Each day at Borders resembled the next. The daily roster was divided into one- and two-hour blocks. Section. Tills. Main Info. Staff consulted the roster each hour and changed squares.
“Do you have The Story of Pee?” a young woman asked.
I stood before the computer at the main information desk. “Do you know the author’s name?”
“No, but it just won a prize.”
“Do you mean The Life of Pi?”
I picked up a copy of Yann Martel’s novel from the stack behind the main information desk and handed it to her.
“Thanks. It’s a present for my mother.”
I thought briefly of the girl’s mother soon to be united with Yann Martel’s novel. A union that never would have happened had the novel not won the 2003 Booker Prize. I wondered how long Martel had spent selecting the title? I imagined The Life of Pi was more than just a summary of the novel’s activity, of Pi’s life, that the sound of each syllable was mysteriously complete to Martel. Yet, I also saw how the title had left the novel open to misinterpretation. The Story of Pee could have been a potted history of the customer toilets at Borders Islington.
I also saw how the title had left the novel open to misinterpretation. The Story of Pee could have been a potted history of the customer toilets at Borders Islington.
The toilets were located on the ground floor between the start of Fiction and True Crime. The security gates beeped if a ‘tagged’ book passed through the entrance to the toilets. Most thieves had the presence of mind to check the inside covers of books for the white tags or ‘chicklets’ that set the security gates off. But not all books were tagged.
The toilets overflowed with criminal activity. Teenagers took great delight in stuffing the bowls with wadded toilet paper. Then they graffitied the doors and walls, often with their own blood and shit. Junkies left used needles lying on the floor like broken fountain pens, and the tails of used tampons dangled from the stuffed mouths of the sanitary bins.
The code for the toilet door was distributed by the staff member at the main information desk.
“The toilets are disgusting,” customers often told me.
I reserved my judgment. My threshold for disgust was high.
In 2005 the Borders Islington management team finally instigated a new toilet policy: customers had to obtain an in-store receipt to gain access to the toilets. The code for the toilets printed out at the bottom of the receipt. No purchase, no toilet. This strategy was a deterrent intended to keep out the illegitimate: bums, teenagers and drug addicts. It also kept out Jon Ronson. The author who wrote The Men Who Stare at Goats was not a man happy to produce a receipt to use a customer toilet. In his Guardian column he complained about the new customer toilets regime. He also complained about the staff member who policed the use of the toilets from the main information desk.
Customers crossed Borders Islington in currents. I collected up the driftwood once the tide had gone out and the store had closed. At Borders re-shelving was called recovery. Occasionally customers solicited my opinion. “Is this any good?” “Have you read this?” A book picked up, its cover turned to greet me like the face of an old friend. I gave stock answers. “It’s been very popular.” “That’s one of our bestsellers,” “I haven’t got around to that one yet, but it’s on my list.” Sometimes I was honest. “I don’t know.” But my ambiguity was a repellent. Customers rarely chose a book that I could not fully endorse. Yet, how could I have read every title? How could I have been attracted to every cover? I had my own interests, my own preoccupations.
In Fiction I found an illustrated novel about the adventures of an existential cat. I spent half an hour flicking through the book instead of shelving the nearby cart of recovery. The cat was just a wistful stranger struggling to assemble the intellectual jigsaw of life. When I went relooking for the book after payday it had disappeared. Sold? Surely not. The existential cat wasn’t Dan Brown. I tried countless times to relocate it to no avail. Borders was a maze. The book could have been misshelved anywhere. To make matters worse, I couldn’t remember the title or the author’s name. I was my own worst nightmare. A customer. I didn’t even have enough information to find it on Amazon.
My ambiguity was a repellent. Customers rarely chose a book that I could not fully endorse. Yet, how could I have read every title? How could I have been attracted to every cover? I had my own interests, my own preoccupations.
During my tenure at Borders I grew to hate the bestsellers. A new Jodi Picoult felt about as sincere as a cheeseburger. Take off the wrapper and the moral dilemma lay in the centre like a gherkin, ready to be digested. Then what were you hungry for? Borders revolved around the seasons. I filled Valentine’s Day displays to the brim with Purple Ronnie mini books and sex cheques. Easter: a line of fluffy chicks from Paperchase. I liked to decorate the tables with gift cards and other items of quirk. The shopper is a magpie. Mother’s Day: more pink, more pastels, more chick lit, more Jodi (is there any occasion Jodi cannot rise to?). Father’s Day: men and their sheds, a book of knitted socks, Dita Von Teese’s Burlesque and the Art of the Teese. Halloween, then stocking fillers:
Eats, Shoots, and Leaves.
Why Don’t Penguins Feet Freeze?
Victorian Do’s and Don’ts for Wives (and Husbands)
The tills chimed. Santa came. Then he went.
Sex: always over-stimulated. Paper cut-outs from the pop-up Karma Sutra torn asunder. The Story of O my god, why is this section such a fucking mess? One day I caught a rare glimpse of some customers browsing the sex section. A group of teenage boys flicked to a large graphic image and asked, “Have you done this?” I didn’t reply. But I had.
MEGAN DUNN studied Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, graduating in 2006. She won an Escalator award from the New Writing Partnership (now The Writers’ Centre Norwich) and her short story ‘The Mermaid and the Music Box’ was included in Roads Ahead, a 2009 anthology of new writers published by Tindal St Press. She lives in New Zealand where she is well known as a visual arts reviewer.
Tinderbox is available to buy here at Galley Beggar Press.