Posts Tagged 'bookstore'

A tough nut to crack

True crime is one of the most popular sections of the bookstore where I’ve been working in Wilkes-Barre. The book I Heard You Paint Houses about Frank “the Irishman” Sheeran can be found in at least three locations throughout the store, and still people ask for it at the info. desk.

I know that scintillating crime shows on are widely popular but (anecdotally) the craving for these true crime novels seems to be greater here in Northeastern PA than elsewhere. Why are they so popular? Is there something about them that resonates with the NEPA identity? There’s definitely self-awareness in the region about rampant corruption cronyism (yet another way that being here reminds me of India!), and links to the mafia are more commonly referenced when discussing community or political problems than anywhere else I’ve lived. Here’s an example of a recognized case of corruption for which there’s no accountability: the government has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars on renovating the vacant Hotel Sterling downtown, and absolutely no changes have been made to the site.

Or, to give a nationally known example, there’s the kids-for-cash scandal. Just two weeks ago a U.S. district judge sentenced former Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella for receiving money from Robert Mericle, a builder of juvenile detention facilities, in exchange for harsh sentences handed out to juvenile offenders.

Does this atmosphere have to do with the popularity of true crime literature? The category contains stories of teenagers killing their grandmothers, partners murdering spouses, children disappearing and being discovered 18 years later after a lifetime of rape. It disturbs me just to read the teasers on the covers when I have to re-shelve them, and I can’t imagine why people want to read this stuff. But then, they see similar stories in the news everyday: a grave robber arrested, a deputy sheriff fired after being charged with assault and burglary, a couple arrested for sexual abuse of their foster son, and so on.

As an anthropologist, I want to make connections and analyses about the threads of identity and culture that I’ve observed in conversations and the general feel of this place, but I really haven’t been here long enough to make any conclusions. And I certainly haven’t done enough talking to people about these subjects to have those conclusions be well informed.

In both Hyderabad and Wilkes-Barre I’ve found myself missing the way Palestinians so eagerly tell visitors about various aspects of their culture. Without that opening, and without a particular “research” topic to investigate (I’m not an academic, after all), it’s more difficult to get to know a place and its people, as well as to formulate deeper questions. It’s also difficult to know how to ask questions when I’m not clearly marked as Other. Unlike in Palestine, to the people I meet in the Wyoming Valley, I may not be a local, but I’m not a foreigner either. Yet my curiosity about ways of life and political and economic conditions remains.

Carry On

Going out of business

Lancaster, PA; August 2010

I visited Borders yesterday. Like everyone else, the massive sale signs attracted me there in search of a particular magazine, but Borders has been a common conversation topic around me in the two weeks since I started working at a different chain bookstore. Employees at my job talk about the impending closure amongst each other as well as with customers.

Sometimes my co-workers express sorrow for their fellow booksellers. Other times they express relief that it wasn’t us. Sometimes they cross their fingers that we remain successful, leaving worry about our own futures lurking outside our secure (for now) job shifts. And of course sometimes the closure is used as a reference for the fact that the company we work for now serves the vast majority of the declining book-selling market.

With those exchanges as a backdrop, I wandered through Borders yesterday, taking in the sights of nearly empty shelves, discount signs across all aisles, and computers whose inventory system no longer functions. Thanks to my recently acquired bookseller eyes, I could only view it as a bookstore in decay. And all of us shoppers leisurely picking the remaining stock appeared to me as scavengers plucking the last shreds of meat from a rotting animal.

The man ahead of me at check-out asked the cashier which was busier—right now or Christmas? I grimaced at the clueless question, and the woman replied, “Well this is sadder.” Duh. I’ve worked in many places where I knew I would leave after a certain time period, but I can’t imagine continuing to labor while the workplace around me was being steadily dismantled and my own future left uncertain.

I probably wouldn’t have given the trip much thought, though, if I hadn’t gotten my own bookstore job recently. Being a pretty empathetic person, I imagine I would’ve at least thought about the tough situation the employees there are facing. Border’s is just one of many rotting animals. Whenever I hear about the other thousands of people being laid off from jobs, I try to digest the information in some tangible way, but I often don’t know how. So, like most people, I carry on.

News reports can have an unreal feeling. But lay-offs and closures are too real for too many people in this country. How do we connect the dots and show that these decaying businesses are not just roadkill from a few irresponsible drivers but evidence of an economic system whose entire core is diseased?

The Silver Lining

The last week or so has been trying. The car I drive to work wouldn’t start on Saturday so I’ve been taking the bus and scrambling for rides during the many hours in which Luzerne County Transit Authority—much like Lancaster’s bus system—does not run. It’s frustrating to face these challenges in a place where I have only one friend, though Tim has been immensely helpful and I’m grateful to him. I know the social stigma attached to getting government help for basic needs (a.k.a. welfare) is strong, but my recent anxiety made me realize how bad I feel asking for help from people I don’t know. (Trying to get a ride home from my new co-workers, for example). Is that just me or is it a larger societal taboo?

Anyway, though the sparse LCTA schedule means I have to leave an hour or two early to catch the number 18, “Shopper’s Delight” (yes, that’s really what the route is called) to the bookstore where I work, I am glad to know public transportation routes. And my experience on the 18 bus yesterday even made me glad that the car remained at the garage.

About a minute into our bus ride, a guy two seats away from me began speaking on his cell phone. After catching a few words, I whispered to Mitch, “he’s speaking Arabic!!!!” Perhaps accustomed to me gushing excitement over pharyngealization, he just nodded. Once Mitch left the bus to go to the grocery store, I tapped the Arabic speaker on the shoulder and asked, “tehki arabee?” (“do you speak Arabic?”). Of course he said yes, and a mutually excited conversation commenced.

I learned that my fellow bus rider was a 27-year-old MBA student named Mohammed. He had a down-to-earth demeanor and expressed a combination of delight and surprise upon learning I’d lived in Palestine. His family is originally from Hebron (al-Khalil in Arabic) but he grew up in Jordan and has never been to Palestine. It always highlights the injustice of the Israeli occupation to me when I, who has no cultural heritage in Palestine, am able to tell Palestinians who have never been there about their homeland.

When I said that the country is not like what you see on the news, Mohammed replied “you know about that?” After a year and a half of studying in Wilkes-Barre, I don’t think he’d met an American who was aware of the real situation lived by Palestinians under occupation, colonization, and apartheid. He had plenty of questions for me (a nice turning of the tables!) and was impressed that I have shared what I know about the West Bank through photo exhibits and talking to high school classes. That gave me a strong reminder to start finding avenues for such work in NEPA. We spoke only a little in Arabic, but we did exchange contact information with a promise that he’d help me practice Arabic.

Many things about my life would be different if I hadn’t started learning about Palestine at a college internship in 2007, but it’s pretty incredible to think that just four years ago I wouldn’t have recognized Arabic being spoken next to me, had no reason to speak to a stranger on the bus, and just continued about my life as I already knew it while a whole realm of existence I didn’t know about operated by my side.

I may not have mastered Arabic in the last four years but I do have an entirely new social language with which to communicate. Living abroad opens up dozens of worlds to enter while you are there, but the ways that learning about a new culture changes how you navigate your native culture may be the most beautiful.


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