书店的魔力 What I Learned Selling Books to Strangers

2017-08-04 23:15:26

在网上书店的冲击下,实体书店纷纷倒闭,但也有些书店留了下来,成为城市中一处不可多得的人文风景。作为买书之人,虽喜欢网上书店的高效和便捷,但在很多人心里,实体书店仍是一种美好的所在。在这里,我们与人相遇、别离,触碰到生命中的点滴感动;在这里,我们觉得自己不再是数字世界的一个符号,而是活生生的人。

◎ By Annie Hartnett 译 / 李梓

扫码听音频The week before Christmas last year, the bookstore I worked for ran out of All the Light We Cannot See, the most buzzed-about book of the holiday season. It was back-ordered1), and we couldn’t get it in the store until December 29th.

“What am I supposed to get my wife?” a man demanded. “That’s what she wanted.”

Get her another book, I wanted to suggest, but instead I apologized from my perch behind the counter, explaining that the publisher hadn’t printed enough copies.

“I want to support local bookstores, but you people are really making me want to go to Amazon,” he said.

“The book is backordered on Amazon too,” I told him, as politely as I could. “They can’t get it to you before Christmas either.”

Nothing about this conversation was unusual. Customers regularly threaten booksellers with Amazon, like it’s a weapon they can deploy2) to get what they want from us. “I could get this much cheaper on Amazon,” people tell me when checking out.

These book buyers want to feel good about themselves for shopping in a bookstore, but they want special credit for it too, as if the bookstore should give out gold star stickers along with receipts. People love the ease, anonymity and convenience of shopping on Amazon, but many do feel guilty about shopping for books online—we know bookstores are where real live authors hold events and where little kids can go to a story hour on Saturdays. We know that the money spent in bookstores sustains a lively town center; it doesn’t go to buy Jeff Bezos another rocket ship.

So readers congratulate themselves when they make it to a bookstore, but are annoyed when it’s not a perfect transaction. The books are more expensive than they are online, and sometimes there’s a line to check out. And man, do customers hate waiting in line. We have become a culture that refuses to wait for books.

We want shopping in person to be as quick and easy as shopping online is. It is not, and last year, during the holiday rush, I began to understand the value of this slowness.

I took a job at my local bookstore in order to supplement money I earned from a fellowship, but bookselling quickly became something much more than rent money to me. It was a job I’d been training for my entire life, a job that required knowing more about books than the average person. I had always read more and read faster than most people I knew. But no one can read everything, and in my years as a bookseller, I’ve learned to listen to NPR in the morning because someone will almost always come in later that day wanting a book that they heard about on the way to work. I remember one customer in particular: “I don’t know the author or the title, but it has something to do with World War II and love letters.”

“I heard that on the radio too,” I told him, and went off to fetch the book.

I had other customers get so excited when I found the book they wanted based only on some very vague descriptions (“Blue cover, I think it’s about Italy?”) that they hugged me.

“What’s cool about that—the blue cover, Italy thing—is that’s really hard for a computer,” my husband told me. He studies artificial intelligence, and he loves Amazon. Other than the fact that I’d complain about it, I don’t think he would miss bookstores much if they were gone.

What he doesn’t seem to understand is the thing I’ve come to learn: There are people who really need bookstores, people who I have come to know well. There is a therapist who works next door, and he buys and reads more novels than I would think is humanly possible or financially responsible. When one of our booksellers was snowed in overnight at work, the therapist let her sleep on his couch. There is a man who wears a leather cowboy hat, and he told me he almost never leaves his apartment except to come into the store. He always tips his hat to me before he leaves (really). And every Saturday, a father and his young son come in to buy a new Geronimo Stilton3) book, which is a series about an adventurous mouse. I eventually learned that the father was going through a divorce, and the bookstore was one of the things that both he and the little boy really looked forward to.

Last December, a customer in a wheelchair told me that he was dying. He explained: “I need a book to give to my family that helps them to understand that I’m the same person, even though I don’t look the way I used to. I’m so tired of them treating me differently, like they’re afraid of me.” He wanted a book to help them let him go. We talked for some time about what he really wanted from the book, and I told him we’d special order a few books for him. The bookstore owner and I brainstormed and researched, and we ordered 10 books. When the man came back a few days later to see what we’d found, he bought a few. He said simply: “Thank you for listening to me.”

