“DO you have a copy of Tequila Mockingbird?”
“Did Charles Dickens ever write anything fun?”
“This Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter has to be the most historically accurate fiction book I’ve read.”
Those are just a few of the dimwitted remarks featured in the amusing hardback Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores (Overlook Press, $16), by English bookseller Jen Campbell. When you see the kinds of ignorance that people like her encounter daily, it makes you admire the strength of character that must be required of career booksellers.
Of course, independent stores staffed by educated types like Campbell, who has a Masters in English Literature and is a poet and short story writer, are now rare. Modern chain bookstores are fun to visit, with their on-site cafés and seasonal décor items, but the best outlets for true bookworms remain those with worn, creaky hardwood floors and employees who’ve just finished reading whatever it is you’re after. At the very least, they’ve heard of it.
Here in Vancouver, Duthie Books, which many people thought was immortal, is long gone, but there’s still the odd bookshop with knowledgeable staff. Just south of the border, Fairhaven, WA, still has a great independent bookstore in Village Books, and Seattle’s wonderful Elliot Bay Book Company has shifted digs but still thrives. Such seasoned establishments, however, are hard to come by.
In her introduction to Weird Things…, author Campbell writes that she started working in bookstores in 2008. She quickly realized that the people who patronize them are not all quiet, four-eyed eggheads, but are as unruly in their own way as teenaged dirt bike enthusiasts. Campbell polled other booksellers to see whether they’d had similar experiences to her own, and the result is a book of almost 200 pages that was a London Times bestseller.
Evidently, working in a bookstore isn’t a peaceful, stress-free way to make a living. That’s because customers routinely ask booksellers questions like “Where is the true fiction section?” They request that the clerk photocopy a recipe from a Jamie Oliver cookbook so they don’t have to buy the whole thing. They try to return a novel they’ve dropped in the bath because it’s now bloated and unreadable.
They ask if the bookstore sells milk, screwdrivers, swim goggles, gum, cigarettes, cameras and even sea monkey food. And they want help finding titles like “Campbell’s Soup for the Soul,” “The Count of Monte Crisco,” “Canary Row,” and “Fiddler on a Hot Tin Roof.”
You don’t have to be bookish to laugh at the sheer idiocy of queries like “Who is the author of the Shakespeare plays?”
One vendor was approached by a customer who said she’d just read The Diary of Anne Frank, adding, “I just wanted to ask: did Anne Frank ever write a sequel?”
A student fruitlessly searched a university bookstore for the text for his “Northern Anthropology” class before a clerk figured out that the fellow actually needed The Norton Anthology of Literature.
Meanwhile, a man entered a Maine bookstore and declared, “I don’t know why she wants it, but my wife asked for a copy of The Dinosaur Cookbook.” The bookseller wondered if he meant The Dinah Shore Cookbook. “That must be it,” said the gent. “I wondered what she was up to.”
Clerks are apparently presented with countless such mysteries.
“I read a book in the sixties,” a customer once confided. “I don’t remember the author, or the title. But it was green, and it made me laugh. Do you know which one I mean?”
When a man asked a Pennsylvania bookseller whether he sold dictionaries, the clerk asked what kind of dictionary he required. “One with all the words,” the customer said.
These days, of course, real books are under threat from e-books. It seems that customers cruise the aisles, jotting down the titles that look inviting, and then order the online versions from somebody else. God knows what will happen when there are no actual bookstores left to provide this service.
“I’m looking for a book for my son,” a baffled customer tells a clerk. “He’s one of those weird people who still likes the paper ones.”
It could be worse, I guess. According to Weird Things…, a Toronto bookseller overheard a five-year-old visitor exclaim to her mum that she could stay in that bookstore all day. “I don’t know why you read; it’ll never get you anywhere,” her parent replied. Thank God career booksellers are an intrepid, relentlessly helpful bunch.
As a university student, my husband Stanley once read three books in a row by a famous Beat author, for whom there was no scene too disgusting or depraved to be committed to print. Afterward, Stanley went into a funky bookstore and said to the bearded intellectual manning the front desk, “I just finished reading The Red Night Trilogy by William S. Burroughs. What should I read next?”
The bookseller gave him a deadpan stare. “The Bible,” he replied.