Of this I am certain: most staff in Malaysian bookshops are not readers. By readers I mean, regular readers of books, magazines, websites, and other written material. Reading is a pastime for them. Not to Malaysian book store staff who are devoted to only their clerical duties.
We can tell whether the staff of a bookstore reads by observing the quality of stock, the orderliness of the books and the type of books they choose to display in the main display area.
A person who reads is particular about the orderliness of books: they should be placed in the right category or shelf. And they should be placed in the right order or sequence.
I am one of those that hates to see books placed in the wrong category or out of order.
One day, a few years after The Curve at Mutiara Damansara opened, sometime in 2008-2009, I was hastily heading to the counter with my fresh haul of books. Hastily because I was afraid that if I lingered, I might add to the already sizable haul of books I had. Also, dinner was soon and I had to leave to make it.
From the Philosophy section at the North East corner of the store back then, I rounded the bend and was about to launch into a full stride when out of the corner of my eye, I saw an anomaly. In the self-help section, a few copies of Zaid Ibrahim’s book, In Good Faith, were displayed. As if that was not bad enough, the self-help section was under the psychology category.
I’d read the book. So I knew the book was not one with instructions about doing things in good faith. The subtitle of the book was “In Good Faith: Articles, Essays and Interviews”. Naturally, I wondered how it arrived at that section.
I was annoyed and could not let it go. Despite my urgency, I went straight to customer service instead of the cashier. There was a pleasant Malay girl wearing the Border’s green shirt and white tudung, looking at the screen. She was deeply engaged in a riveting configuration of Solitaire.
I interrupted her work.
She turned from the screen.
“Hi. Can I help you?”
“Yes, you can. One of the books in your self-help section is in the wrong section.”
“I’m sorry. Excuse me? What do you mean?”
“You have put some books on the wrong shelf.”
“I see. What is the books?”
“Its title is, In Good Faith.”
“That is the title?”
“Yes. In good faith.”
“And the author is, Zaid Ibrahim.”
She repeated his name silently as she wrote out the details on a piece of paper.
“Zaid. With a Z.”
“This book is in the self-help section of the psychology category.”
“Yes. It shouldn’t be. It should be in the Malaysiana category across from the psychology category.”
“Oh. I see. Are you the author, sir?”
“No, no. I just told you the author’s name. I am not the author. I am just a customer here. I just happen to be fussy about the shelves. Look. I have to get moving. I have dinner to catch.”
“So that is not your book?”
I was getting impatient as I was running late. I was hoping she would be quicker on the uptake. I was detained over something completely inconsequential to the larger scheme of things. I was frustrated at myself for giving a damn and ending up in that situation as well as annoyed at being progressively late for dinner with my family.
“No!” I said tersely.
“Wait, sir. Let me get the manager.”
“No, no. I don’t want to see the manager.”
“It’s better I get her here, sir. Don’t worry.”
I wasn’t worried! I wanted to say but she hurried away. I thought of heading to the cashier instead of wasting time over this silly issue.
Minutes feel like hours when we have to wait unknowingly whilst having somewhere to go immediately.
If I did that, I would have wasted the young lady’s efforts in getting the manager. In for a penny, in for a pound. So I surrendered to the situation and waited impatiently by the customer service desk.
The lady manager of the store came hurrying towards me with the young lady behind her.
“Hello, sir. I am Mas. I am the manager. My staff tells me you are distressed about the placement of some books?”
“No, I am not distressed about it. But yes, there are some books misplaced.” I repeated the complaint to the manager who was quicker on the uptake. She took in my complaint without clarification.
“Please, show me the books, sir,” she said.
I walked quickly over to the locus in quo. I took down an unwrapped copy of the book.
“See where this book is? Self-help. If you look up there. It’s under the Psychology category. This book should not be here.”
I showed her the book and flipped open various pages.
“Look. If you look at the index, you can see. It has nothing to do with self-help. These are his personal essays about Malaysian politics and stuff like that. The author is a Malaysian politician. He is not a psychologist or therapist. So his books should be in that section there – Malaysiana or in the Politics section. That’s up to you. But I would go with the former.”
“I see. Are you the author, sir?”
“I’m not the author, Mas. I am just a customer here. I was on the way out and I saw this error and thought it should be rectified. That’s all. I am not the author. I have not written any books. You understand my complaint now right?”
“Great. That’s all I wanted to point out. Okay. I’m going to go now. I am very late for dinner already. Thank you, ladies.”
I was about to turn to leave when she said, “Wait, sir. If you are not the author, then why are you complaining about it?”
“Because there is, to me, a glaring error. It is wrong for that book to be there. It is misleading to display it under that category and section. It should be placed in its appropriate category.”
I have time and time again found errors in many of the bookstores I have visited in the Klang Valley. It’s good fun spotting them too.
I don’t think we are anywhere like those Australian, American, English bookstores or Japanese bookstores’ English sections where the staff are often readers themselves and give personal recommendations that they pin up next to the book and explain why they enjoyed it, especially for less heavily marketed books. I absolutely love those book recommendations.
Those bookstores are immaculate. I tend to find very interesting and compulsive books that I may not have read about or have not appeared in any best-selling or critically acclaimed list. Their staff is helpful and knowledgeable about books in stock and in general.
Aside from the commercial chains, I enjoy independent stores because they have a charm all of their own. Often, their book selection is thoughtful and cultured.
In all those bookstores, we will never find Zaid Ibrahim’s books shelved in the psychology section. I doubt we would even find it there at all.