Friday, December 28, 2012
"Do you have that cookery book with the red cover?"
After six months on Twitter, I have realised that it probably isn't for me, or I'm not for it. But I love reading other people's tweets (especially when they're not telling you about their cat or the great review their latest novel has just had).
I particularly enjoyed this tweet from a few days ago, by bookseller @lucyfishwife:
A customer asked me where we kept kids' books for 20-yr-olds. I pointed at the Fiction section.
How I miss dealing with the general public.
It's now over five years since I last dealt with a customer face to face. Although I still sell books, I don't dare to call myself a bookseller any more because I think that unless you're prepared to meet your public, you're merely a supplier. Internet bookselling is like cybersex, stripped of the agonies and ecstacies of real human contact. I love it.
Real bookselling was a little like Russian Roulette - you never knew whether the person approaching your desk was going to ask a normal question like "Do you have a copy of X by Z?" or a completely daft one like "I live in Surrey but have a holiday home in Staffordshire. Do you have a book of walks that just covers Surrey and Staffordshire?" (a genuine question, by the way).
Reading @lucyfishewife's anecdote reminded me of some of the gems I've been asked over the years:
"Could you recommend a book for someone who only has three weeks to live?" (I suggested short stories)
"It says Biography and Memoirs. Why don't you have an autobiography section?"
"I want that new gardening book. The title? No, I can't remember. Author? Oh, it's a lady and it's green. Do you have it?"
"Where's your non-fiction section?" Asked by a middle-aged man with a fruity voice and dyed hair. I replied that it was the whole shop, apart for the fiction and children's sections, and that it was divided up into separate subjects. Minutes later, he came downstairs shouting "Your non-fiction section is impenetrable!"
"I want a novel with a moral dilemma." (Which is like saying "I'd like a motor car with an engine")
"Do you read?" I often replied, very politely, "Yes, I do. *Long pause* Do you?"
"Why have you moved your fiction section downstairs? Last year it was upstairs." When I replied that it had always been downstairs since we'd opened, two months ago, suggesting that they were confusing us with another shop, the customer shook their head, "No, it was definitely here and it was upstairs."
"Will I like this?" Asked by a heavily made-up woman in her late 60s, waving a copy of Foucault's Pendulum. I wanted to say "How the **** should I know?", but smiled sweetly and said "You'll love it", which turned out to be the right answer.
"Where's your section of coffee table books about Paraguay?" Try Paraguay.
"Do you have any books about sex with animals?" The same man asked this question on a weekly basis.
"Have you got that book about cholera?" I asked if he meant Marquez. He nodded, but then leaned forward and said, rather patronisingly, "Actually, it's pronounced Marqeth." His smug, punchable face was a picture when I patiently explained the difference between Castillian and Latin American Spanish.
"That book you recommended to me last week? It was crap." No, you were just too dim to appreciate it.
"If I ordered the book now, could you get it in time for Christmas Day?" Asked at 3.15pm on Christmas Eve.
As time went on, my answers became more confident. When the customer who wanted coffee table books on Paraguay huffed and puffed about our glaring omission, I could confidently point out that this was the first time in ten years that anyone had asked me for a book about Paraguay. I also knew how cheeky I could be without provoking a complaint, perfecting a subtle insoucience that Jeeves would have been proud of.
But in the end, you get battle fatigue. A man I worked with who was 17 years older than me had become an embittered Basil Fawlty figure, picking unnecessary fights with perfectly harmless customers because he was at the end of his tether. When I saw how he treated a poor woman who'd innocently asked for a self-help book by Betty Shine, I made a mental note to get out of bookselling before I became like him.
We lost touch, but two years ago I bumped into my ex-colleague at a historic building, where he was a voluntary guide. He seemed happier than he'd ever been in the bookshop. I knew how he felt.