Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops

CUSTOMER: Hi, my best friend came in last weekend and bought a book, and she really loved it. Do you have another copy?
BOOKSELLER: What was the title?
CUSTOMER: Oh, right. Yeah. I don’t remember.

* * * *

CUSTOMER: This book looks good. How can I watch it?
BOOKSELLER: Excuse me?
CUSTOMER: Where’s the film? Is it tucked inside the cover or something?

weirdReading through Jen Campbell’s two collections of Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops, you would be forgiven if you thought that some of them must have been made up. Seriously, I mean, people aren’t actually that ridiculous, are they? ARE THEY? Well, as a former bookseller, I must break it to you that yes, yes they are.

Customers of that sort are, of course, the minority. Over my four years as first a part-time then a full-time bookseller, the vast majority of customers were pretty standard. This was in the heyday of the Richard and Judy Book Club, and the general daily challenge was getting copies of The Star of the Sea onto the shelves quick enough and in enough quantity to meet demand. The customers that stand out in my memory are the ones who asked interesting questions, not just ridiculous ones, which I’ll come onto in a moment, but also really great ones. The people who genuinely wanted recommendations based on books they’d already read always led to great conversations, and children were usually good fun too, even if I did hear the phrase “I’ve read the Harry Potters, what else can I read?” rather often. (I’m not complaining, mind you. It’s proof that J K Rowling created nothing less than a gateway drug to more books. Good on her.)

Indeed, the second of Jen Campbell’s books, More Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops, has a lot of wonderful instances of out of the mouth of babes. These are a couple of my favourites:

CHILD: What’s your oldest book?
BOOKSELLER: We have a set of books from 1776.
CHILD: Wow… That’s nearly as old as grandma!

* * * *

LITTLE GIRL: I read a book last week called What Katy Did.
BOOKSELLER: Did you like it?
LITTLE GIRL: It was OK. I didn’t think it was very realistic, though. My name is Katy, and I haven’t done any of the things that the girl in the book has done.

But, of course, the anecdotes everyone loves are the mind-boggling questions, and in my bookselling years I encountered several that would probably happily sit alongside those in this book, either first-hand or via colleagues recounting that day’s comedy moment in the staff room at break-time:

The woman who asked for a book she’d seen in the shop the previous week, but who couldn’t remember the title or more weirdthe author. She was almost certain it had a blue cover though.

The man who came in looking for a book that listed all the known species of fish. He had no idea whether or not such a book existed, but he thought that it ought to, and he wanted to see if we had it.

The self-important suited man who asked a colleague for a hardback edition of The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot. When it was explained to him that, in fact, the book was only available in paperback, he spluttered: “But it’s for my daughter for Christmas! Can’t you phone the publisher and ask them to make me one?!”

The two boys who dived into our shop during a sudden rain shower, stopped, looked around, then ran back out with one of them yelling “Fuck! It’s a bookshop!” (My heart sank a little, I don’t mind telling you.)

The homeless guy, who every so often would come in, belt out a chorus of Paperback Writer by the Beatles, then wander off again. (I got rather attached to him.)

The woman who asked a colleague for Jane Eyre by Jane Austen. When it was explained that Jane Eyre was by Charlotte Brontë, the customer left because she wanted to find the Jane Austen version. “I would have thought working in a bookshop, you’d know who wrote Jane Eyre!”

So, no, nothing in either of Jen Campbell’s books surprises me in the least. I loved them, and if you have any booksellers in your life, then I can guarantee that they will love them too. There will be many a nod of weary recognition. In particular, I recognized the customers who phone bookshops asking for help with their crosswords (see also: child’s homework). This happened to me a few times, and I can also tell you that it didn’t stop when I moved into publishing. I work in the press office of a publisher, and we were once phoned by a gentleman who wanted us to check something in one of our dictionaries to help him complete his crossword.

I’d like to finish with my favourite weird thing said to me by a customer in a bookshop. The man who sidled up to me one Sunday afternoon, quietly asking if we had any books on sexual technique. Before I could do anything, he elaborated: “It’s because my girlfriend… she told me I’m crap in bed.”

Jen Campbell: Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops (London: Constable, 2012) ISBN 9781780334837, RRP £7.99, and More Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops (London: Constable, 2013) ISBN9781472106339, RRP £8.99.

11 comments on “Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops

  1. Kate
    January 7, 2015

    Oh joy, what a great book to leave on a shelf where people might be waiting, for a quiet read and involuntary splutters. I have been one of the stupid customers demanding the impossible, insisting that the edition of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene must be incomplete because it only had 6 Bookes, rather than the 12 Edmund Spenser announced. (He never did write the final 6). My, did I blush when i worked that one out.

