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“Where’s your section of coffee table books on Paraguay?” – And other ridiculous bookshop questions

bookshop browsers

As everyone who has ever worked anywhere knows, the worst bit of any business is the customers. Here, Steerforth recalls the most absurd questions he was asked when working as a bookseller…

The following is a real-life encounter I had with a customer when I was a fledgling bookseller:

Customer – I have a 17-year-old son who doesn’t read and spends all of his time in his bedroom. What would you recommend?

Me – Has he tried Rankin?

Customer – Wanking? Yes, well that would certainly keep him quiet…

The most bizarre aspect of this counter was the woman’s completely unfazed response to what she thought I’d said.

That anecdote was published on The Bookseller a little while ago and its belated fame made me think of a few other bookshop stories that deserve to be told. The next one took place ten years ago in the Enfield branch of Ottakar’s. When you read it, imagine that both the customer and bookseller have very strong London accents…

Bookseller – Can I help?

Customer – ‘Ave you got Henry V?

Bookseller – We should ‘ave. Do you want an Arden?

Customer – No, I want a soft’un.


Customer – I want a copy of *mentions very obscure book title*

Bookseller – Sorry, I’m not familiar with that. Is it new?

Customer – New! No it certainly isn’t! Don’t you know anything about books?”

Bookseller – Well I’m sorry, but we’re all experts in different fields. For example, I’m studying medieval art and you probably haven’t heard of Hugo de Vries.

Customer – Yes, of course I have.

Bookseller – Well you can’t have done, as I just made him up.


And I remember several awkward questions like…

‘What do I give someone who only has two weeks to live?’ (I suggested a book of short stories)

‘I want a book with a moral dilemma in it.’ (Er…the Fiction section’s over there mate)

‘My wife’s allergic to the smells of most books. Have you any that would be suitable for her?’

‘Where’s your Tundra section?’

‘Do you read?’ (To which I politely replied ‘Yes I do. Do you?’)

‘Why does your Fiction section only go up to G?’ (Just for fun, I told them that H-Z was in the Kingston branch)

‘Can you order me a book in time for Christmas Day?’ (Asked at 2.30pm on Christmas Eve)

‘Have you got any books on sex with animals?’

‘Why don’t people like nice things anymore?’ (When told that we didn’t have any Patience Strong in stock)

‘How will I find it?’ (Asked by customers who are unaware that Fiction is, and always has been, arranged A-Z by author)

“Where’s your section of coffee table books on Paraguay?”

“You have a degree? In what? Shoelaces?”

“Why are all the books I want on the top floor?”

‘Yuhejub?’ (“Do you have a job?”, as asked by people who think that a very rudimentary grasp of English shouldn’t be an impediment to working in a bookshop)

Then there was the customer who wanted a book of walks that only featured Suffolk and Worcestershire – two counties that are 150 miles apart – because he lived in Suffolk but had a friend in Worcestershire.

And in addition to the strange enquiries, there are also those people who think that bookshops sell chairs, kettles, fishing rods and kitchenware. Mind you, the way things are going it’s only a matter of time.

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About Author Profile: Steerforth

Steerforth is a gentleman bookseller from East Sussex, who blogs at The Age of Uncertainty.

13 thoughts on ““Where’s your section of coffee table books on Paraguay?” – And other ridiculous bookshop questions

  1. peter.burnet@hotmail.com'
    January 19, 2015 at 11:05

    ‘What do I give someone who only has two weeks to live?’ (I suggested a book of short stories)

    Second Dabbler howler in a week. Let’s just keep this one to ourselves, though, lest we both be frog marched into sensitivity training.

    • peter.burnet@hotmail.com'
      January 19, 2015 at 14:22

      I didn’t mean howler, I meant hilarity. Sorry, I was howling so hard I quite lost it.

