A Cautionary Tale

IMG_0318When I was a brand new bookseller, a customer asked me how many books she should bring on her upcoming five-day vacation. I told her I would bring five books. She looked aghast, so I quickly told her that I knew I wouldn’t actually read that many books. Several of my books are insurance — what if the flight is delayed, finally boards, then sits on the runway for an hour waiting to take off, and then, when it arrives at its destination, sits on the tarmac for an hour waiting for a gate? What if the flight circles the airport forever and finally is diverted to another airport, from which I have to take a bus to my home airport? What if one of the books is a huge disappointment? My mother was once waiting for a connection in an airport and started reading a book that turned out to be so awful she left it at the gate. It was a hardcover book, and she couldn’t bear to throw it out, even though it was unreadable.

After the customer left the store (with a bag of four books), Sue, who was trying to train me in the art of bookselling, told me that most people probably wouldn’t bring one book for every day of a trip. I explained to her my ideas about insurance, and also mentioned that I thought the customer’s question was rather odd. She was a complete stranger to me; how could I possibly know how voracious a reader she was? This was just the first of many unusual questions from customers I’ve tried to answer. The trick, as I now know, is to answer the question with a question: “How many books did you bring on your last trip? How did that work for you?”

Flash forward almost 16 years. Sue sold Lake Forest Book Store and moved to Glen Arbor, Michigan, where she’s now the owner of the Cottage Book Shop. After surviving her first winter in the Snow Belt, she went with her daughter to visit friends in sunny Arizona. I was on vacation at the same time and Sue and I exchanged a few texts about what we were reading. (She highly recommends Herman Koch’s upcoming book, Summer House with Swimming Pool.) Then I received this text: “I’ve read all my physical books. Should have brought more.” She didn’t bring any insurance. Sue had anticipated more activity and less reading time on this trip.

cvr9781451621389_9781451621389_lgSue downloaded some books from Edelweiss on her IPad. (Edelweiss is a service that allows booksellers, reviewers, librarians, etc. to download free advance readers’ copies.) But, she told me, she doesn’t read on her IPad out of the house. She wants to present a good example to the reading public. So Sue ended up buying a book at full retail price at the airport bookstore. The book was Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, by Susannah Cahalan, and Sue says it was well worth the price. Still, maybe next time she will bring an extra book (or two) . . . just in case.

You would think that, with the advent of e-books, I wouldn’t feel the need to pack extra books. I am perfectly willing to read my IPad in public, although I confess to walking down the aisle of the airplane and taking a quick poll of how many people are reading real books. (According to a recent Pew research study, last year 70% of American adults read at least one physical book and 28% read an e-book, compared with 66% and 23% in 2012.) I will always prefer turning the pages of a book. And I can’t rely on my IPad . .  what if it malfunctions, or the battery dies and there’s nowhere to recharge it? So I keep stuffing one more book in my carry-on, because you never know what could happen.

ImageThank goodness for airport bookstores! I always like to pick up a magazine or two before a flight. Recently, however, I visited the most inhospitable airport convenience store ever. This one couldn’t possibly be called a bookstore, because it had only a few dusty paperbacks and a very limited selection of magazines. Posted over the sad little magazine and book display was a sign that said, ” PLEASE NO READING”. I found this amusing, and snapped a photo — only to be escorted out of the store by the very unamused manager. What if I had run out of reading material and really needed to buy some? What would I have done then?

9781250037756In case you’re wondering what else Sue read (besides Summer House with Swimming Pool and Brain on Fire), she finished Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (“quirky”) and Essentialism by Greg McKeown (“read it straight through”), and started The Steady Running of the Hour by Justin Go. I read Essentialism as well, and can’t wait to tell you more about it in a couple of weeks — the publication date is April 15.

For more of my thoughts on bringing extra books on trips, check out an earlier post: Leaving on a Jet Plane. Maybe I’ve exhausted this topic, but I just hate to think of a reader stranded without a good book.

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