Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Essay: Introvert in Real Life, Extrovert on the Internet

I was reading this fluff piece in Slate, "Love in Bookstores" by Emma Straub, and this reminded me of my younger--and very geeky--years. Now I'm the type of person who currently has as lot of online friendships (*waves at the Internet*) but few in real life. One of the reasons is that I'm a really shy person. Why, just the other day, I was asking on Twitter how to ask girls out (17 years in the academe taught me how to ask girls out in the context of a school setting but not really outside of it). And that pretty much sums up the story of my life as far as romance is concerned.

I was hoping for more in "Love in Bookstores" but the concept has a strong resonance because I once did try to look for love in bookstores. (While I've never actually worked in a bookstore, the local atmosphere is entirely different so I doubt that customers would ask me out even if I was a bookstore employee.) I am a geek so there are certain shelves in the bookstore that I "patrol". Science fiction and fantasy wasn't as big as it is now (this is before Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings) so finding a girl browsing the SF&F section was a rare sight, not because she might be pretty, but because she shares the same interest. To a certain extent, the Internet feels safe to me--and I had a couple of Internet friends at the time--because we gravitate towards places that share our interests. When you pop into a mailing list, a forum, or a chat room, they tend to be classified under a common theme or subject so you know that the people there are part of your tribe (in the same way that I know readers of this blog are fiction readers).

Going back to the bookstore, I'd like to think that there's a lot you can tell from people's browsing habits. For example, if I see customers making a beeline for all things Tolkien and ignore everything else, I know that they're not necessarily hardcore genre fans but the casual reader. There are also what I classify as "gamers" as they purchase a lot of the media tie-in fiction like Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, and Warhammer (although a lot of readers who buy these books don't necessarily play the tabletop counterpart). Back in the day, I'd probably consider someone picking up a Robert Jordan novel as "my crowd" as Jordan didn't exactly have mainstream appeal although he is popular by genre standards.

One day, I was going to the bookstore, shopping for a copy of A.N. Roquelaure's The Sleeping Beauty Trilogy for a college blockmate (which, I might add, was a challenge to my machismo, but was a welcome change from  buying multiple copies of Neil Gaiman and Yoshitaka Amano's The Dream Hunters which I gave to friends), when I snuck back to my habit of stalking other people browsing the SF&F bookshelves. There were a pair of girls, clearly friends, browsing various Dragonlance titles. They soon became aware of my presence but continued to peruse the shelves. There's a certain care when you linger around a particular shelf, a thoroughness that can't be faked. I knew these were die-hard readers, but what clicked in my mind was that I knew one of these people--someone I had met online (and this was with dial-up modem so people didn't exactly post their photos in public nor did we have Facebook back then).

Again, I want to reiterate that I am a shy person, so introducing myself seemed like the worst thing to do. I was running risk vs. reward scenarios. I mean if I got it right, no harm done and it would make a great story. If I was wrong, it would be a terribly embarrassing situation--and the death of me. Worse, there would be another witness, the friend who was with her. Somehow, courage won out, so I started some chitchat, making dull, obvious statements ("So you're interested in Dragonlance huh?") and biding my time. Somehow, talking to complete strangers in a bookstore was disarming, but it can only take you so far. Eventually, I gathered whatever ounce of confidence I had.

"Is one of you *name redacted*?" I asked.

The girls looked at each other. "No."

And there you have it. My embarrassing mistake.

"But she's my sister."

And that was the icebreaker. I soon explained how I attempted to guess who they were based on their browsing choices (thankfully the sibling shared the same interests as her sister). We had a brief conversation then which is probably best described as "Filipino Serendipity" (and I mean that in the odd coincidences which Filipinos find themselves related to other people less than six degrees apart). The sister for example was actually friends with one of my college blockmates. I could apparently send books to *name redacted* by passing it on to my blockmate, who would in turn give it to the sister, who in turn would finally give the books to *name redacted*. (I would lose the first four hardcovers of Harry Potter this way.) There was some banter, such as the other friend commenting on how I was buying A.N. Roquelaure's books and disbelieved when I said it was for someone else. I never saw the two together after that incident, but it's one of my memories that lingered. Never found romance (nor was I intending one at the time), although from time to time, I still haunt bookstore shelves.


It's not quite a bookstore (I sold manga, does that count?) but I did once work in retail over the span of two summers. I'm an omnivoracious geek so I worked in a shop that sold Magic: The Gathering (and other Collectible Card Games) in one branch and various anime merchandise in the other. Much like the bookstore scenario, there's always this fantasy that one of your customers would ask you out on a date (never happened). Although if it did happen, I was personally wondering the ethics of such a scenario.

Having said that, my Junior Prom and Senior Prom dates were people I regularly saw at the store. The former was someone I met on the Internet (seeing a pattern here?) and the store was a safe place to meet (there's something to be said about an eyeball and guessing who was who). The latter was a complete stranger when I first saw her but somehow, I managed to establish a friendship (and for the record, I didn't get her phone number, but I did get an email address). No romance happened in either case, but the friendship was more than welcome.

All that happened more than a decade ago and I'm in a different place right now compared to back then (although I am still single). So how about you, what are your stories that involve books?


CSECooney said...

I've worked in bookstores since... 2002? Well, also in '99, for a few months.

But it is funny how a person becomes more or less attractive depending on what they buy at the counter! And it is definitely easier to talk to someone if they seem conversant in the genres I read.

I like sometimes eavesdropping on the conversations of people who meet other like-minded people in the stacks. It doesn't happen as much as you think it might! But it's always dear.

Wendy Wagner; said...

It's funny to think of you as a shy person, Charles. Online, you are such a go-getter!

So sorry you lost HP 1-4 in hardcover, but it sounds like a fun experience. I don't have any BOOKSTORE stories, but I did work in a sheet music store, and trust me, there was a great deal of romances going on in that shop based primarily on instrument and favorite composers. (Smart girls resist trumpet players and classical guitarists. Those guys are nothing but trouble!)