The Mariko Aoki Phenomenon: It's Real

Warning: This post is going to contain major TMI.  Do not read if you're easily grossed out, or think women are delicate flowers with no bodily functions. 

I was enjoying a lunchtime browse in Barnes & Noble last week, when I felt that rumble down below.  My bowels were sending me a signal and I couldn't ignore it.  I needed to use the bathroom right away.  I reached the bathroom and had to wait in a line.  I was wasting my lunch hour trying to poop instead of indulging the pleasure of finding some new reads.

Flashback to the early nineties.  I was a lonely twentysomething who had nothing better to do on Saturday nights than hang out in Borders, listening to the entertainment in the coffee shop and looking for books (also scoping out men who appeared single).  Borders had a curious practice of locking their bathrooms at that store.  One evening I felt that rumble in the plumbing and I went to the information desk for a key.  The staff informed me both keys were taken and I should just stand outside the bathroom door and get the key from the people coming out.

I waited in agony in front of the bathrooms.  Another person was also waiting.  I saw a man come out of the men's room.  He handed off the key to the other guy waiting.  I was pissed.  I didn't understand why he didn't just hold the door open for the other man and then give the key to me to use in the ladies' room.  Then I saw two other men with the remaining key arguing outside the bathroom.  One of them appeared to be a bit mentally unbalanced and the other was his caretaker.  They were arguing about using the bathroom.  Crazy Guy was complaining he didn't want to use the bathroom at Borders because there were too many people around.  Caretaker offered to take him to the bathroom at the McDonalds across the way.  Crazy Guy didn't like that idea either.  I kept watching these men argue trying to will my sphincter not to release right there on the bookstore floor.  Crazy Guy finally decided he definitely didn't want to use the Borders bathroom, so Caretaker told him to give me the key.  I gratefully ran into the bathroom, feeling a sense of rage at the both the men withholding the key for me and the management of Borders who thought locking the bathroom was a good idea.

I look back on the past twenty years and realize these two incidents are not isolated.  There were many incidents in the twenty intervening years where I would be in a bookstore and feel a sudden need for a bathroom. After many years spent browsing bookstores I could no longer ignore the connection.  Bookstores make me need to poop.Why does that happen, and do I suffer alone?

What did we ever do before the internet?  What other resource could I possibly have to find out why I have this strange problem?  After my last bookstore incident, I Googled the phrase, "Why do I always have to poop in bookstores?"  I thought it was a shot in the dark.  It brought up 660,000 results.

I am not alone in this phenomenon.  It turns out there was a reason I had to wait for a bathroom stall to open up when I was at Barnes & Noble.  There was a reason why I had to wait for a key at Borders.  It seems browsing for books tends to move the bowels of many shoppers.  This even has a name.  It's called the Mariko Aoki Phenomenon

No one knows for sure why this happens.  We only know it's common.  There are a few explanations given.  None of them make much sense to me.

The first reason is that the smell of ink and paper have a laxative effect on some people.  I think this one makes the most logical sense.  It's the one variable bookstores have that other stores don't.  The best argument against this hypothesis is that I don't have the same urges in a library.

The second reason the experts suggest is that there is an association with reading and going to the bathroom.  People like to read on the can.  That makes some sense.  I grew up with Reader's Digest as a constant presence in the bathroom.  (Why is it I am now realizing for the first time what an appropriate title Reader's Digest is for the bathroom? Digest! Hah!)  I reject this one because I am always reading.  I always read in bed before going to sleep.  Shouldn't bookstores also make me tired?

The third explanation is that browsing bookstores puts us in a position conducive to elimination.  I don't get that either.  I don't squat or sit or crouch when I browse bookstores.  At best I can say I am usually relaxed when I'm browsing for books.  (Admit it.  You're thinking of that episode of Seinfeld where George wanted to take a book of impressionism into the bathroom because the relaxing images made him go more easily.  You know bookstores make you leave unpurchased merchandise on a table outside the bathroom now?  George can't be the only one who wants to read on a bookstore toilet.)  Not every relaxing situation makes me have to use the bathroom though.  I think this one is the most farfetched.

A final explanation is that bookstores serve coffee.  This one would have worked for me twenty years ago.  I often sat in the cafe with a hazelnut latte while listening to mediocre musicians on a Saturday night at Borders.  I no longer drink coffee in bookstores.  Most of my visits take place on my lunch hour when I don't have time to enjoy a leisurely latte.  I'm just there for the books.  I spend half my lunch hour in the bathroom instead.

While bookstores regulars are the ones with a name for their problem, other stores are known to have an effect on the colon as well.  It's just not quite as well documented.  While there are some women (and it seems to be mostly women) who have specific stores that make them go (WalMart and CVS seem to be the biggest contenders for runner-up) Target seems to be the most popular. I will suggest that  it's not the smell of ink and paper, but possibly the cleaning products used in big box stores. 
Maybe shopping in general does make people feel relaxed.  Walking around the store is walking after all, and walking is a helpful digestive aid. I know I often have to go when I'm doing my Saturday morning grocery shopping at ShopRite, but I don't blame the store or shopping.  I am fairly regular and my shopping excursions tend to happen at the same time as my regular mid-morning poop.  Maybe many shoppers are simply shopping at times they would have pooped anyway (that doesn't explain me and the bookstore though).

I don't know if science will ever find an explanation for Mariko Aoiki.  I'm sure scientists have more important things to do like cure cancer and put our grids completely on renewable energy sources.  It will remain a mystery.  At least those of us who know we can reliably have bowel movements at a bookstore (or other big box store) know where to go when we're constipated.


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