I was working in the bookstore late one evening when a customer asked for me. "I'm looking for a book," he said, "and I saw your staff picks around the store and thought you might be able to help me." I asked him what kind of book he was looking for. He paused for a moment, then his voice caught and it seemed like he might start crying: "I'm looking for a book that will change my life."
In 20 years of bookselling, I've had customers share surprisingly
intimate details of their lives with me. A woman in her late 50s asked
me for books on relationships, but after I walked her to the section,
she started crying and confided the story of her daughter's marriage to
an abusive man, and how she needed a book that could save her. A
well-dressed couple, him in a suit and her in a wrap dress, came in over
the holidays and asked me for books to give a friend who was just
diagnosed with terminal cancer. They had tried searching on Amazon, but
the titles that came up were about the mechanics of how to survive, not
the particular poetry of living with dying. More than once someone has
asked me for a good novel, "something that will make me laugh," only to
admit once I'd found a book for them, that they needed something funny
to distract them from some trauma or drama that they then proceeded to
share with me. A hipster asked me for books on personal finances; she
was determined to begin the long crawl out of a deep debt. A famous
actor admitted his stage fright and asked for a copy of Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. A young woman asked me for books on recovering from loss; she had recently lost a child...
In the wake of Internet competition, bookstores have been feeling
like publisher showcases and promoting ourselves as literary curators.
But our true value may be as basic as this: often people come to us
simply to talk to another human being. In a world that is more and more
automated, computerized, web-based, sometimes, someone just wants to
tell their story to another human being, feel like someone heard them,
and take away hope that things will change -- hope in the form of a
I walked with the customer downstairs and we went through my staff picks that he had seen earlier: Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart, A Woman's Worth, The Gift of Fear. At various points these books had all shifted my perspective, changed my way of thinking, even saved my life one could say. Diet for a Small Planet inspired my conversion to vegetarianism when I was 18. The Comfort Trap helped me bring necessary closure to my 10-year marriage. Wherever You Go, There You Are
introduced me to meditation and a new mindful approach to my life. As
Thoreau wrote, "How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the
reading of a book."
These recent years have marked a new era for all of us, one full of
changes. And for many people, those changes felt dramatic and alarmingly
sudden. But they were years in the making, the results of hundreds of
decisions we all made every single day: who we voted for, who we
trusted, where we shopped, where we didn't shop, what we chose to not
pay attention to, and so on. I'm not saying the global economic meltdown
is our fault, but I am suggesting that perhaps right now we are making
choices every day that will influence our future. A decision to save
$6.00 on Amazon, multiplied by thousands of customers every day, means
that your local bookstore, the place where you hang out, meet friends,
met your partner, or found the book that changed your life, may not be
there next year...