A long time ago, in a galaxy not completely controlled by amazon.com, people used to go to bookstores. It was actually a really lovely way to spend some time. You could browse for hours while good music played at the perfect volume overhead and, should you feel a little pang of hunger, you could wander into the café and procure yourself an almost perfect latte and a Rice Krispie treat the size of your head. One of my boyfriends and I used to spend a lot of time at our local Borders. We were young – in our very early twenties – and we didn’t really have a whole lot of money. Both of us were just months out of college and we each lived with our parents. It was tough returning from the freedom of college and entering homes that were no longer places we wanted to be, so it became borderline essential for us to get out of the house as often as possible. We'd spend a lot of dark evenings and some rainy Sundays perusing the Travel and Self-Help sections in an effort to help us retain what was left of our fleeting sanities.
More often than not, my boyfriend would eventually head off to the Music section to rifle through CDs and he always contemplated buying some Led Zeppelin box set that was so pricey, it was kept behind the counter. I’d be off in the Book section, almost always in one of three areas: Fiction, Biography, or Cinema. I only ended up in the Cookbook or Religion sections if I took a wrong left turn caused by a spiking caffeine high rushing through my bloodstream – and the consistency that was my browsing pattern was helpful because it meant that my boyfriend could always eventually find me, even if the store was bustling. I was the one who'd always lose track of time and it was incredibly common that he’d finally stumble upon me and implore me to get myself together so we could go home, reminding me that I probably didn’t need to buy all seventeen books I’d convinced myself had to be mine immediately. He’d pry about twelve of them out of my hand and promise he’d buy them for me for Christmas and, even if it was March, I’d be somewhat comforted by that statement and he could usually get me out of the store before I tripled his chances at one day having to file for bankruptcy.
It was on one of those balmy evenings when I had an epiphany: Wouldn’t it be fun to not just visit but also to work at the bookstore? To be clear, that kind of random thought should be grounds for the closest loved one in the vicinity to have pelted me hard on the head with a hefty eastern philosophy textbook in an effort to get me to stop from compromising a place that only brought me joy by bringing shit like mandatory hours and bosses into the equation. Still, I was just getting started on my Master’s and my school hours were all over the place. Some classes were during the day and some were at night and getting an employer to understand and work around a schedule that would fluctuate from semester to semester was already causing me great bouts of stress. Obviously, I reasoned, I could only work part-time while getting my degree so within about twenty seconds of the idea initially formulating in my scattered head, I’d scored myself a job and Borders changed instantaneously from being my happy place to a place of work.
Let’s just say I don’t always make the best decisions.
It’s not that working at the bookstore was the worst job I ever had – that distinction belongs to the two whole days I worked at Old Navy, where I spent my morning trapped in a crowded elevator and my afternoon being scolded by a former Marine who ran the section I was placed in who told me repeatedly that I was the worst fucking folder on the planet – but there were some troubles I noticed right away. Customers either thought you were an uneducated fool because you worked in retail or expected you to have read every book in the entire store. Creepy men would ask you to help them find a particular title and then follow you to the section, walking slowly enough behind you that you could feel their eyes boring into your ass. The music that played – once so lightly atmospheric – played on a loop and slowly started to drive me insane. But maybe more than anything, what I couldn’t help being bothered by was the knowledge that so many wonderful books always went unread while others (and not always the best ones) flew off the shelves.
I actually liked many of the books Oprah chose for her massive book club. She’s Come Undone became a real favorite of mine, but it was bizarre that all it would take was for the woman to declare to the masses that they should read it and scores of people would come flying into the store as though programmed. We couldn’t keep those titles in stock. Anything with John Grisham’s name sold out quickly, too. But perhaps our hottest commodity was the entire collection of those yellow books with the soft cover – the Dummies series. Yes, there was Investing for Dummies and The Bible for Dummies and Writing Fiction for Dummies. Dummies were being taught how to train a Lhasa Apso. Every single day, I would stumble onto yet another title in the set. Music Theory for Dummies. Organizing for Dummies. My personal favorite was the one called Mindfulness for Dummies – the title alone was fucking hilarious.
I thought about those books today, especially one that was an often-purchased one in the series: Travel for Dummies. While I never actually opened the book, I imagine that it lays out some helpful hints about how to make a trip more pleasant. I’m sure there are tips about how to pack and how to get shit like lotion onto a plane and how to make reservations when you don’t speak the language and how to organize an itinerary so you are able to hit the spa and go horseback riding in the same afternoon. I also have not a doubt in my mind that there’s a chapter – or at least a long paragraph – devoted to choosing the right companions with whom to go trekking all over the world. Travel compatibility is not a small thing! If you’re someone who likes to sleep in, fuck going away with the friend who is going to pound on your door just as the sun rises with a green smoothie in her hand and a grand plan to get you to that yoga class that's taking place beneath the sunrise. If you’re someone who wants to experience life like the locals, don’t hop on a plane with a guy whose greatest experimentation involves going to TGI Fridays instead of Chili's. If you're single, always travel with at least one very hot wingwoman. And for fuck's sake, if you're a Real Housewife, do not get on a plane to Dubai with a gaggle of women who seem intent on destroying you.