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.
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?
Reading 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 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.