  2. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    January 19, 2015 at 11:26

    Customers, the bane of a business’s life, would that we had, like the NHS, a customer-free model.
    ‘Will that give you a problem?’ asked the customer, a Norwegian of stout girth. ‘If it does we can take you back to the hotel’
    They had picked us up that morning at our hotel in Gdansk and driven out into the forest, on a brand new, concrete, arrow-straight road, for about twenty kilometres when, hoving into view came this suspiciously shaped, brand new, concrete monolith ‘they must have spent a few bob on that advance unit’ said my companion. The Norgies glanced at each other, their famed sang-froid shining through. The car park was, for a company car park, vast, a ten minute walk from the edifice and had French Synagogue levels of security. Later, standing in the middle of the main hall I had asked a simple question, ‘why are we standing on top of the fuel rods?’ even a labour politician could have guessed, this was a nuclear reactor, we were in the fuel rod hall. ‘Not to worry,’ said the Norwegian, ‘it was, er, um, not actually commissioned, Chernobyl happened, this is identical, built by the same people and the Poles had had second thoughts.’ ‘Second effing thoughts,’ I thought, what, I wondered, had their third ones been. Actually, what had happened was, the Poles were about to light the blue touch paper when the western governments told them ‘if you don’t shut it down mush, we will’

    In over thirty years of running and owning companies and having been asked questions impertinent, rude, stupid and hilarious this was the the question to end all questions…’even if you end up glowing in the dark, surely you want our business?’

  3. george.jansen55@gmail.com'
    January 19, 2015 at 14:14

    In the old days, I met persons running college bookstores who clearly were happier with the business of selling sweatshirts, backpacks, etc. than with selling books. (In fairness, this may have reflected the moods of the buyers they dealt with.) That nearly all college bookstores in the US now belong to a couple of chains may or may not be a consequence of those attitudes. One might be able to buy chairs, at least folding chairs, at college bookstores now. Fishing rods might bring on a conflict with the local PETA chapter.

    Never having worked in a bookstore, I have little idea what anyone asks the staff. Once, long ago at the Borders in White Flint, I did get the idea that one question was often asked. In the fiction section, early in the Ds, was taped a small notice: “Works by the Marquis de Sade are shelved under ‘Sade'”.

  4. Worm
    January 19, 2015 at 16:14

    “You have a degree? In what? Shoelaces?”

    I shall be using this from now on

    • Gaw
      January 21, 2015 at 19:55

      Not too in-depth at degree level. Tying shoelaces would be covered by a masters.

  5. hthrnrtn@gmail.com'
    January 19, 2015 at 16:54

    A bookseller I know complains of people asking, “Where is the self help section?”—he’d prefer to leave them to find it for themselves.

  6. hallmardon@aol.com'
    nilly hall
    January 20, 2015 at 11:10

    I’m a mother of 4 ” grown up” sons so my response to mishearing “Rankin” would have been exactly the same. I’ll never forget the day when the doorbell rang as I tidied a bedroom and I answered it with a pile of soft porn mags under my arm.

  7. law@mhbref.com'
    Jonathan Law
    January 20, 2015 at 17:21

    Three or fours years back someone actually brought out a book called Weird Things Customers say in Bookshops — it’s a superior sort of toilet book, I suppose, but pretty funny and most of the conversations have a ring of truth. As Steerforth suggests, there are endless altercations in which the customer seems unable to accept that the bookshop does not in fact sell ice cubes/knitting needles/condoms. Also, a good few cases of “I read this really funny book in about 1975, brown cover, title had maybe two words — do you know the one?” More interestingly, if not 100% unexpectedly, there seems to be a vein of genuine insanity among the book-buying public: the man who wants to buy a map of the sun, the woman who enquires if any of the books are edible. Saddest enquiry: whether Anne Frank ever wrote a sequel.

  8. helena_petre@o2.co.uk'
    January 21, 2015 at 18:22

    I served in a small independent bookshop for years. Here are a few choice remarks.

    “Do you sell council binbags?”

    “i want a novel to give to someone in hospital, that has nothing upsetting in it”. (I suggested Paolo Coelho)

    “Where are your books on bones?”

    ” I want a book with the word boy in the title”. Turned out to be Joe Simpson’s book about his death-defying mountain climbing experience, Touching the VOID. The customer had misheard a review on the radio, and been intrigued, but too embarassed to ask for Touching the Boy!”

    Customer” “I’d like to order a book”
    Me: “certainly, what’s your name, please?”
    Customer: “Roast Chicken”
    Me: “Could you say that again, please”
    Customer: “My name is ROAST CHICKEN”
    Me: “How do you spell that? Is it r-o-a-s-t…..”
    Customer: “Oh, do you mean my name, not the book’s ? It’s Smith”.

    • Worm
      January 21, 2015 at 18:55

      brilliant! 😀

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