Working in a bookshop is fascinating: frequently joyful, always interesting and sometimes, well, just really weird – and while deeply pleasurable, never quite as ‘relaxing’ as the people who tell us “I have always wanted to work in a bookshop, it is so relaxing” seem to think!
So, we particularly like Jen Campbell’s collection Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops (Constable), a collection of the odd, wonderful and often jaw-dropping things that people say or ask in their local bookshops. Campbell, a longtime book-gal, started writing down these charming and bamboozling verbal treasures and putting them on her blog, then other booksellers from all over the world added their snippets – to create an affectionate, wryly and gently amused take on the symbiotic relationship between bookshoppers and booksellers.
You will all have heard about the customer who knows what colour a book is, declares they know little else and they want it right now – this is not a joke, it happens a couple of times a year (oddly, in my experience, usually green books rather than any other colour).
It is strangely flattering – and professionally inspiring, a bit like being a literary bloodhound – that people think we can produce the book from that, and I guess it works, because what really surprises me is how often you can, with a little gentle questioning (people usually know more than they think) and some lateral thinking, actually identify the book that is wanted. Sometimes you are 99% sure, from all the clues you have garnered, you have the right title and then they don’t believe you. It is also pretty amazing how truly ratty people get when you can’t identify the book in question, as though they think we really do know and just won’t tell, removing the book from its cunning hiding place once they have gone: you’ll be amazed to hear, that over the years, booksellers have decided that is not how to sell books!
Several of my own favourite anecdotes that have happened to me?
At Unity Books in Wellington:
BOOKSELLER: Hi, can I help? are you after anything in particular?
CUSTOMER: Yes…I read this book long ago, I loved it. I can’t remember anything except they (the characters) keep saying ‘keep passing the open windows’. Do you know it?
BOOKSELLER: It is John Irving’s Hotel New Hampshire – it’s over here…(I had read it 2 years before, and the phrase sticks in your memory…it is rather good advice).
CUSTOMER: I need this book everyone’s reading, about a dandelion and a captain.
BOOKSELLER: Yes, it is very good, it is this one: Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis De Berniéres…
and here at the University Book Shop:
CUSTOMER: I’ve been asked to pick up a book for someone, the penguin history of New Zealand, they said you had a lot…BOOKSELLER: Yes, here it is,
The Penguin History of New Zealand by Michael King, it is very popular…
CUSTOMER: (looking at the book blankly) Oh…its a history of New Zealand…I thought it was a history of penguins in New Zealand…I thought it was a strange thing for them to want…this makes more sense…
This has a bittersweet coda: I emailed historian, biographer, and friend to booksellers throughout the country, Michael King with this snippet – he just loved the story and went on to tell others about it. When he and his wife died in a car accident in March 2004, the story, and his great and gentle pleasure in it, was recounted in many articles and obituaries.
So come in, bring us your weird and unusual shreds of information, your queries that you think are too obscure: you might be amazed at what we can piece together for you – and you know, that if we can’t find the elusive title you need ‘right now’, we can certainly recommend another book you’ll love just as much – that is the thing about books, there is always a new treasure to discover.