On Tuesday night I went, with my housemate Mel and fellow book-blogger Naomi (aka Bloomsbury Bell – go check out her new WordPress style!) to hear Jen Campbell talk about Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops. Quite a few of you will know Jen from her blog, and those of you who use Twitter more than I do might well know her as @aeroplanegirl. One day I’ll fully understand Twitter, and then there’ll be no stopping me.
Jen had also been a writer in residence at Blackwell’s, writing a poem related to each of Blackwell’s five floors, and she recited these at the event – I’d love to read them again, so hopefully they’ll make an appearance somewhere.
But the main event was the book – having worked in a secondhand bookshop, and the Bodleian, I am familiar with some of the stranger comments and requests made by the Great British Public (calling from New York at 3am to tell the head of Rare Books your spurious theories on the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays? Sure, go ahead!) but I wouldn’t have believed she could fill a book, almost entirely from her own experience. The back section includes other people’s contributions, but this is mostly Jen’s collection. It’s hilarious. I’d read all the entries on her blog, but there are plenty more gems. Here are some from the blog, also in the book, as a taster:
Customer: Excuse me, do you have any signed copies of Shakespeare plays?
Me: Er… do you mean signed by the people who performed the play?
Customer: No, I mean signed by William Shakespeare.
Me: Erm, you bought this book at Waterstone’s.
Me:…. we’re not Waterstone’s.
Customer: But, you’re a bookshop.
Me: Yes, but we’re not Waterstone’s.
Customer: You’re all part of the same chain.
Me: No, sorry, we’re an independent bookshop.
Me: Put it this way, you wouldn’t buy clothes in H&M and take them back to Zara, would you?
Customer: Well, no, because they’re different shops.
Customer:… I’d like to speak to your manager.
If this appeals, you should definitely get hold of a copy. And once you’ve laughed your way through that, I suggest that you check out Bookworm Droppings by Shaun Tyas, from 1988, which is a less attractive title (and rather less well produced) but equally amusing – and essentially the same concept. Also, I’ve copied this entry across from my brother’s blog – I worked occasionally in a secondhand bookshop during my sixth form, and when I couldn’t be there, Colin covered my shifts – and thus was left with this woman… (Hope this is ok, Col… yeah?)
August 31st 2004
Here I am, working at the book shop again… much better than last time, since I’ve got about three and a half hours left and I’ve already made £36.25, more than covering my £20 wages. But the last customer I had was rather strange (before you get confused, I’m writing this on my laptop, which I brought into work). I don’t want to hurt her feelings, but it’s unlikely that she’s heard of the internet. […] Anyways, she came in and asked me if Ian (my boss) was here. I said he wasn’t. She said ‘What?’ and I repeated what I said – this was more or less the pattern whenever I said anything, actually – so she asked me what our phone number was. I didn’t know, so I phoned up Dad, and he knew, so I wrote it down on a PostIt. She asked me if the fives were fives, I said (and repeated) that they were. Then she decided she didn’t want the phone number on a PostIt, because it was sticky, so I tore part of another PostIt (ie not the sticky part) and wrote it again. This time she said it was too small, but accepted it anyway. After this she left the shop and, I rather hoped, my life, having told me twice that she would like to see Ian’s daughter and dog. A few minutes later she came back in and asked me how much the books outside were, so I came outside and told her about four times that they were individually priced, interrupted while she told me the man nearby had just stolen a book. I mumbled something along the lines that he probably already had the book in his hands before coming to the shop, but she probably didn’t hear me because she didn’t say ‘What?’ Satisfied that the books did actually cost what they said they cost, she said she’d be back in if she found any books she wanted to buy. Okay. So I went back in, and soon enough she was back, clutching two books and telling me that she’d read one of them (A Tale of Two Cities) in school, but wasn’t sure if she’d read the other (Crime and Punishment). I took the books, told her the price (£1.75), and she asked me ‘Are you busy?’ I wasn’t sure what to say – did she mean the shop? Or me? The shop, I assume – so I told her we were quite busy. She made her usual reply, so I told her we were quite busy. Then began the long process of paying – one pound and seventy-five pence – in which she decided to get rid of as many coppers and small coins as possible. When she’d got to about £1.30, the phone rang, so I answered it, but got no reply, and got no number from 1471. Is it just me, or has prank calling never really reached the level of sophistication that it could have done? There are some artists out there, but silence is about as rubbish as it gets. Anyway, she’d got to about £1.35 when I’d said ‘hello’ several times and hung up… eventually she got to the full one seventy five, and as I was putting the money away in the money-box, she asked me again if I was busy – me personally. Sensing she wanted me to help with something, perhaps along the lines of lifting boxes, I said I had a bit of time. It turned out she wanted me to hold A Tale of Two Cities while she recited from it. She marked the place in the book, read two words, and then asked to see it again. This time, after reading the first line, she was able to recite the last two pages of the book with only minimal errors (which I didn’t point out, judging that to do so would bring more trouble than it’d be worth)… well, congratulations to her. She told me that she’d memorised it when she was a girl, and that she was also able to recite pages from Wuthering Heights. It was about this moment that I silently thanked Ian for not putting Wuthering Heights out for sale. Anyways, I told her that it was very impressive (what?) very impressive, and she asked me if I would listen to my grandmother do the same thing… I told her my grandmother was dead, but that I probably would do if she still lived. This was far too confusing for my customer, who simply ignored it, and told me that her grandchildren soon got bored when she tried to recite from nineteenth century classics. Rather than proclaim my astonishment at the foolishness of youth, or point out to her that, as an employee at the shop, I could hardly tell her to shut up, I mumbled something and she shook my hand. Now she’s gone, and hasn’t come back in the last thirty minutes or so, so I think I’m safe.