Any front-end retail job can be a source of occasional mirth or bewilderment, but bookselling seems to attract more than its fair share of bizarre exchanges. Between us the staff of Village Books have nearly 160 years of bookselling experience, and so we all have many fond (and sometimes confused) memories of some deeply strange conversations.
Customer: I’d like a book for a friend about saving the world from an alien invasion. I’d like the main character to be a little like Freddie Mercury and a little like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Does anything spring to mind?
Perhaps it’s the atmosphere. Most bookshops are quiet, sedate places. Calm music, soft lighting, that sort of thing. The staff tend to stand around looking personable rather than rushing about. In that sort of environment it’s easy to work up the courage to blurt out a bizarre request you might otherwise have bottled.
Customer: Do you know anything about building small houses for chihuahuas?
Also, well, books can be complicated. There’s an awful lot of them, and it’s our job – not the customers – to remember or at least be aware of the majority of them. Most odd demands are the result of misfiring memories or faulty hearing, and we can normally work them out. Disco Bedsit Queens is most likely Tracey Thorn’s Bedsit Disco Queen (although I’d certainly read the first one if I could find it). The Old Man Who Fell Out Of A Window And Drowned is probably The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared.
Customer: Do you have The Girl With The Dragon and the Baboon?
Books are sources of knowledge, and sometimes customers want the knowledge… just not the book.
We aren’t the only one’s to have noticed this phenomenon. Jen Campbell, bookseller at Ripping Yarns bookshop in Highgate, found that she had enough odd stories to compile in a book of her own. Weird Things Customers Say In Bookshops came out last year, and booksellers everywhere rejoiced to find they were not alone in experiencing odd conversations on a regular basis. Although judging by the sheer volume of tales from Ripping Yarns, we seem to have it easy in Dulwich. People in North London are strange.
The book did so well that Jen wrote another – More Weird Things That Customers Say in Bookshops – from which the quotes on this page are taken. Village Books is briefly featured (we were the ones quizzed about Nigella’s pasta, among other things).
Some of the best (and funniest) things we hear come from our smaller customers. Books are a subject on which adults and children can converse on almost equal terms, as they’re written with the same outcomes in mind – engagement, escapism, enjoyment.
Little Girl: I read a book last week called What Katy Did.
Bookseller: Did you enjoy it?
So perhaps the real reason is that books are a shared experience. They aren’t some exclusive club, there’s no qualifications necessary to read and enjoy them. And for that reason bookshops are convivial spaces. People feel at home there, and when you feel at home you act in a different way… sometimes a peculiar way, but that’s all right. For better or worse, customers are often so familiar with books that they treat them as if they already own them. A Kindle is a luxury, and I suspect will always remain so. Books are a necessity, a background to our existence.
More Weird Things Customers Say In Bookshops is published by Constable, and is available in Village Books and all good bookshops. The quotes in this article are all from the book, and are used with permission.
Jen Campbell will be stopping by Village Books on Thursday May 2nd, to talk about the weird things customers say in bookshops, and sign a few copies of the book. There will be much merriment and reminiscing amongst the staff. It’s a free event, although you’ll need to reserve a space as we expect to fill up. Simply contact us via: