I realised today the most important reason and deciding factor for me moving across to ebooks. It actually emerged from hearing a single, throwaway sentence. Before I continue, I should say that you may not wish to be eating or drinking while reading this blog, because it comes with an ‘ewww’ warning. Oh, and sorry, but this one’s not for the kids.
The sentence? ‘Every time you read a book, you leave a little bit of yourself behind in it.’ No, we’re not talking about some existential contribution to the universe and human knowledge. We’re talking about physical, mostly invisible, sometimes visible parts of you. Like skin cells, hair, saliva, mucus. In short, anything you can shed or spread. Kind of makes those library books a little less appealing, doesn’t it?
I’m not sure what followed this sentence, because hearing it immediately transported me back in time to when I was at uni and worked part-time as a bookseller. And it’s here that the ewww kicks in.
Every retail job comes equipped with some colourful (or not-so-colourful) characters who keep your job ‘interesting’, or who simply provide grist for the writers’ mill (hence this blog post). Many of them become regulars, and new staff members learn these customers’ quirks the hard way while older staff chalk up encounters to the retail chalkboard of horror.
Invariably, the greater the horror experienced by one staff member, the greater the amusement experienced by all the other others who escaped it first hand, but who get to be shocked, awed, and downright thank-goodness-it-wasn’t-me-who-copped-it amused.
My un-funny, uber-eww situation involved an older gentleman who frequented the store and who used to purchase erotic fiction. That in itself is not a bad thing, and more than anything I felt sorry for him. I figured he was a lonely guy, and who knew, maybe he was reading the books for the quality writing and compelling stories.
The problem was that he would then return the books for a refund, with all manner of excuses. He was so frequent and had such a system worked out, that he was known not just in the particular book store I worked in, but others in near-by neighbourhoods.
I can’t remember if he was given a name like Mr Itchy, the rampant, smash-and-grab shoplifter who was known for specialising in stealing sci-fi (that’s another story altogether), but I suspect not—he creeped us young female staff members out too much to warrant a term-of-endearment name.
The refund reasons varied from the books not being suitable, to that they were given to him as a gift, that he realised he already owned a particular one, and so on. Basically, they were the kinds of reasons for which we had to give a refund.
And, even though we knew that he knew that we knew he was full of bull, we were polite young booksellers, he made us feel uncomfortable, there were invariably other customers listening in who weren’t aware of his long history of dodgy-ness, he was careful to hit up different stores each time so it was hard to pin down his story and disprove it, and we weren’t getting paid enough to care enough to kick up a significant stink.
Anyway, the second part to this story is that there were rules about when we staff members could go to lunch, and one particular day I was starving well before my allotted break. So starving, in fact, that every other staff member knew about it. It had become a bit of a joke and I was counting down the seconds of the minutes until I got to go, warning everyone not to get between me and my meal once the time rolled around lest they be eaten by mistake.
Of course, it was really busy when my break time turned up and, feverishly hungry though I was, I felt bad leaving the guys at the counter to contend with the swarm of customers. To help out and to alleviate my guilty, food-focused conscience, I decided to serve one more customer before I went. Of course, I should have sized up said customer before I said that, because it turned out that the next person in line was he who shall not be named but who bought and returned erotica.
The particular book he slid across the counter—and I mean slid, because he never handed you the book and never quite looked you in the eye—had clearly been read and probably carted around in a bag or two too. The cover’s corners were mushed and tattered, the spine cracked and lined, and the book fell open in the hyper-extended manner of one that had been bent back on itself.
One of the conditions of refund is that a book must be in saleable condition. This clearly wasn’t, but the customer continued to assert that he hadn’t read the book, it was given to him as a gift, and this was the condition it had arrived in.
I was trying to politely explain the myriad reasons why we couldn’t accept it back when something caught my eye. For a moment I thought it was a ribbon that he’d used as a bookmark, but closer examination revealed it to be much, much worse. It was a long, grey, curly, wiry pubic hair.
I’d like to say that I sent Mr Erotica packing without a refund, but I think I relented just to get him away from me, us, and the book store. Despite the repulsive proof that he’d read the book (or at least flicked through and handled it), he was adamant that he hadn’t. And really, you can’t reason with a man who’s prepared to stand there and debate you and deny ownership of a pube.
Suffice to say that once he was finally gone, I couldn’t wash my hands enough and was no longer hungry.
So, remember that line about leaving something of yourself behind in a book each time you read it? Yeah. Most of us wouldn’t leave our nether region’s hairs, but the point remains the same. That line and this story reminded me of the single most important reason for moving across to ebooks. Shudder. No more library or possibly refunded books for me. At least if I loan them out, I’m not going to get trace matter on my electronic copies.