Ten Golden Rules for Not Annoying Your Bookseller

bookshop browser

Like all businesses, bookselling would be fine if it wasn’t for the customers. Here Steerforth sets out his Browser’s Charter for people who would presume to enter a bookshop…

When booksellers get together what do we talk about? Books? Yes, sometimes – I remember waking up on someone’s floor after a booksellers’ party to find everyone earnestly discussing Gitta Sereny’s book about Albert Speer – but our favourite topic of conversation is probably the odd people that frequent our shops.

I’m not talking about the customers. They usually come in, browse for a while and buy a book, which doesn’t make a great anecdote. However in addition to customers, all bookshops have loyal clientele of regular browsers who managed to visit the shop every day without ever buying a book.

We had nicknames for all of our browsers. In one shop I worked in our regulars included ‘Crying Man’ , a young man who always looked as if he was on the verge of bursting into tears; ‘Reading Man’, a svelte man in his 60s who ran everywhere and kept wiping the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief and the teenage ‘Chess Man’ who stubbornly refused to leave when the shop closed.

In my last shop, we had ‘Shuffling Man’, who displayed an unhealthy interest in the Children’s section. There was also a gentleman known as ‘Weird Arm Man’, whose t-shirt revealed arms with thick, sausage-like veins. He liked to read our books by holding them no further than an inch away from the end of his nose.

On one occasion, when checking that the shop was empty before locking the doors, I shouted to one of the staff ‘Okay. No customers left. Even Weird Arm Man’ has gone. But he hadn’t. He was crouching down next to the Erotica section reading Schoolgirl Lust. I think he heard me, but he was back the following day.

The browsers – always silent and nearly always men – irritated me. I thought that it was an unwritten rule that if you wanted to use your local bookshop as a library, you would at least do them the courtesy of occasionally buying a book (a small paperback once a year would be enough), but our browsers seemed ignorant of this convention.

I suppose I must count myself lucky. Other colleagues discovered browsers performing less savoury acts on the shop floor, including defecating and masturbating (not at the same time, I hasten to add), or injecting themselves with heroin. That wasn’t quite what we envisaged when we became booksellers.

In an ideal world, I would have displayed a Browser’s Charter on the front door, just below the opening times:

  1. Buy a book at least once a year
  2. Treat the books carefully. If you crease the spine, we can’t sell it
  3. Please put books back where you found them
  4. Be as unobtrusive as possible – don’t stop a bookseller from doing their job or a customer from finding what they want
  5. Leave at least ten minutes before the shop closes
  6. Never stay longer than an hour
  7. Don’t stand too near the till area – it’s very offputting
  8. Please wash at least once a week
  9. Don’t read the erotic novels cover to cover
  10. Please dress modestly – we don’t want to see your testicles

Those are my ten golden rules. I understand that the dispossessed are naturally drawn to bookshops and who knows, one day I may join their ranks. However, if I do, I will make sure that I save some of my sherry money for the occasional purchase.

If you enjoyed this post, check out:

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

Bolshy Slackers and Exotic Misfits: Who becomes a Bookseller?

Confessions of a low-life bookseller

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About Author Profile: Steerforth

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

9 thoughts on “Ten Golden Rules for Not Annoying Your Bookseller

  1. marcellocarlin@yahoo.co.uk'
    February 16, 2015 at 09:13

    Seven rules for not upsetting bookshop customers:

    1) Smile and say hello when I come in and might potentially give you some money. Don’t glare at me as though I’m some contagious disease or look through me in silence on the not very hopeful premise that I’ll die before you have to talk to me. I’m a customer. I’m why you’re here.

    2) Your bookshop is a shop. It is not an opportunity to show off your priceless collection and how much better you understand literature than the rest of us. People will come in and buy books. That’s why you’re there. Deal with it.

    3) To reiterate, your bookshop is not your book collection. Don’t file books according to your own idiosyncratic methodology that you dreamed up one idle Tuesday afternoon after your English tutorial when you were at university. Keep it simple and straight so that customers can easily find what they’re looking for. Who knows? They might even buy what they’re looking for and pay you some money. Which is the purpose of the enterprise.

    4) Stock better books. The primary reason Amazon do so well is because they sell books you can’t find in bookshops. If I go in, look around and see the same old stuff I can see down the road in Waterstones, only a third more expensive, then frankly it’s a no-brainer. There’s a recession on. People have to eat and need a roof over their head. Amazon exists. Deal with it.

    5) You have lights. Switch them on. You’re not a sarcophagus or the British Museum. Your precious manuscripts aren’t going to shrivel up if some light is shed on them. The reason charity shops do so well is because they’re brightly lit and look welcoming. Also, they’re cheaper.

    6) You are not Sergeant Major Shut Up out of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum or Mr Quelch and your bookshop isn’t the Army or Greyfriars School, much as you would prefer it to be. You want to be elitist, hire a bouncer to stand at the front of the door to keep out “undesirables.” Look how much good that did Steve Strange.

    7) So your third marriage didn’t work out the way you’d hoped. Ask yourself tough questions then get over it. So your novel didn’t sell. Write a better one. So it’s all gone downhill since 1965/1977/1988. Is that my fault? I’m here to browse through and maybe buy books. Smile and say hello when I come into your shop.

