Sometime in the early part of 1991 I worked in a B Dalton Books. I was some kind of shift supervisor or something, one of those jobs where they pay you like a buck more an hour to do inventory, count the till, and lock up at night. As a bonus, I got a lot of free paperbacks and magazines because rather than ship the unsold stock back, they ordered us to destroy it, sending back only the front cover. I had quite the impressive library of coverless paperbacks I’d never get around to reading.
One afternoon, an older lady approached the counter and asked me if we carried any books by Maya Angelou. I replied that, yes, we had “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and it was in poetry. She informed me that it was in fact not poetry, to which I replied, “Lady, corporate tells me to put it in poetry, so that’s where it goes.” Yes, it’s safe for you to assume at this point that I’d not read it.
The lady wandered over to the poetry section with a couple of teenaged girls in tow. A few minutes later, they came back to the counter, carrying some copies of the “Caged Bird” book, and asked if I was sure we had no other Maya Angelou works. To be fair, this was a narrow-floorplan mall store in Peoria, Illinois. I replied, “Look lady, if you give me the titles, I can find the ISBN and order you anything you want, but we only carry the stuff that really sells.”
That’s when one of the teenaged girls flipped a copy of the “Caged Bird” book face-down on the counter. On the back cover was a photo of the very woman I’d been talking to; Maya Angelou.
I guess she was making a point to the girls, a point that was made very clearly. Here I was, someone who works in a bookstore, and I didn’t recognize a very famous author.
Giving her the benefit of the doubt as to why she made that point, I could guess she might have been trying to demonstrate that no matter what great works you do, you might not be recognized for it, like how Joshua Bell performed at a Metro station in Washington DC and nobody noticed, or how Banky’s canvases were for sale cheap in Central Park and almost nobody bought them.
Yes, it might have been a plot to demonstrate how fame and accomplishment will sometimes count for nothing. That’s not how it felt to me in the moment, though. To me, it felt like, “Look at this dipshit! He works in a bookstore, in management no less, and he can’t recognize Maya Angelou when she’s literally staring him in the face!”
Yep. I felt bad. I also felt insulted and a little angry at her. To my 23-year-old brain, it felt like a bitch move. To my now-47-year-old brain it’s just a funny story I tell now and again. After all, it didn’t really change anything in the big picture of my life or for B Dalton Books. When I told my manager about it later, she laughed. She said she wasn’t sure she’d have recognized Maya Angelou either, and she had a Masters of Library and Information Science! “I guess you blew our chance to host a book signing!”, she said.
I still haven’t read that book.
Apparently at some point, Ms Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” It’s a very nice sentiment. I felt like an asshole. That’s OK though. Regardless of the fact that I still can’t say for sure that I know why that caged bird sang, the moment made me think more about how people interact. It also made me feel like a unique individual, because how many people can say they accidentally insulted Maya Angelou to her face?