  2. Kirsty
    January 7, 2015

    Good effort, Kate, but I reckon you’ve got a way to go to beat Fish Man.🙂

  3. Margaret Jones
    January 7, 2015

    I’m a librarian, and I recognise a lot of these bizarre questions. My favourite personal encounter was the reader who couldn’t remember the title of the musical work or the composer, but it had a “Laura Ashley wallpaper” cover. To my shame, I walked into a bookshop just before Xmas, and asked for a book – couldn’t remember the title or the author, but I thought it was about a whippet who loved Formula I. The staff in the bookshop fell about laughing, and then rose to the challenge and found the book!

  4. Jackie
    January 7, 2015

    Wow, this boggles my mind, I had no idea people said things quite that bad. I do hope that little kid’s grandma wasn’t nearby when they said that.
    Really enjoyed this post and the comments, made me laugh. Well done!

  5. Simon T (Stuck-in-a-Book)
    January 7, 2015

    I love this book, and I loved this post!
    I worked in a secondhand bookshop, and my brother covered shifts I couldn’t make – and it was on one of his shifts that he got a woman who insisted on reading large chunks of Wuthering Heights from memory to him.

  6. nrnolan
    January 8, 2015

    Reblogged this on N R Nolan and commented:
    Too funny not to share; not to mention, well written, also.

  7. Hilary
    January 8, 2015

    Brilliant, Kirsty – review, the books, and your life experience. I had fingers poised over keyboard to say ‘Libraries too’ but I see someone has got there first – not surprised🙂 it generally fell to me to write letters back in response to complaints, and I had the delight once of defending the harmlessness of Postman Pat’s Zodiac Book to someone who wanted it withdrawn because it introduced young children to the Occult. (In fact, all the situations Postman Pat, Jess the Cat and all their friends got into were designed to debunk predictions and horoscopes – honest!)

  8. Murasaki_1966
    January 13, 2015

    I think I’ve heard everyone of those during my times in public libraries……

  9. Christine Harding
    January 13, 2015

    I’m always a bit wary of commenting publicly on things people say in bookshops, in case our customers read it, recognise themselves, and get upset! But, as a volunteer in Oxfam Bookshop I recognised many of the anecdotes recounted by Jen and Kirsty. I also dealt with a lady seeking a book with a blue cover (perhaps she’s touring the country), and I’ve had someone trying to track down a book about the war they once read, which had pictures and was a true story! And I’ve been asked what else Jane Eyre wrote! And people want to know if our books are in any kind of order….

  10. rosyb
    January 17, 2015

    This is a lovely entertaining post.

    All this being said though (you were waiting for that though weren’t you?) I recently went armed with an author and titles to a bookshop because I didn’t want to buy off Amazon. And they were able to look up their computer and say they had three. But they were all in three completely different sections across the shop. So off I trog. The sections were disordered and didn’t seem to be alphabetical – or at least didn’t have an order I could work out. I found one out of the three books. Back to the counter – the staff were lovely and tried to find them for me – I waited a long time at the counter. And they eventually came back having found another one – but not the other.

    I had gone especially to buy books from a bookshop. They were way cheaper online and it would have been easier online – but even going in specially they couldn’t find them all for me. No complaint about the lovely booksellers – absolutely lovely people – but I came away wondering how the bookshops can compete with Amazon if they don’t make a real virtue of what they could do better and differently.

    I think the bricks and mortar bookshops need to up their game. Make a real feature of the coffee shops/the sitting experience/the browsing with a coffee experience. Perhaps link to their own online purchases whilst in store. And bring back sections with specialist heads who can advise and steer people (like good librarians) towards books they might like to try. That personal knowledge and enthusiasm is something online doesn’t do.

    My experience before this last one – of going in to a major bookstore to buy screenplays and finding an extremely limited number of things that were over 20 years old – really made me think – again – that the bookshops need to allow people to take some ownership of their sections to make the physical shop the exciting and knowledgable place it could be – where you go to ask for suggestions and advice. Something that the online shop can’t provide.

    Sorry – that’s all a bit serious I realise. And I know it must be hard for booksellers at the moment.

  11. Jackie
    January 17, 2015

    Actually, those are great ideas, Rosy. Book shops do need to do something to revitalize and draw in their customer base and contrasting their service & knowledge with online shopping would be an excellent way to go.
    I also think that local book shops ought to emphasize their magazine selections, which are wider than what is found at grocery stores, which is where many Americans buy their magazines. But book shops have a lot more specialized selections and they really ought to highlight that.

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