside from the culture clash, the post mentions something else that particularly interests me. Booksellers in these places are indeed relied upon for good reading recommendations, but that’s knowledge they don’t necessarily have. When Craig says that the Borders staff is nice, helpful (I’m guessing in the sense of attentiveness), but not the “literary equivalent to the cast of High Fidelity,” I have to say that his observation would indeed apply to plenty of chain bookstores.

Here are a couple reasons why that is.

It’s a job–a job, job.

If I had to, I could work at Best Buy. I don’t have a passion for most of the stuff I’d be selling in there, least of all washer/dryers. But I’d have the skill set and tolerance to work there, as a great many people do, and (most importantly) the retail experience. That’s how you’d get me, a guy who’s mostly indifferent to the varying quality among LCD TV’s, working at a place where I’ll get asked, Which is the best LCD TV for me?

It’s like that at chain bookstores. Ideally, someone with great enthusiasm and knowledge for books would be at a better paying job that requires those things (some of us are merely in transition…). And that’s not retail.

Customer service is valued more than knowledge.

Maybe the girl who suggested Robert Jordan if you wanted great fantasy was really nice. She’s going to last much longer in the store than the Soup Nazi who happens to know a Russian novelist for everybody’s taste. We’re nice people first, experts second. Sometimes the experts can’t learn to be nice people. Then they’re scheduled to work in the coffee shop, then hate it until they quit.

This isn’t to say, by any means, that I discourage people from asking their booksellers for any recommendations. I love those questions, and the same is true for most of my coworkers. But taking the above into consideration, you can see why most bookstores don’t have a resident Proust scholar. Does this whole employee dynamic reinforce the mainstream culture within the big chain bookstores? To an extent, I think so.

I’m just glad my store hired people with variety in mind—a horror guy, a manga gal, a history guy, etc. I don’t quite know what I am. But I hope I could at least convince some people they don’t need to walk around the store in a hazmat suit.

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