A good chunk of my days are spent down in the bookstore's engine room. That's shipping & receiving to most people. It's a loud, raucous place where the music ranges from Heart's 70's rocker Crazy on You to the Decemberists' sea shanty The Mariner's Revenge Song, to Eric Clapton's Layla. The conversations are free-ranging affairs encompassing music, philosophy, movies, war, religion, culture, life and on many days, like yesterday, death. The personalities run from grouchy to ebullient with the ebullient people becoming grouchy when an unwanted shipment arrives at 4:30 on a cold day.
These days, I'm down there receiving all the titles that I bought in Chicago at the remainder show in late October. Just when I think I'm making some headway, another 20 boxes show up. "How could I have ordered so much?" I wonder in disgruntled amazement. I always think I've over-ordered in November, and usually by the end of December I'm cursing myself for running out of good remainder titles.
Slowly, I am working my way through the boxes with the help of our shipping and receiving manager and various book clerks that we are able to enlist into our services. I even got the eight-year-old son of one of our children's buyers to help me sticker the remainders a few weeks ago. He started out enthusiastically, but once he saw the returns guy working right next to him peeling off book labels, he became disenchanted. "Why am I putting on the labels, if Ryan's just going to take them off?" he said, as he went to find his mother and a Calvin & Hobbes book.
In shipping and receiving, it's easy to imagine that you are in the engine room of a great ship, feeding coal into the blazing furnace. Remainder companies are notorious for packing exceedingly heavy boxes, and your arms and back quickly become fatigued. It's also dusty and a bit dirty in our windowless basement, and there's a sense, especially at this time of year, that we can't work fast enough. We are always running out of something, or a bookseller is looking for a title that we have just received but haven't even labeled yet. We can never seem to feed our starship enough fuel to keep it at full speed. As Scottie used to say on Star Trek, "Captain, I need more time."
As for the remainders themselves, each box brings a surprise. I know that may seem odd, since I bought the books myself, but Chicago seems like a long time ago now, and I can hardly ever remember my buys. It's like my brain has a file-clearing mechanism. Once the information has been processed, I'm onto my next buy. At dinner, after I have spent a full day buying with a sales rep, my wife will ask me if the publisher had any good books. I'll stare at her blankly, not remembering a single book off a major buy, like the Random House Fall list. Gradually, as the evening wears on, I'll blurt out, interrupting our DVD, "Oh, there's a new John Irving novel," or "Roger Penrose has a gigantic new science book." By then, she will be done feigning interest and look at me blankly.
Yesterday brought Charles Frazier's Thirteen Moons, his long awaited follow-up to Cold Mountain. I'm hoping it will be the perfect remainder. It was a disappointment as a new book, but there are thousands of people who loved Cold Mountain, and they just might be enticed to take a chance on Thirteen Moons for $8.98 in hardback.
I also pulled some amazing art books, published by George Braziller, out of the boxes. These books, including an oversized edition of Hiroshige: One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, are so exquisitely crafted that it is a pleasure just to touch them. Braziller uses ultra-thick paper and the Japanese printing brings forth all of the color in remarkably rich detail. Just caressing these books at work wasn't enough for me, so I immediately purchased Odilon Redon Pastels. Redon is an artist that you rarely see given such a sumptuous treatment. I was first beguiled by his work when we visited Paris in 2000 and saw his pastels in a dimly lit section of the Musee D'Orsay.
Well, it's back into the engine room for another day. Art and literature will have to wait. We have a busy weekend coming up, and the beast must be fed so we don't run aground. Quiet now, I can just barely hear them cranking up the music. Could it be Thin Lizzy beckoning me with The Boys are Back in Town?
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