A little book landed on my desk this week called More Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops (it’s the sequel to Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops). I leapt on it, as having been a bookseller for so many of my years I have a few stories of my own that I can tell. The book was disappointing and, to be honest, I found it just silly and unbelievable. But it did remind me of my own experiences.
Bookshops are difficult places for some people to enter. They find them intimidating and think that the staff might be the same, even though booksellers are generally just average people – like you – who love books. But some customers do get nervous and blurt out the wrong thing or get their words tied up in knots. A customer once asked me if we kept books on fixing cars.
‘Oh,’ I said, ‘a manual?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘An automatic.’
Tee hee. Maybe that’s not so funny in translation, but it was at the time. Another time a beautiful, very elderly lady came to the counter and asked me very politely for Willy Wanker and the Chocolate Factory. I have no
idea how I did it, but I carried on with a straight face.
Strange things happen in bookshops. Someone once left $3000 in cash in a bag on a bookshelf. Needless to say they looked quite relieved when they came back to find that we had called security and had it returned to them. They were travellers and thought they had lost all their savings.
Sadly there were also robberies. On one occasion I returned to the front counter to find the drawer open and all the notes missing. I must have stood there for five minutes – disbelieving – just absorbing the fact that the tray was empty. Then I remembered earlier in the day that a customer came to me at the counter and asked for the Guinness Book of Records. He probably thought he was on a sure bet that we’d have a copy, but as it happened we had sold out. When I told him we didn’t have it he looked quite stricken, hopping from one foot to the other before leaving in a hurry. It seemed that he was trying to get me away from the counter so that an accomplice could get to the till. He was foiled at that time, but unfortunately for me I left the counter briefly to go to the back of the store. That’s when I heard the ding of the till opening.
Books were regularly stolen, and I know it’s still a problem in bookshops all over the world. There was also a book-thieving gang purportedly traversing Sydney at one time. Apparently they had been given a list of books to steal by a secondhand bookshop. It’s heartbreaking as a bookseller to have your stock stolen. It sends your costs up, means you miss out on sales and you waste time following people around in big heavy coats on a hot summer day.
I once caught a shoplifter. It turned out she was there with her two kids and her husband. The kids sat there looking dejected as a security guard asked me not to call the police because she might lose her children. What a terrible decision and what a shocking thing for young kids to be exposed to.
But it’s not just the customers who can enliven your day. A new, very young staff member once saw a young mother berating her child in the store. This staff member took it upon herself to follow the mother out of the store and lambaste her in the shop next door for having behaved that way to her child.
I’ve dealt with all sorts of things in my career as a bookseller: floods, fires, 24-hour trading and a customer who had no pants. I can really recommend a career as a bookseller – it’s never boring!
Here’s to the excitement of books!