In April, author Jen Campbell released a book in the U.K. entitled, Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores. It is based on her firsthand experiences as a bookseller in independent bookshops in North London and Edinburgh.
Anyone familiar with my background knows that back in the eighties and nineties, I spent many a day patrolling the perilous, shark-infested aisles of bookshops around New England in a variety of roles with the defunct Lauriat’s Bookstore chain. Through those years, I kept a notebook that chronicled many of the half-witted, stupid, inane, crazy and downright mind-boggling requests customers would fire at us each day. Those notes, sadly, were tossed into the dumpster of retail antiquity many moons ago.
It would not be fair to say that this book was my idea first. (Though, I’ll take the credit if anyone wants to give it to me.) In truth, several of my bookselling associates proposed the very same thing — and we enjoyed one-upping each other with tales of stupid, much the same way, I would imagine, a bunch of grizzled North Shore fishermen might compare their day’s biggest catch. We all had the idea and chance to write this book first and we all blew it. Shame on us.
Two weeks ago, The Overlook Press put out a call to U.S. booksellers asking for submissions for an American edition of Weird Things… due this fall. It got me reminiscing, and I was able to recover several anecdotes from deep within the recesses of my brain — funny how it also starts coming back to y0u. (To paraphrase Woody Allen, my brain is one of my favorite organs.) Below, I have listed those I submitted to The Overlook Press for inclusion in the new edition. Maybe they will see print, maybe not. Either way, sadly, I can personally guarantee they all happened. And there were witnesses.
CUSTOMER — My daughter needs a book for school. I think it starts with the letter “S.”
ME — Hmmm. Hard to say. There are so many.
CUSTOMER — I know. I’m sorry. But the teacher said every bookstore would have it.
ME — Well, how about this one here by Edward Rutherford. It’s called Sarum and just came out last week in paperback. It’s on the bestsellers list.
CUSTOMER — (Puzzled) No. She’s only in the 8th grade. This looks too old for her. And I think the book had something to do with dinosaurs.
ME — Our dinosaur books are over here, but I don’t have one that starts with the letter “S.”
CUSTOMER — Oh wait… I think I wrote it down. (Rummages through handbag) Yes! Here it is! It’s called Saurus… The- Saurus.
CUSTOMER — Do you have Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Hound?
CUSTOMER — Where are your dinosaur books?
ME — Right over here, ma’am.
CUSTOMER — These are awful. They are all full of paintings and drawings. Where are the ones with the photographs?
CUSTOMER — Can you help me? This is my son’s reading list for school. Where would I find these?
ME — There are 20 books on the list. And they are in several sections throughout the store.
CUSTOMER — Is there any way you could gather them together so I can decide which one to buy?
ME — Sure…
ME — (After spending 10 minutes running around the store.) Here are all the books from the list, ma’am.
CUSTOMER — Thank you so much. (Lines the books across the counter.) My son doesn’t like to read. So I’ll take this one — it’s the thinnest.
CUSTOMER — Do they make Cliff’s Notes for this video?
CUSTOMER — Can you direct me to the blue books?
ME — I’m sorry, we don’t have them arranged by color. Do you know the title?
CUSTOMER — Oh, I don’t care about the title. I just remodeled my bathroom and I need it to match.
ME — I’m sorry, we don’t have this book in stock. Can I order a copy for you?
CUSTOMER — I need it right away. Could you call the Barnes & Noble across the street for me and see if they have it?
ME — Ma’am, they are our competitor.
CUSTOMER — I understand. When you call, just don’t tell them who you are.
CUSTOMER — Thank goodness! I walked all over the mall looking for this bookstore!
ME — Well, welcome to the store! I’m glad you found us. Were you looking for a particular title today?
CUSTOMER — Oh, I don’t read. (unbuttoning her blouse.) I just need a quiet place to breastfeed my baby.
CUSTOMER — The recipe for chow mein in this book was too salty. Do you have one with less soy sauce?
CUSTOMER — I need a very specific repair manual for Evinrude outboard motors.
ME — I’m sorry sir, but it looks like that book is out of print.
CUSTOMER — If you were a good bookstore, you’d just call the publisher and have them print one for me.
CUSTOMER — Where do you keep the true fiction?
ME — (Phone rings) Good morning, this is Lauriat’s Books.
CUSTOMER — Hello. Do you have Sidney Sheldon’s Memories of Midnight in stock?
ME — Yes ma’am, we do. I have one right here.
CUSTOMER — Oh that’s great. I misplaced my copy and it’s snowing. Could you just read the last chapter over the phone? I can’t wait to find out how it all comes out.
CUSTOMER — I simply refuse to pay for the whole cookbook if I’m only going to use one recipe.
CUSTOMER — I’d like to return this book by Stephen King. I read the whole thing and I wasn’t scared once.
CUSTOMER — Do you have 1984 by George Orwell?
ME — Yes we do. It’s right over here.
CUSTOMER — Have you read it?
ME — Yes I have. In fact, it’s one of my favorite books.
CUSTOMER — That’s great. Could you summarize it quickly for me then? My exam is in an hour.
CUSTOMER — Excuse me, are you hiring?
ME — Yes. We are looking for a part-time bookseller.
CUSTOMER — Great! How do I apply? I need a quiet place to work where nobody bothers me and I can get my homework done. This place looks perfect.