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Geeks With Books
by Rick Klaw

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House of Leaves
Dr. Who
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Dr. Who, Sorted by Color and Title

Where do they get their ideas? I know that somewhere there must be a store that arranges its books by color and/or title. There has to be. It's the only explanation. To add insult to injury, they probably lump all their non-fiction into one large general non-fiction section.

You would not believe the number of people that enter a bookstore and ask, "Where is your non-fiction section?" Any general bookstore of decent size (bigger than a bread basket) divides non-fiction books into categories. Could you imagine a place where The New Bill James Historical Abstract, Lonely Planet Montreal and Teach Yourself Celtic Myths are all shelved together? (Besides the bookcase in my office.) Talk about utter chaos. I doubt most people want to sift through baseball books when shopping for a book on Montreal. The only general bookstore of considerable size (besides genre specific shops) that has a large general non-fiction section is Novel Idea in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It just plumb confused me. Books are categorized for a reason. It makes it easier to shop. The next time you need something that is non-fiction but not sure where it is, ask! Any bookseller worthy of his employee discount will gladly direct you to the proper area of the store. If they won't, then shop elsewhere.

Zeitgeist Holy Fire The title thing puzzles me even more. I can see some of the confusion surrounding non-fiction. But who the hell alphabetizes their books by title? At least once a month, a dazed customer will ask how the books are arranged. "Are they by title?" I envision a bookstore with very long narrow aisles with floor to ceiling shelves full of books, all arranged by title. Looking once again at my bookcase creates some entertaining possibilities. Lords of Baseball, Making Friends With Death (Buddhism), Mirrorshades (a cyberpunk anthology), Northern Lights (science), On a Move (biography of imprisoned ex-Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal by Terry Bisson!). Imagine the hell of finding books by your favorite authors. Take Bruce Sterling. Here's a man who has written books titled Artificial Kid, Holy Fire, and Zeitgeist. There is a reason that booksellers attempt to shelve all of an author's books together. On the plus side, if you happened to be a fan of Lillian Jackson Braun's Cat Who... mysteries and forgot the author, you'd be in luck. House of Leaves

Color: the bookseller's challenge. That's how I think of it. Periodically, a customer shows up and sheepishly tells you a thing or two about the book and that they remember the cover color. I love this game. Nothing beats the look on someone's face when you find them the right book based on nothing but a random detail and the jacket color. "The book is about a pizza delivery driver and is gold." That's an easy one. Snow Crash. "Very weird design about a house, black cover." Probably House of Leaves. Then there are the ones with different editions with different cover colors or designs. "White with a bizarre distorted image; about a hacker." The answer is Neuromancer, but the current edition has a blue cover with a small distorted image. The other challenge is when the paperback is different from the hardcover. The above mentioned Snow Crash is a fine example. The hardcover (and original trade paperback) was white with color vertical images. A sharp contrast from the later editions.1

In my fifteen some odd years as a bookseller, I've seen a lot of strangeness and been asked a lot of, well, stupid questions. "Do you have One Hundred Years of Solid Food?" I swear someone actually asked me that. (They were looking for Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude.) Or how about the parents wondering why they can't find Mark Twain by Huckleberry Finn. One of my all-time favorites is the high school student looking for the works of Chaucer or Shakespeare... translated into English. Sigh.

Doctor Who Video Cover Doctor Who Video Cover Then there was the Dr. Who Guy. He may have been my first bookseller run-in with a genuinely weird character. For whatever reason, while I can remember a lot about books, science fiction, fantasy, and horror is where I really shine. Because of my expertise, I can usually be found in these sections shelving books. That is where this weirdo found me. He would come into the store about once a week looking for the latest Dr. Who title. I have never been a fan of Dr. Who or any British SF TV for that matter. (Shows like Lexx and Red Dwarf are lost on me.) You can imagine my discomfort when this guy trapped me and started to quiz me about the good Doctor. I finally had to tell him that I wasn't a fan of the show. He then proceeded to tell me in his slow cadence how wrong I was and how I should be a fan of the show. For the next five years there and then for the first six months that I was at Adventures In Crime & Space, he would come in every week and tell me the same thing! The exact same thing! Everything I know about Dr. Who, I learned from some crackpot in Austin, TX. I've sometimes wondered what happened to him (but not enough to try and find him). Perhaps he got lost in time with the Doctor.

Just when I think I have seen it all, something new shows me otherwise. I was working at Half Price Books all of about a week when it occurred. A young woman walked up with a copy of the latest Anita Shrieve novel. She was eager to read this book and was pleased to find it at half cover price. As I rang the book up, terror crept into her eyes. She couldn't find her credit card. Panic set in. I did the only thing I could do and offered to hold the book for her. Behind her in line was an older, well dressed professional woman. The older woman looked on sympathetically as the younger one began to panic. Finally the older woman spoke up. "I'll buy your book for you." The younger woman looked stunned and started to protest. "It's not that much." And then to me: "How much is it?" I told her and she paid. The young woman, while still concerned about her credit card, was thrilled by this random act. I had never seen that before. Oh sure, customers recommend books to each other all the time, but to actually buy a stranger's book for them was new to me. It restored my faith in the book buying public. Maybe they really are human.

Actually, I enjoy the majority of my customers. For the most part I find them to be interesting, intelligent people. It's human nature to only remember the freaks. Most days, I consider myself the luckiest man alive.


1 Lately, it has come to my attention that most readers do not know the difference between mass market and trade paperbacks. The simple answer is that mass markets or pocket books are the small paperbacks that typically fit in your pocket or purse. Trade paperbacks are everything else that is not a hardcover, usually on nice paper and with better cover stock.

Copyright © 2002 Rick Klaw

Not content with just being a regular columnist for SF Site, Rick Klaw is also the fiction editor for RevolutionSF. A former book buyer, managing editor, and bookstore manager, Rick has experienced most aspects of the book business.


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