Bookstores are for people who aren’t always listened to, or for people who don’t always have someone to talk to. Bookstores often attract people who are otherwise introverted, or people who don’t realize how much they need a social connection. It’s a comforting environment to socialize, an easy place to strike up a conversation. There’s always something to talk about: books, of course, but we also talk about our families, the weather, the good restaurants around here. We give directions to the bank and to the coffee shop. We talk about our love of dogs (it’s a dog-friendly store), and we even talk about politics.

But the day when I most clearly understood what bookstores really offer us occurred last year when in the midst of the holiday chaos, my high school history teacher came in to shop and I almost cried when I saw him. He didn’t remember me at all, but it didn’t matter. Mr. Cho was the first teacher I had in high school to make me feel smart, to make me feel worthy, a way I hadn’t felt in years, not since elementary school. After the first test in his class, Mr. Cho wrote me a postcard about how smart and capable he believed I was, and that he knew I could do well. This was the same year my English teacher told my parents that he thought I was “such a pretty girl, I’m surprised when she opens her mouth and says something smart.”

Mr. Cho is still very young now, so he must have been a really young teacher when I had him, maybe 24 or 25 then. In the bookstore more than 10 years later, I told him what a profound impact he had on me. I told him I believed he had changed the course of the rest of my life.

“Really?” he said. “I was such an asshole back then.”

I laughed, and assured him he wasn’t an asshole, at least never to me.

That Christmas, I realized we may never know the value of the gifts we give to others every day. And it is at bookstores, at actual physical places, that we make connections with other people, where we give and receive small ordinary gestures of humanity. If I had run into Mr. Cho on the street, I might not have said anything. He didn’t recognize me or remember me, so I might have let him walk on by. It was because we were at the bookstore, a place where I feel confident and knowledgeable, that I said hello and we connected. And that was the moment I understood why we all keep coming to these places that some might call obsolete: that it is in such places that we can still feel like more than a confirmation number, that we can still feel like a person in the world.

1. back-ordered:缺货的

2. deploy [dɪˈplɔɪ] vt. 利用

3. Geronimo Stilton:杰罗尼摩·斯蒂顿,既是《老鼠记者》(Geronimo Stilton)系列丛书作者的名字,也是书中的主人公一只老鼠的名字。这个系列主要讲的是老鼠杰罗尼摩·斯蒂顿和他的伙伴们一同冒险的故事。

去年圣诞节前一周,我打工的书店卖光了《所有我们看不见的光》这本假日季人们谈论最多的书。书暂时缺货,我们要到12月29号才能补到货。

“那我该给妻子送什么?”一位先生逼问道,“她就想要那本书。”

送她另外一本吧,我本来想这么建议,但却没说。相反,我坐在柜台里的高脚凳上向他致歉,解释说是因为出版商印刷的册数不够。

“我想支持本地书店,但是你们这些人真是让我想去亚马逊买书。”他说。

“这本书在亚马逊也缺货,”我尽可能礼貌地对他说,“他们也没法让您在圣诞节前拿到书。”

这样的对话时有发生。顾客们经常用亚马逊来威胁传统书店,仿佛那是一种他们能用来让自己得偿所愿的武器似的。“我如果在亚马逊买这个可以便宜很多。”人们在结账的时候这样告诉我。

这些购书者想让自己在书店买书的时候自我感觉良好,但他们还想为此获得特殊荣誉,好像书店应该在给他们收据的同时附上金星贴花似的。人们喜欢在亚马逊购书的轻松、匿名和便利,但是许多人又觉得网络购书很有罪恶感——我们知道传统书店是活生生的作者们会举办活动的地方,是孩子们周六能参加一小时故事活动的地方。我们知道花在传统书店的钱能使市中心生气勃勃;这些钱不会被杰夫·贝索夫拿去买另一艘太空飞船。

因此,读者们踏进传统书店时为自己感到骄傲,但是倘若交易不完美就会很恼火。一来,书比网上卖的贵,二来有时结账还得排队。啊呀,顾客真的太讨厌排队等了,大家已经形成了一种拒绝等书的文化。

我们希望线下购物能和线上购物一样快捷方便。但不是这样。而直到去年,在节日购物高峰期,我才领悟到这种慢的价值。

为了填补奖学金的不足,我到自己上学的当地书店打工。但我很快就发现,卖书这份工作对我来说远远不只是挣房租钱。这是一份我一生都要接受培训才能胜任的工作,它要求我比一般人更了解书籍。我向来比我认识的大多数人都读得多,读得快。但是没有人能读遍所有的书,因此在书店卖书的这些年,我学会了在早上收听美国国家公共电台的书籍介绍,因为当天晚些时候,总是会有人来买他们上班路上听到的书籍。我尤其记得有一位顾客是这样说的,“我不知道书名是什么,也不知道作者是谁,反正就是一本和二战与情书有关的书。”

