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.