Did I become the punchline of bookseller’s joke?

You may have seen the cartoon where a customer comes into a bookstore asking for a book, “I don’t know the title but it has a blue cover.” I wasn’t quite that bad, but I had a definite idea of what I wanted. I described everything about this book – its plot, its characters, the time period it covered, everything except the title. And to this day I’ll swear that I’ve seen it on a display counter somewhere in my travels. But the bookseller in Hanna’s was patient. He was polite. And he knew he was right, but that I’d need to find out for myself. So he explained that he wasn’t aware of the book and directed me to the nearest thing he had.

In some stores they’ll go to their computer to tell you where or when they’ll have it – or even direct you to another store. But my man in Hanna’s was just as firm in his knowledge of his inventory as I was in my error. He was polite. He was friendly. And he knew his inventory and what else was published in the field. You know something? He was right. I was wrong. I know because since getting home I’ve searched and searched for what I know I saw. And it’s just. not. there.

What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just aint so. Attributed to Mark Twain and Josh Billings, among others.

So here’s the rest of the story…

My guess is that I’d seen either a reference to a Danish documentary or a story about the event or film. The Man Who Saved the World tells the tale of Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, who suspected that his Soviet early-warning system was malfunctioning and that the Americans hadn’t launched a nuclear attack. He was right. The computers were wrong. But what would have happened if he’d blindly relied on what his screens were telling him in 1983?

While apparently this book has never been written, it triggered the recommendation and sale of The Spy and the Traitor, a true 1980’s Cold War spy story. Whether Oleg Gordievsky was the spy or the traitor depends on the particular flag you’re flying.

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And the bookseller? As I found out while we were chatting at the till, he not only has an encyclopedic knowledge of his inventory and current events, but he’s also a community resource, as I saw from pedestrians knocking on the display window and waving to him to others putting their heads in the door for a quick comment or question. Hanna’s may no longer have its city centre location on Nassau Street or its university location, but it’s retained its soul as a true community resource.

Have I mentioned that it was a rare sunny afternoon? So I walked a few minutes to Ranelagh’s Company of Books. I wasn’t surprised to discover that its display, appearance and personality were totally different from Hanna’s. It’s what I love about independent bookstores. Like people, each has its own personality, usually reflecting a blend of their owners and communities. While I hadn’t totally given up on looking for my missile crisis, I had no preconceived notion walking into the store.

My biggest problem there was too much selection. Their tastes – or their neighbourhood’s – run very close to mine. While I’ve been known to break my pledge of only buying a book per store, I’d just come from one store and had more stores in my diary for the next couple of days. So…I selected The Memory Police. If memory serves me right, it was because of a number of news stories that day about how social media relieves us of the need to remember things because they use our memories as their products. It was only that night that I tied it to my false memory of a Russian Cold War crisis…

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Book in hand, I realized I was hungry and remembered the first time I ever visited the store. I’d asked the saleswoman to recommend a good place and she sent me across the street to Er Buchetto Caffe Italiano, telling me it’s where she was planning on having her late lunch. I was greeted from behind the grill when I walked in the door with a question, “Are you working at the bookstore now?” She’d seen the book lady standing in the doorway giving me directions. This same woman called each of her customers by name – and knew most of their orders. A bit later my bookstore lady walked in, picked up her takeaway and went back across the street to work. I’m glad that the bookstore has re-opened. I’m hoping that the restaurant can re-open and survive all of the distancing requirements, so we can all have some more good food in the days to come, hopefully sooner, rather than later.

I like these neighbourhoods. Too many people, when they talk about “big cities”, forget that these cities are composed of communities like Ranelagh and Rathmines.

This piece is just one of a number I’ve written about my long-term love affair with books. If you’d like to see more simply click on the “Books” category below. You can also subscribe, so that you’ll see these blogs as they’re written, as opposed to social media’s algorithms. As the saying goes, if you like my writing, tell your friends. If you don’t, tell your enemies.

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