Working at a bookstore provides ample opportunity to observe the lives of strangers. Most people don’t want to interact with me unless they have a question, in which case they will initiate the conversation. Often times it is a simple exchange, no longer than a few sentences. Example:
“Where is the restroom?”
“Around the corner next to the cafe.”
“No problem, have a nice day.”
If they don’t have any questions, my initial “Can I help you find anything?” is quickly deflected with a “No thank you, I’m just browsing.” There are rules and courtesies which regulate the interaction between employee and customer, and these rules do a good job of minimizing the amount of brainpower required for work. Occasionally I have to perform some computer tasks and alphabetizing, but even those tasks have established procedures to simplify the job.
This gives me plenty of time to catalogue the various people who come into the store: the tourists, Asian or otherwise; the businesspeople eager to “disrupt” their field; the children obsessed with Greek mythology, Minecraft, or Phineas and Ferb; the parent trying to appease their child’s insatiable appetite for a particular series; the slightly older children eager to demonstrate their knowledge of YA Lit while still disavowing their reading prowess to seem cool; the visiting scholars looking for a souvenir; and the soon-to-be graduate school students pulling GRE prep books from the shelves. They sit snugly within their assigned pigeonholes, exchanging faces and voices with the customers who came before them or the ones who will follow them.
In Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison’s solipsistic protagonist Milkman uses this type of categorization to order his life, keeping his family and friends in a tidy arrangement of boxes. He only truly experiences life when another character imposes a different perspective, destroying this system of pigeonholes. Milkman becomes more selfish with each demolition, refusing to believe that the people in his life are flesh and bone and spirit, preferring to see them as caricatures: a greedy father, a week mother, a scorned lover, a trusted friend, a senile old woman.
Yet, in his search for gold, which he views as the ultimate source of power, he discovers the humans in his life. He is stripped of his pride, his possessions, and most importantly, his stubborn, isolating individualism. Ironically, his relationships begin to fall into place after he relinquishes his desire to control them. Consequently, Milkman grounds his identity in his connections to the past and his family.
Retail can be an isolating job. Bookstores, by their nature, are places where people enjoy losing themselves in others’ stories. When I close down for the night, wandering through messy bookshelves and straightening out displays, I’m simultaneously grateful for the solitude and scared of the loneliness. Ultimately, though, I remember that I’ve been blessed with a family, friends, and a God who’s willing to listen to a guy like me. This inspires a sense of wonder, because all those funny customers I interacted with over the past few hours are also full of thoughts and connections that I’ll never know about. Then, I start to ask what their stories are: what do they want? what do they fear? who do they love? Maybe there’s even a Milkman pacing up and down the history section.
Of course, there’s always the Milkman standing at the front kiosk, which is me. I’m hoping that I’ll eventually lose his solipsism and stubbornness. For now, I’ll just keep pulling the stickers off of these books and greeting customers.