The Smoking Bookgun (from the declassified Whalen files)

Sometimes people walk into Tales of the Lonesome Pine bookstore. I believe they are what keen observers of human society would call “customers.” These customers are a varied and mysterious breed. And while my previous training had suggested their intent was most often to “buy” things using “money,” I have been surprised by the variety of encounters possible within this scenario.

What follows is just one of the many stories from…

The Declassified Whalen Customer Files

A common story from people who have worked with titles, whether it be videos or books, is the customer asking after something that’s just on the tip of their tongue. And while they can’t quite remember the ISBN, title, genre, or author, there is always a single fact: The Smoking Bookgun (I’d watch a movie called that). It may be the book’s shape or size, or the main character’s maiden name, but they’ll definitely remember something.

Of course I now have those stories of my very own. In fact, I was tempted to thank the first customer who brought me my first Smoking Bookgun Mystery. But while I knew about these encounters beforehand, I was surprised by two new elements.

The first is how often the mystery ends up solved. People have come in with little more than a twinkle in their eye, but given enough time we’ll eventually find the right thing. My first guess after you say, “I’m looking for this book… it’s blue,” may very well be, “Oh, you mean Laguna Beach: Season 1 on DVD? Yeah, we’ve got that.” But humans have a remarkable capacity for seeking common ground and paring down large groupings into small. It turns out we’re all pretty awesome at it.

Plus, the Internet exists now.

So yes, it may have taken 45 minutes, but eventually I’ll get to mispronounce most of: “here’s your copy of Verlag Von Gerlach & Wielding’s Völkerschmuck! Auf Wiedersehen!” So it doesn’t matter if you’re not sure exactly what book you have in mind. Roll the dice. Your odds are better than you think.

The second element that surprised me was a novel new twist on the quest for that one book you heard about that one time at the family BBQ from your cousin who is totally in the CIA and carried it with him for like six months until the cover wore off and he could really use a new copy before flying off to I-Can’t-Tell-You-Where-Because-It’s-Top-Secret-Stan. I have now been asked on several occasions to track a book based on another fictional character reading it within a movie. That’s right, the only smoking bookgun is a fictional recommendation from Tom Hanks before he went off to make out with Meg Ryan or date a mermaid or whatever else Tom Hanks is up to these days.

Sometimes I can help with this. But if you want that one scroll that Gandalf was reading in the library in the Tower of Ecthelion, we probably don’t have it.

All this said, I make no promises and have no special powers. We may never find that one book that was about this big and about this thick. But I have now my own small contribution to the long and storied tradition of “customers not knowing what they want” narratives. With that complete, I look forward to your stumpers and promise not to respond with any variety of droll, knowing smirk.



Filed under Big Stone Gap, folklore and ethnography, humor, shopsitting, small town USA, Uncategorized

11 responses to “The Smoking Bookgun (from the declassified Whalen files)

  1. As a lifelong voyager of this experience I will say that the routine satiates the detective gene in many of us. One of the amusing ironies of it all is that the color, title, author, and genre (if they suggest one) are almost always wrong in the end. Its a bibliographer’s version of 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Or….was that Kevin Costner??

  2. Jessica Blaylock

    Great interview on Community Forum this morning on WETS! 🙂

    • We are looking forward to hearing Andrew’s interview tonight from the archive, Jessica. We’re too far out of range to get it live, but we’ll be tucked up at a friend’s house tonight and listening, glass of wine in hand. Andrew’s had several compliments already! (Jack)

      • Jessica Blaylock

        You all will enjoy it, Jack! Hope you’re having safe travels! Hoping to make my first visit to the bookstore in the next week or two. 🙂

  3. Mario R.

    You will not be surprised to discover that there is at least one public library in the U.S. that adds a field for the cover colour to its online catalogue as an added access point for the patrons … –Mario R. (who’s *really* enjoying your posts, btw)

  4. The International Children’s Digital Library ( includes color and size in its categories. There is a site for stumpers — you, guys, might know of it already: I used this when I got these kinds of questions via e-mail or snail mail while working at the Library of Congress.

    • I did not know about this! (Wendy) This is almost as good as the Mondegreen site for misheard song lyrics. Could you do us a guest blog on this sometime?!

      (I did hear a funny one about a lady looking for a book for her granddaughter, about Angus and the Underwear. She was looking for Louise Rennison’s series.)

  5. A lady walked up to the counter at my store one day and asked if we had any books in a mystery series set out west. She didn’t know the author or title but there was an archaeologist involved in some capacity. Okay… I had no clue and was in the process of scratching my head when an older lady who had overheard our conversation walked up to the counter and asked if I knew about Novelist. When I said no, I wasn’t familiar with Novelist, she boldly stepped behind the counter and up to my computer and asked, “May I? I’m a retired librarian from Illinois and I think I can help”.

    After searching Google she found and logged onto the Novelist site and typed in the keywords west, mystery, and archaeologist. Within seconds she told me the author’s name and a quick search by me of our database showed that we had four books in stock by the author. Completely amazed, I immediately set out to “get” Novelist.

    I found that at that time it was only available to libraries so I made a passionate plea to our local librarian and the library’s board of trustees to subscribe to Novelist so that library patrons could use the program. She did and we at the bookstore and the library which is across the street from the bookstore have found it to be invaluable in solving the mysteries of an unknown author or title by just entering keywords from the plot or even by entering the name of a character.

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