  2. finalcurtain@gmail.com'
    February 16, 2015 at 09:42

    Yes Steerforth, our local library (Dulwich) is now digitised to within an inch of its life, but if you want to rub shoulders with the misfits and weirdos of the area, this is still the place to do it. The volume of books has shrunk to a point where the word ‘Library’ could now be viewed as rather misleading, the main floor now looking more like an internet cafe. Your books are no longer stamped by human hand but ‘processed’ by a machine that reminded me of those x-rays in the old Clarks shoe shops that looked at your feet through your shoes. It means I can ‘renew’ from Spain, but I rather miss the discipline of finishing the book in time to get it back before a fine fell due.
    Perhaps it is a generational problem, and that people born just after the war will never completely embrace a piece of grey plastic showing illuminated print, and will always yearn for the smell of old, thick pages, and the feel of a slightly worn spine. Talking to my son about serif typeface (though I have a soft spot for Caslon), and the many pleasures of paper books, he looks at me as though I have finally, to use the modern jargon, ‘lost the plot’, and he will soon be able to get me into some care-home, obtain power of attorney, and order that Porsche 911 he has always hankered after.
    I’ve done plenty of daft things in my life, but keeping all my vinyl was really quite smart I think. Is there a possibility that books made from trees could ‘turn the corner’ and make a comeback, and that Kindles will join silvery CD’s as landfill one day?

  3. February 16, 2015 at 10:41

    Marcello – I\’ve visited bookshops like that and as a bookshop manager, was able to exploit the sometimes lacklustre service of my competitors. It wasn\’t hard – the staff knew that whatever they were doing had to stop if a customer appeared and be welcoming. The only letters we got were ones that thanked us for going the extra mile.

    One of the worst examples of service I witnessed was in an independent bookshop that had a guaranteed footfall because of its historic setting. The owner was huddled in a corner reading a book, when a customer approached her and asked if she had any books by X. Barely looking up, she just said \”No\” and returned to reading her book.

    The customer sarcastically wished her a pleasant day and left.

    Mahlerman – I worry that libraries are digitising themselves out of existence. In the age of penny paperbacks on Amazon, charity shops and ebooks, I\’m not sure where libraries fit, but I would move them in the direction of those things that can\’t be reduced to 1s and 0s: live performances, local meetings and reading groups. They should be, to use a ghastly phrase, cultural hubs.

    • g.brunty@gmail.com'
      March 3, 2015 at 04:55

      Steerforth, I don’t know about you chaps in England, but to turn American libraries into ‘cultural hub’s’ would be ghastly.

  4. Worm
    February 16, 2015 at 11:13

    Very funny stuff Steerforth! And could equally apply to those other vanishing places that strange men congregate – record shops. I went to a few record stores in soho in the early 90’s where the owners would literally snarl at you if you asked them a question. All gone now.

  5. george.jansen55@gmail.com'
    February 16, 2015 at 14:43

    I can see that I have broken rules 3, 5, and 6. I may be said to have virtually violated rule 8–I was not shy about entering a bookstore after a long, hot walk, or 10 miles into a run if the store looked interesting. I break rule 3 to this day in local stores if I find books mis-shelved–a memoir or history in novels or vice-versa; but I leave the books at the desk.

    With the curious exception of a university bookseller or two, I have found most bookstore employees and managers affable, if now and then odd. Forty years ago, a bookseller rebuked me for holding one of his books in a way apt to be hard on its spine, but that’s about the extent of the snootiness I can remember. Well, thirty years ago, a bookseller gave me a classic look of pity for asking whether a set was there a week after I should have bought it; however, she was beautiful, she was correct, and I was long hardened to women thinking poorly of my common sense.

  6. law@mhbref.com'
    Jonathan Law
    February 16, 2015 at 16:59

    Reminds me a bit of the various rules scrawled (mostly indecipharably) on Bernard’s chalkboard in Black Books: “No mobile phones, no walkmans … none of that, or any of the other!”, “No smouldering!”, “No Prehensilizing”, “No chatting. No smiling. ABSOLUTE SILENCE!”, “No Giggling”, “DON’T DO THAT”, “NO anecdotage”, “DON’T”.

    Graham Linehan said he got the idea for Bernard’s character from a sign he once saw in a bookshop reading “PLEASE put the books anywhere you like because we’ve got nothing better to do than put them back”.

  7. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    February 16, 2015 at 21:25

    ‘I can buy it new, online, for half that price,’ said I, looking her squarely in the eye, I say her, that was my best guess, the northern him tending to shy away from the miss Marple look. The second hand bookshop, allegedly Britain’s biggest, occupies an old Northumbrian railway station, all riveted steel structures and cast iron electrics. It’s owner a bookish, corduroy encased caricature with a pretendy accent and not of this planet, a being most superior. Obviously his understrappers were required to toe the company line. Hard hearted Hannah, the shop assistant from hell, was unbending, not even monosyllabic, just mute, glaringly mute. I took up the default defence position and laughed, ‘do they pay you by the scowl’ I asked and walked out.

  8. February 17, 2015 at 01:10

    Malty – I know the type. They hate me, because I’m a vulgarian who undercuts their prices.

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