Fear and loathing at Borders.
Little Bee: A NovelPublisher: Simon and Schuster; Reprint edition
Author: Chris Cleave
Length: 304 pages
Publication date: 2010-02
Editor's note: Check out Part One of this article.
The Canyon Pointe Summerlin Center is a confluence of NYSE-traded big-name box stores nestled on a modest patch of acreage adjoining the Red Rock Casino and Resort in a quiet corner of the northwest Las Vegas city limits.
Canyon Pointe straddles the invisible border between the rugged mountains and arid desert of Southern Nevada and the brick, mortar, and steel footprints of human civilization; just walk a few blocks west on Charleston Boulevard and you’re at the cusp of the Red Rock Canyon National Recreation Area, a favored spot for mountain hiking and bicycling.
Ten years ago, the land that Canyon Pointe occupies was home to scrub brush and sand, ancient rock, coyotes, bobcats, quail, and geese. Today the lot, part of a 25,000 acre parcel of land purchased by eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes in the 1950s, boasts a Best Buy consumer electronics store, a Bed, Bath and Beyond for ergonomic pillows and scented soaps, an Office Depot, and a Marshall’s discount department store, offering a vast array of product from Adidas sportswear and men’s button-down dress shirts to imported tins of sardines and rich bratwurst mustard from Munich.
The anchor of the privately-owned Canyon Pointe Center, smack dab in the middle of all of those other branded box stores and within strolling distance of a Burger King and a Chevron gas station and car wash, is store number 0534 in the Borders Books, Music, and Café chain.
After buying a new 2010 Day Planner at Office Depot and a few household items at Marshall’s, I made my way to Borders and began book shopping.
Store 0534 in the celebrated Borders corporate octopus is not much of a tentacle, a medium-sized and modest creature compared to multi-level behemoths I have visited in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The wide carpeted aisles are dotted every few feet by table displays of works from highlighted authors, often with an eye toward novels that are in the current and regional high school and university curriculum (slick modern paperback reissues of To Kill a Mockingbird, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Great Gatsby).
On the particular afternoon that I visited the Borders at Canyon Pointe, there was a thoughtful display of the late J.D. Salinger’s available works on a table in the Literature section, a reflection of the Borders sales ethic: stay on top of the cultural and political zeitgeist and highlight books that satiate the consumer’s hunger for more knowledge on a particular topic or personality. Borders was using “trending topics” as a successful sales tool for books, movies, and music long before Twitter and Google Search ever came along.
Every title that I was shopping for was easily located in under ten minutes: Dangling in the Tournefortia, a 1981 collection of Charles Bukowski’s gritty poetry conjured from the mean streets of Los Angeles; the 2010 edition of The Associated Press Stylebook; and The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology from Hermes House, the latter an absolute bargain at under five dollars. I grabbed a two-dollar Borders tote bag (100 percent recyclable material) and proceeded to check-out at the front of the store.
There was a fairly long queue to the bank of clerks and cash registers, unusual for this particular store except during the holiday season; most of the customers were purchasing reading material and I took this as cheerful evidence that the alarmists are wrong and the Great Recession is going to bring back reading like never before once people realize that books are a less expensive adventure than video games. Then, however, I realize that we are only a few days from Valentine’s Day and that most of my fellow consumers, upon closer inspection of the bundles in their hands, are purchasing gifts for their sweetheart, and that is the root cause for the crowd lined up for their turn at the register, not some sudden and drastic change in the literacy rate.
"Did you find everything you were looking for?"
It was finally my turn to advance to check-out. The Borders clerk was on the younger side of the thirty-something demographic with no outstanding features to recall aside from a neatly-trimmed brown mustache and goatee; he manned the cash register on the opposing side of the counter while standing on some sort of platform or riser designed to maximize eye contact between customer and sales representative.
“Wow, you picked up some really good deals today!” the clerk enthused as he began scanning my purchases. “Did you find everything you were looking for?”
“Yes, everything,” I replied, trying to extricate a credit card from my wallet.
The glass-top counter space between clerk and customer is roughly the same amount of territory reserved for a bank teller’s window. On the counter to my right was a book that I presumed had been left behind by the prior customer; now it served as an obstacle, competing for counter space between my purchase and my effort to remove my credit card from my billfold.
“That’s not mine,” I said to the clerk as I pushed the stray trade paperback away from my Bukowski and reference books.
“Oh.” He seemed surprised. “Have you read it?”
I glanced at the book. It was a reprint edition of Chris Cleave’s acclaimed literary-fiction novel Little Bee from Simon and Schuster. The cover artwork, a silhouette of the Nigerian title character against a burnt orange background, seemed a deliberate (some might say “cynical”) design to lure readers who enjoy the works of Alice Walker or Toni Morrison (though the author is more often compared by critics to fellow UK novelist Ian MacEwan).
