1) First, smell it. Look at the new arrivals, lined up like candy. See if, for just one second, you can remember what it was like to walk into a bookstore as a reader. Just a reader, a happy, curious reader. With no agenda, no insecurities, no history of bookstores as scenes of personal failure and triumph. Wish for a time machine.
2) Nervously check how the store seems to be doing. Are the lights still on? Do the employees look well-fed? Thank God. The world isn’t over yet.
3) Find your friend Gwen’s book. It was mind-blowing, but it hasn’t sold very well. They have three copies! Leave one on the shelf, so the staff can find it if someone asks for it. But turn it face out. Scootch stuff down, if necessary. Tuck the other two copies under your arm like you’re considering buying them. Walk back to the front of the store, to the big table.
4) Who, on this table, deserves a demotion? Something has to go, or Gwen’s novel will fall off the edge. That bestselling thing with the vampire on the cover is a prime candidate, but you’re just being a genre snob. Stop it.
5) Scan the table for some author you can convince yourself is unworthy of tabledom. The one who gave Gwen a blistering and weirdly personal review; the one who dumped your friend Greg on his actual birthday; the one who was so rude to you at Bread Loaf; the one for whom you harbor irrational resentment just because her book came out the same day as yours and did so much better. But none of them is there. Okay, so move the vampire thing. Actually, just put Gwen’s book on top of the vampire one, in case the vampire author is the store owner’s aunt or something. You’re not a monster.
6) The moment of truth: March to your alphabetical shelf. If you’ve done this enough, you know where your book should be just by scanning for the landmarks. You’re always about two inches to the left of the bestseller with the trippy yellow spine, and a few inches to the right of the Pulitzer winner with the naked sailor. You don’t see your book. Be simultaneously devastated and relieved. Because nobody loves you, but also you don’t have to make yourself offer to sign stock.
7) Wait, they do have your book! It was just out of order. Reverse both earlier feelings, completely. You are now elated and terrified.
8) There are two copies. If there were only one, you could walk away right now. Because, you’d tell yourself, it might be sad to offer to sign their one and only paperback copy of your book, a copy they were probably planning to return to the publisher tomorrow. A copy they probably ordered by mistake. If there were five, with a lovely staff pick card right below, you could waltz confidently to the counter. But you have to do this. Because it helps the store, and it doesn’t hurt you either. And everyone knows that this is how you build relationships with booksellers. You think it might be more fun to go drinking with the booksellers. But it’s 11 a.m., and that’s probably not an option.
9) Delay. Take a picture of your friend Jeff’s book and post it to his Facebook wall. Try to identify the one shelf with the greatest concentration of authors you’ve met in real life. Meeting someone online doesn’t count. Change the rules and do it again, because online totally counts.
10) You cannot afford all seven of the books that have somehow wound up in your arms. Acknowledge that you will buy them anyway.
11) Walk to the counter. Let the woman with the raincoat go first. She surely doesn’t want to wait behind you while you sign books.
12) Why didn’t you bring your kids? They’re cute little shields, and half the time they’ll do you the favor of loudly announcing your presence before you have to: “Mommy, they have your book! Hi, this is my mommy’s book!”
13) Thank god there’s a cat on the counter. Stroke the cat manically when you approach. The fact that you hate cats is irrelevant.
14) End every sentence with a question mark. “I’m a writer? You have a couple copies of my book?”
15) The guy behind the counter is lovely. It’s hard to tell if he recognizes your name or if he’s politely bluffing. But he’s smiling, and he has a pen, and yes, of course he wants you to sign stock, and how far away do you live, and when’s your next book out, and you should get in touch when it is, and here’s a bookmark! Don’t be so surprised. They’re always lovely.
16) Sign the books. Resist the urge to ask if you can apply the “Signed by Author” stickers yourself. You’re an adult.
18) As you cross the street with your bag of new books, remember the first time your mother took you to a bookstore and told you to pick something out. To keep, not borrow. You were overwhelmed by choice and wonder. Remember how you pulled things off the shelf at random because every book was equally unknown and fresh and promising.
19) Ask yourself if it’s been worth it. Ask what it means to have become the commodity sold. Wonder if you’ve killed the thing you love.
20) Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Might we be so bold as to suggest that you subscribe to Ploughshares?