One of the aspects of being a bookseller than I didn’t anticipate was the quiz show component. Although I expected to be asked questions by customers, we get just as many from coworkers. I work for a large used bookstore that doesn’t have a complete online inventory, so we really pretty heavily on each other’s memories, whether it’s “Hey, did you see where that copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance went to?” 1 or “If we had a book on making chainmail out of pull tabs, where would we put that?” 2 Different people tend to have different specialities, so we don’t hesitate to draw on someone else’s expertise.
The questions that feel more like a quiz show are the googleable ones. Although we could just go over to a computer and type it in, it’s usually faster to ask a coworker, who 90% of the time will give you an instant answer. It’s like bookish pop quizzes! As the kids’ expert, I’m pretty accustomed to having coworkers walk past and ask over their shoulder “Who’s the author of Encyclopedia Brown?” 3 or “Is Amelia Bedelia chapter books or picture books?” 4 It always feels like a personal failure if I don’t have the answer on the tip of my tongue.
Of course, it’s the customer questions that are the real wild cards. Sometimes they are the easy, googleable ones. Other times they’re more about opinion: “What’s a good book for a 9-year-old who likes black holes?” 5 It’s not unusual to go on a wild goose chase, of course. A few days ago I had someone asking for An Imperial Affliction by Peter Van Houton, which sounded so familiar, I was annoyed that I didn’t know which section to check off the top of my head. 6 My favourite questions are the ones that give you just enough hints to be possible to figure out, but not enough to be easy. Someone asking for “Little Mouse” comics is simple enough 7, but I was particularly proud of solving this customer’s question: she was looking for a chapter book, couldn’t remember the title or author, but it’s a fantasy book about three kids who have a scientist mom 8. Hint: it’s a title you probably know. Another one I felt smug about getting the answer to was a customer who came in who said “I don’t expect you to know, because this is the third bookstore I’ve asked at, but just in case: I’m looking for a picture book I saw that’s sort of a dystopian story where there are no more plants and the characters are these creatures, and there’s one seed that gets planted?” 9
So how would you do in the bookseller quiz show? Here’s a couple open-book (google is allowed) questions to test your skills. These are real ones that my coworkers both received and successfully answered. One other aspect to customer questions: often some of the clues are actually completely inaccurate, so often it’s like “two truths and a lie” as well. (To be fair, we also had the customers to bounce ideas off of, but here are the starting points.)
a) It’s a book with a girl skipping on the cover?
c) A book with a Somali woman on the cover. I left my copy on the plane and can’t remember the title or author.
d) It’s a book series that’s narrated by a dog, it’s really popular…?
e) That book with a man on the cover of it and he looks like he is very uncomfortable…
f) The cover is colourful and there’s a Japanese girl. Do you know what I am talking about?
a) and b): Lullabies for Little Criminals.
d) The singular book The Art of Racing In the Rain by Garth Stein.
e) Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann.
f) A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.
So how did you do? If you’re a bookseller or a librarian, what are some of the trickiest book questions that you managed to answer successfully?
1 It’s in Philosophy (under Pirsig)
2 Crafts–probably in Specific Crafts, under Chainmail, or maybe in the Metalwork section instead, but also check online, because we probably listed something that specific.
3 Sobol. After alphabetizing for this long, the first names of authors seem optional.
4 Both, and leveled readers to boot, but we keep her together in picture books (under Parish).
5 The kids’ Space section is the first stop, of course, but for fiction, they would probably also like Stephen Hawking’s kids’ series George’s Secret Key to the Universe, depending on their reading level.
6 If it sounds familiar to you, too, that’s probably because you read The Fault In Our Stars. It’s Hazel Grace’s favourite book, but not one that exists in our reading world.
8 It was A Wrinkle In Time, though I’ll admit I googled to get there, because it’s just now how I would think to describe it.
9 After extensive googling, I found out it was Varmints by Helen Ward.