“我也在广播里听到这本了。”我告诉他,然后转身把书取给他。

还有一些顾客会非常模糊地描述某本书(“蓝色封面,好像和意大利有关?”)。当我仅根据这些找到他们想要的书时,他们会激动地过来跟我拥抱。

“仅根据‘蓝色封面、和意大利有关’就能找到书,这件事之所以让人觉得酷,是因为电脑真的很难做到这一点。”我老公这样告诉我。他是研究人工智能的,而且钟爱在亚马逊买书。要不是考虑到我会抱怨,就算传统书店消失了,我认为他也不会有多怀念。

他似乎不理解的事情正是我逐渐认识到的事情:有一些人真的需要传统书店,这些人正是我慢慢了解的。有一位治疗师在书店隔壁工作,他买了很多小说去读,我都觉得一般人根本读不了那么多,从经济角度看也不负责任。我们的一位店员因下雪被困在书店过夜时,治疗师让她睡在他的沙发上。还有一位带牛仔皮帽的男士,他告诉我他除了来书店几乎从不离开他的公寓,他每次离开书店前总向我举帽致意(他真那么做)。另外,每逢周六,一位父亲会带着他年幼的儿子来到书店,买一本新的杰罗尼摩·斯蒂顿的书,那是关于一只爱冒险的老鼠的系列丛书。我后来才知道,当时这位父亲正在经历一场离婚,来书店是他和儿子都特别盼望的事情之一。

去年12月,一位坐着轮椅的顾客告诉我他快要不久于人世,他解释说:“我需要一本书给我的家人,帮助他们明白我还是原来的我,尽管我看起来不像以前那样。我实在受不了他们对我另眼相待,就像他们怕我一样。”他需要一本书来帮助家人接受他的离世。我们谈了一会,聊了聊他真正想从书里得到什么,然后我告诉他,我们会特别为他订几本书。我和书店老板一起头脑风暴并做了研究,最后订了十本书。几天后,他再次来到书店看看我们找到了什么书,买了几本。他只是说了句,“谢谢你们倾听我的心声。”

书店是为那些平常缺乏听众的人或没有倾吐对象的人而存在的。书店常常吸引的是那些在其他场合很内向的人,或是那些没意识到自己多么需要社交的人。书店提供了一个进行社交活动的自在环境,也是一个可以轻易开启话题的地方。我们总是有话可聊:当然可以谈论书籍,但是我们也可以聊聊家庭、天气、附近有哪些好吃的餐厅。我们为别人指路,告诉他们银行和咖啡店在哪里。我们可以聊聊我们心爱的狗狗(这是一家允许带狗进入的书店),我们甚至可以聊聊政治。

但是,我最为清晰地领悟到书店真正给我们带来了什么是在去年的某一天。当时正值假日忙乱之际,我的高中历史老师走进店里,看到他时我差点哭了出来。他一点都不记得我了,但是这没关系。这位曹老师是高中时代第一位让我觉得自己聪明、觉得自己有价值的老师,自从小学毕业后我好多年都没有过这种感觉了。他的课程第一次测验之后,曹老师写了一张明信片给我,说他相信我有多聪明多能干,说他知道我可以做得很好。而在同一年,我的英语老师告诉我爸妈:他觉得我是“个非常漂亮的女孩,我很惊讶她能开口说出这么聪明的话”。

曹老师现在仍然很年轻,所以他教我的时候一定是位非常年轻的老师,那时大概二十四五岁吧。十多年之后在书店,我告诉他,他对我产生了多么深远的影响,我告诉他,我相信他改变了我后来的人生。

“真的吗?”他说,“我那时候很烦人吧。”

我笑了,跟他保证他当时一点也不惹人烦,至少在我眼里从来不曾那样。

那年圣诞节,我意识到我们可能永远都不会知道我们每天给别人带来的礼物有多么珍贵。正是在书店里,在这种实体场所,我们才能与他人产生联系,给予并接受那些小小的、平凡的人性表达。假如我是在街上遇到曹老师,我很可能什么都不会说。毕竟他不认得我,也不记得我,我很可能只是与他擦肩而过。但正是因为我们在书店里相遇——一个让我觉得有自信、有学问的地方,我才主动打了招呼,于是我们产生了联系。而且也就是在那一刻,我才明白我们为什么会一直来这些有些人认为过时的地方:正是在这些地方,我们还能觉得自己不仅仅是一个确认码,我们还能觉得自己是世界上一个活生生的人。

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