The Self Help Section | 2121


You would be surprised by the number of people who come into a bookstore and need to ask where the self help section is.

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Permanently moved is a personal podcast 301 seconds in length, written and recorded by @thejaymo

The Self Help Section

The first job I had after graduating Uni was for a large American high street bookshop chain. My colleagues there were brilliant and many are still close friends to this day But the head office and upper management were all idiots. Which is why it went bankrupt in 2008 I suppose.

There is a two part story I’ve often told about working in the bookshop. The first part presented as an ironic observation.

A photo of a help desk in borders books UK in 2007
The Help Desk Where This Story Takes Place – Circa Aug 2007 (I Think I Was Pleased With the Colour Gradient)

You would be surprised by the number of people who come into a book store and ask where the self help section was.

I mean … if you have to ask where the clearly signposted β€˜self help’ books were then you clearly need them.

When I tell this to affluent graduates in tech startups or whatever it always elicits a chuckle and a laugh.

But the story doesn’t end there. Because no one ever confidently entered a bookshop and marched straight up to the helpdesk to ask where the self help section was.

After a while you begin to recognise the signs that this is what someone is going to ask you about. Mainly because it they struggle to even ask the question.

Let me be clear, lest your imaginations are running riot trying to picture the sort of sad sap who has to ask for help finding the self self section.

It was all kinds of people. Students, teenagers, men and women in office clothes, old people, the well dressed or folks with a style deficiency. All sorts, anyone really. 

But they all would hang around nervously near the desk. Pretending to browse the poetry books. Looking around occasionally, hoping to make eye contact and for me to make the first move. Which if you know me is perhaps not the best subtle social signalling when dealing with me. 

Sometimes 10, 15, mins would go by. Folks would get agitated or anxious. Psyching themselves up emotionally. 

If you reach out too early in this process you get β€˜No I’m alright thanks’ and they would scurry out of the store. Whilst I understand the strategy, it does make things awkward. As I would still be at the info desk when they returned the next week to try again.

But most would make their move with a decisive nod. ‘Excuse me … could you please tell me where the self help section is?’. Or they would try to bail and slink away. It was then you deploy the β€˜Can I help at all?’ customer service charm.

It was honestly heartbreaking sometimes. I’d think – whilst pretending that the other person wasn’t pretending to not want to talk to me. 

The reason I always add this second part to the story, about the awkward and heartbreaking period, is because asking for help is a big deal. 

The cultural conversation about mental health then was nowhere near as loud as it is today. And there was no late night online book order for delivery the next day.

I have no idea what was going on in their life. Why they were there, or what they wanted. But I always sensed that asking that question was an important moment. It was somehow about seeking permission to walk across the shop floor and find help for themselves.

You had about 20 seconds to dissipate the previous 20 mins of anxiety as you wound them though the aisles to the double wide bay of books. 4 whole shelves of self help and pop psy material.

Some would be happy to be left to browse, but others would ask the difficult question:

β€˜Can you recommend something?’

Who knows what is going on in this other human’s life whilst they stood there. Perhaps at the threshold to a new life found in between the pages of a book. If pressed I would always recommend ‘The Secret’. It was new, I loved it and was (still is) a bestseller. Plus you can’t go all that wrong with anything influenced by Blavatsky.

We used to be able to borrow books from the shop. It was the best thing about working there after the people. I had 2 hours of bus rides a day so read maybe 3 / 4 books a week. After I had broken up with my ex I read self help books exclusively. 

I still read them now. I like to see what’s trending and what’s new. The Amazon self help charts are a psychic barometer for society. Recently; books about personal productivity have fallen away. Replaced by top sellers about dealing with anxiety; trauma, self healing and grit. 12 Rules for Life has been joined by David Goggins, Daniel Howell and Ant Middleton.

For those wondering. The two books that changed my life are: Getting Things Done by David Allen Green and The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by the living saint Marie Kondo. But I digress. 

But as I said, if people asked me to recommend a book I would usually try and demure. I’d already lead the horse to water.

Anyways, I say all this today as I’ve been thinking this week that it’s not the self help part that’s the hard bit. It’s plucking up the courage to ask the question at the help desk.

Once asked, you are already on your way.

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3 responses to “The Self Help Section | 2121”

  1. […] Since the pandemic began I’ve been working through a set of writing prompts. Exercise titles followed by a short paragraph giving direction. Some of these exercises have become episodes of 301. Like The Phones I’ve Known. Or the one about the kinds of people who visit the self help section in bookshops. […]

  2. […] After university I worked WITH books. First as a Christmas temp then as supervisor. With a 90 min community each way, my life became books on buses. The employee lending library rules were very generous. I’d burn through 4 or 5 books a week. Ursula K. Le Guin, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. Robin Hobb and Brian Herbert’s Dune. It was an intense time. I read the Russians, Austin, Wood House, Greene, non fiction, history. Whatever.  […]

  3. […] podcast this week is on self help books and the people that read them. I wrote it in one sitting yesterday with a […]

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