It’s the week before Christmas, and the post office and local stores are full of people I’ve never seen before. Where do they shop the rest of the year, these folk? Do they live in suspended animation till December? I can only surmise that the warmer weather here in Oz wakes them up, like locusts, just to clog the supermarket aisles and make buying a postage stamp a two-hour operation. But at least they got me thinking about one of the nicest and most often overlooked aspects of purchasing e-books—you don’t have to relate to the other customers.

Not that bookstore shoppers are worse than anyone else—quite the reverse. But having spent a lot of time in bookstores over the years, I can recognize an annoying fellow-customer a mile away.

To start with, there are the Statues. These are people who have picked up a book off the shelf, gotten engrossed, and frozen into a large immovable chunk of furniture, right where you want to pass through. A cough or an “excuse me” will sometimes restore them to life—and sometimes not. Usually it’s easier to just go round.

Then there are the Browsers, who are going book-by-book through the same stack or shelf of books that you are. These come in two varieties: those who are ahead of you and browse more slowly, and those who are behind you and browse faster. In a browser race you have two choices: jump ahead, and try to remember where you skipped from, or hang back, fixated on your position, while they play through. Either way you lose.

There are those annoying Forgettors ahead of you in line who can’t remember the title or the author of the book they want, but can hum a few off-key bars of the theme tune of the TV show that was made from it. There are those customers you never see at all, but you know they were there because they left gaps in the shelves where the books you want to buy used to be. And there are other annoyances, like the slanging match going on between a shoplifter and the proprietor of the last bookstore I was in.

None of this matters on the Internet. Do I care that the next customer ahead of me in line at Amazon is wearing only his underwear? I do not. Does it concern me that the woman ahead of him has forgotten her credit card number and is frantically scrabbling through her purse? Not in the slightest. Do I have to worry about spotting shoplifters? I do not—though I must admit I am curious as to how it might be done. No, I am blissfully oblivious to the whole thing.

So the next time you buy books online, spare a moment for a brief Christmas thank-you for the one thing that online purchases protect us from best—other people.


  1. It appears to me that about 5 years ago, an order came down from senior management at the largest Canadian bookstore chain, to the effect that staff had to be more helpful. This takes the form of staff coming up to me in the store and asking if I need help. Sometimes 3 or 4 different staff people will try to “help” me within a 5 minute period.

    The constant interruptions drive me mad. I actually asked one staff person if they had a “do not disturb” sign that I could wear around my neck. They didn’t have any, unfortunately.

    At an eBook store, no one cares if I take 5 seconds or 5 hours to consider a purchase.

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