Robert Gray writes an article for Shelf Awareness about the strange kind of free-association booksellers have to hone when finding books for customers.
You must be able to play "the game" to work in a bookshop, and here's the first rule: When a customer has a specific title request, assume (but never let the customer know you assume) that the information provided is flawed. In any three-word title, at least one word will be incorrect; sometimes two; sometimes all three. I've heard titles that were close (Snow on Shingles for Snow Falling on Cedars) and not so close (Peggy Sue and the House of Hair for Patty Jane's House of Curl).
It's one of those skills that sets good booksellers apart from great booksellers. It's not a matter of figuring out the right title in the blink of an eye, or even getting it right every time, but being willing to give it a shot in the first place.
When you're around books day in and day out, you tuck away little bits of information even if you're not reading every title. You know which books are in the news (because even if you don't see the news report, you can bet a customer will come asking about it). You know what's on the bestseller lists, what's on local school reading lists, and which book Sawyer was reading on Lost last night. You learn cover art and author photos and subtitles, and where customers will "reshelve" books they decide not to buy. (Could you kids please stop putting The Necronomicon next to the Bibles?)
There are doomcriers out there, suggesting that with the advent of Amazon and other online bookstores, bricks and mortar stores will become obsolete. The actual experience of walking into a bookstore and simply being surrounded by all those pages is another rant. What's relevant here is the advantage that flesh-and-blood booksellers have over every search engine out there.
As Gray says: "A lot of time and money is invested in some very powerful search engines, but even high tech logic often meets its match when confronted with the low tech intangibles of consumer bewilderment and impatience."
One night near closing time, a gentleman came into the store and did the circuit of the shelves. He wasn't walking like he was browsing - he was scanning, looking for a particular title, but determined to find it himself. Eventually, he gave up and made his way to where I stood beside the inventory computer.
"I know this sounds weird," he said, "but I'm looking for a book that was on the bestseller lists a couple of years ago."
We went through the usual - no, he didn't know the title. No, he didn't know the author, or even the subject matter. He couldn't even tell me what color the cover was.
"All I know," he said, looking chagrined, "is that there's an E in the title."
Before I could even start wracking my brain for likely candidates, my co-worker Ted looked up from his pile of shelving and said, "The Celestine Prophecy?"
I thought the customer was about to hug him. That was it exactly.
Try Googling that.
Those requests are the most satisfying. They test your knowledge of the world at large and your intimacy with your store and bookselling as a whole. And when you match your customer with the book, you know exactly why you're in this business.
(Robert Gray's blog is Fresh Eyes Now, and his Shelf Awareness articles are here.)