“I’ve read some favorable reviews of it,” I said, “but I’m kind of burned-out on contemporary lit-fic for the moment; that’s why I’m buying the Bukowski.”
“I’ve recommended that book to a lot of people,” he countered, “and not one of them has been disappointed. I guess it sort of says something different to anyone who reads it. When I first read it, I got caught up in the story because it’s so different that it just blows your mind, y’know? It’s so different, in fact, that it’s almost impossible to explain.”
Surely there is plenty in life and art that is “almost impossible to explain” but if one is incapable of elucidating even the barest bones of a novel’s plot in a brief discussion – a discussion that this customer most assuredly did not invite – and instead relies on superlatives devoid of example or justification, then the person breathlessly endorsing the product (Chris Cleave’s Little Bee) is acting as nothing more or less than a shill and a carnival barker.
“I’m a book columnist and editor for PopMatters, a very popular online magazine of cultural review,” I interjected after enduring his awkward and inept sales pitch. “In all of 2009 I didn’t read one contemporary lit-fic title that I found worthy of recommendation; the market is a little stale right now.”
This information appeared to have an unpleasant effect upon the young man’s mind. His vocal pitch became timid yet hostile, his gaze was suddenly evasive and shifty, and his body language communicated clearly that he regretted initiating the conversation.
“Lit-fic,” he snorted, processing my transaction. “I don’t know anything about lit-fic. I’m a sci-fi and fantasy guy myself.”
“Nothing wrong with that genre, there are quite a few notable authors to recommend.”
“Some people think so,” he shot back.
“Look, a lot of people don’t like literary fiction,” I continued, “but the book that you just recommended to me is classified as literary fiction, not sci-fi or fantasy, the genre you claim as your favorite. Can you please put all of my books into the tote bag I just bought?”
"A Book We Love!"
In Dangling in the Tournefortia, Charles Bukowski writes: “It’s when you look for meaning that you get confused.”
There was no confusion in the meaning of my unsolicited dialogue with the Borders clerk at store 0534; by his reaction it was apparent that my use of the slang term “lit-fic” was a buzzword for “cultural elitist”, a judgment he had no business imposing upon me (or any other customer, for that matter), especially when the wage earner is pushing a particular product on orders from corporate management, a suspicion that I confirmed less than an hour later after returning home and logging onto borders.com; on the front page of the book retailer’s web presence, in a large banner ad impossible to ignore, Chris Cleave’s Little Bee is urgently highlighted as A BOOK WE LOVE.
Who are we?
Borders, I’m thrilled to death that you’re sharing the love for Little Bee but please allow me to comment constructively on a fatal flaw in your sales ethic where books are concerned: reading is a highly personal and subjective human experience. It is patently irresponsible and hubristic to compel your sales clerks to pitch whatever your “book of the month” or “book we love” happens to be at any given rotation of the calendar, and the offense is even more egregious when it occurs as the customer is on their way out the damn door.
Wars have been waged over the written word (begin with the Crusades and move forward), and writers have upset the status quo in society and fermented revolutionary change for centuries through their work (Harriet Beecher Stowe, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Martin Luther King, Jr., to name a few).
The human language in written form can be inspiring and empowering, frightening and humbling, enlightening in ways both good and ill. Any emotional experience one can imagine or encounter has, over time, been memorialized on paper, proving that the human experience is a shared and communal event (even a misanthrope like Bukowski recognized that irrefutable fact).
Borders -- and, by extension, all book stores -- fulfills and exploits a basic human need; just as financial institutions, realtors, and landlords exploit for profit the basic human need for shelter, so too does the book merchant capitalize on the elemental human craving for story-telling, the medium by which traditional knowledge, folklore, and beliefs of all cultures has been transmitted from one generation to the next, originally by word of mouth and then, over the paths of time and ingenuity, the words would appear bound in pulp and glue and cardboard to reach the widest possible audience.
The appearance of the printing press represented mankind’s first attempt at mass communication, long before the telephone and telegraph, radio, TV, movies, the internet, and all other mass media we take for granted in our media-saturated 21st century – all forms of story-telling are extensions of the book and the oral tradition.
A novel with serious aspirations, which Little Bee is, should never be presented as a whimsical, impulse-buy commodity like a perfume at the fragrance counter at Bullock’s (“Have you tried the Little Bee?”) or a cheap paperback edition of the latest James Patterson escapist thriller at the grocery store checkout stand.
All art is not interchangeable.