I learn all sorts of things during a day’s work in the shop. Sometimes it’s a piece of juicy goss from a colleague, others it’s exciting news about an upcoming release, occasionally it’s academic and obscure. And often it’s a chapter of a person’s life: unsolicited political views are frequent, as are the details of a person’s most recent bad day/week/month/life. I don’t know what it is about my appearance that makes me seem so approachable or interested. I strongly suspect it’s more the fact that I’m a captive audience, paid to be polite. Paid, what’s more, by my employers and not directly out of the pocket right in front of me. You can come in, unload your baggage, and leave one grumble lighter with a book or two under your arm. It’s like therapy but cheaper.
I say this as though I’m completely unsympathetic, which isn’t exactly true. I’m happy to help if and where I can, especially if it’s with a book I love and just a minute or two out of my day. But there’s a big difference between helping someone who needs it, and the lady who comes in to talk at anyone within earshot, other customers included. She rattles off a list of everyone in her life and what they’re up to, as though I know who they are. There’s absolutely no cohesion though and I’m still unsure whether John is her husband or her dog, just that the sound of a paper bag will wake him up even though it’s only mid-afternoon. I don’t care enough to ask, especially since the answer will take a circuitous route via Karen’s 60th birthday party and Leo’s third day at school.
But then there’s a sweet middle-aged lady who comes in for a bit of downtime and a bit of a chat, and as she always leaves having purchased a book, I never feel guilty that I’ve neglected actual work for a cozy catch-up. She comes in, tells me the latest problem she’s facing, and I pair her up with a novel she didn’t know she needed. So far we’ve covered her separation from her husband, difficulty negotiating shared custody of their daughter, the well-meaning friend doing more harm than good, and the declining health of her mother. Perhaps unusually, I remember what she’s read and what she’s liked, even when the titles escape her. Even more unusually, she seems to trust me implicitly to help guide her over these obstacles with which I have approximately zero personal experience. I’m not separated from my fictional husband, and we don’t squabble over the living arrangements of our daughter, because even in make-believe I’d never have a child. My friends are all pretty rad, and both parents in good health. Her taste in books and mine only occasionally overlap, although now that I think about it, she probably doesn’t know that. I found myself feeling a little smug the other day when she purchased the first book I suggested rather than one of many suggested by a colleague. I think she’s expecting her mother to die fairly soon, and I don’t know what I’ll suggest when she does. Maybe I’ll load her up with the Harry Potter box set and a packet of tissues, and call it a day. I’m not sure how much help I actually provide, but she seems to find it all beneficial, which maybe is the same thing.
Having said that, a different customer burst into tears at the counter a couple of weeks ago. He was after the book On Grieving, which we had, and I gently recommended another. I didn’t want to come right out and ask if it was for him, but a moment later he burst into tears and I had my answer. His adult son had just died, the poor man, and he was flying to London to bring him home. I came out from behind the counter to offer him a hug, which he accepted, before pulling himself together to pay for his book and be on his way. I’m not usually in the custom of hugging strangers, but I didn’t know what else to do. I probably did as much as anyone could. I don’t think his salvation is to be found in any particular volume. As he left I wondered if I should’ve told him something sage I’d found in book; something like, “Surviving this is the second worst thing that will happen to you. The worst has already happened,” but I’m sure that would’ve only sounded trite, and he didn’t come in looking for platitudes. My repeat customer might’ve appreciated it, but as she actually refers to me as her bibliotherapist, it would’ve been a little less out of line. Wherever that man is right now, I hope he’s doing ok.
I’d much rather help my regular customer with a novel than a self-help book. I have far more faith in the healing power of reading itself than in whatever the latest inspirational fad is. However if ploughing through books about bringing joy to your life by rearranging your sock drawer and giving fewer fucks about everything else does the trick for you, then sally forth with abandon. Horses for courses and all that, what doesn’t work for me might work for you. My inherent cynicism doesn’t make it easy for these things to get through to me, and I tend to think that if these motivational books had any staying power, there wouldn’t be so many of them. I’m not the best person to help you select your latest self-help book, but then you shouldn’t really need outside assistance. A customer at my old bookshop once asked if I could tell her where the self-help books were. Thank goodness she laughed when I told her I could, but that would defeat the purpose. Of course after that I did tell her where to find them, and as with the aforementioned grieving customer, I hope she found what she was looking for.
To call myself a bibliotherapist does of course overstate my skill set, qualifications, job title and pay grade; but I do think that booksellers and librarians are undervalued when it comes to the service we can and do provide. Obviously none of you should fire your therapist and replace them with a long-suffering bookworm, but if someone recommends a particular book for a particular time and it actually helps, perhaps tell them. They might come up with the goods a second time. Just know that if you ask me and I’ve no idea how to help, I’ll give you a hug, the box set of Harry Potter and a packet of tissues, and call it a day.