Friday, January 25, 2008

Bookshop memories

If you read The Bookseller recently you may have seen the following anecdote. But if not, this is an encounter I had with a customer when I was a fledgling bookseller:

Customer - I have a 17-year-old son who doesn't read and spends all of his time in his bedroom. What would you recommend?

Me - Has he tried Rankin?

Customer - Wanking? Yes, well that would certainly keep him quiet...

The most bizarre aspect of this counter was the woman's completely unfazed response to what she thought I'd said.


The belated fame of this anecdote made me think of a few other bookshop stories that deserve to be told. The next one took place ten years ago in the Enfield branch of Ottakar's. When you read it, imagine that both the customer and bookseller have very strong London accents...

Bookseller - Can I help?

Customer - 'Ave you got Henry V?

Bookseller - We should 'ave. Do you want an Arden?

Customer - No, I want a soft'un

Customer - I want a copy of *mentions very obscure book title*

Bookseller - Sorry, I'm not familiar with that. Is it new?

Customer - New! No it certainly isn't! Don't you know anything about books?"

Bookseller - Well I'm sorry, but we're all experts in different fields. For example, I'm studying medieval art and you probably haven't heard of Hugo de Vries.

Customer - Yes, of course I have.

Bookseller - Well you can't have done, as I just made him up.


And I remember several awkward questions like...

'What do I give someone who only has two weeks to live?' (I suggested a book of short stories)

'I want a book with a moral dilemma in it.' (Er...the Fiction section's over there mate)

'My wife's allergic to the smells of most books. Have you any that would be suitable for her?'

'Where's your Tundra section?'

'Do you read?' (To which I politely replied 'Yes I do. Do you?')

'Why does your Fiction section only go up to G?' (Just for fun, I told them that H-Z was in the Kingston branch)

'Can you order me a book in time for Christmas Day?' (Asked at 2.30pm on Christmas Eve)

'Have you got any books on sex with animals?'

'Why don't people like nice things anymore?' (When told that we didn't have any Patience Strong in stock)

'How will I find it?' (Asked by customers who are unaware that Fiction is, and always has been, arranged A-Z by author)

"Where's your section of coffee table books on Paraguay?"

"You have a degree? In what? Shoelaces?"

"Why are all the books I want on the top floor?"

'Yuhejub?' ("Do you have a job?", as asked by people who think that a very rudimentary grasp of English shouldn't be an impediment to working in a bookshop)

Then there was the customer who wanted a book of walks that only featured Suffolk and Worcestershire - two counties that are 150 miles apart - because he lived in Suffolk but had a friend in Worcestershire.

And in addition to the strange enquiries, there are also those people who think that bookshops sell chairs, kettles, fishing rods and kitchenware.

Mind you, the way things are going it's only a matter of time.

I'm know that there are some superb anecdotes lurking within the recesses of my memory, but this is all I can remember at the moment. I always enjoy the Bookseller Crow, A Salted and Bookseller to the Stars - three superb blogs that regularly entertain us with examples of life in the front line.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

A verb too far...

In one branch of WH Smith's today I saw a sign pointing upstairs to a department called Gifting.


Parenting was annoying when it first appeared but I've become used to it and accept the need for this word because there wasn't an adequate alternate verb for the act of being a parent. The same applies to verbs like networking, upgrading and downloading. But gifting?

A cursory glance at the internet shows that the word hasn't quite caught on, although it's only a matter of time before the relentless growth of retail adds this vile word to our lexicon. And just to make it even worse, I found regifting, which is what you do when you pass an unwanted present onto some other poor bastard. My mother did this several years ago, making secret marks on each item. She used the marks to confirm that almost every present had been regifted to her (via several other ungrateful recipients) within three years.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Mercury rising

As regular readers of this blog will know, I normally get excited by space things and when I discovered that a probe had just taken photos of a part of Mercury that we'd never seen before, I was straight onto the NASA website.

But it's hard to get excited about this:

What a disappointment. It looks just like the moon.

However the good news is that the Hubble telescope, which was going to be scrapped, has had an eleventh hour reprieve and is going to be upgraded during one of the forthcoming space shuttle missions.

It can already take pictures like this:

However, after its refit the Hubble Space Telescope will be 90 times more powerful! That more than makes up for the disappointing dullness of Mercury.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

How Are We to Live?

How Are We to Live? may not be the most elegant of book titles, but at least it's provocative enough to attract the attentions of browsers. That's how I discovered this book - the work of a philosopher whose reputation rested on his pioneering work with the animal liberation movement.

If I was a dictator I would ban at least 95% of the self-help/popular psychology books in print and give everyone a free copy of Peter Singer's wonderful book about ethics in an age of uncertainty. In simple, commonsense language, Singer not only discusses some of the dilemmas of modern life but also dares to come up with a blueprint for living the good life. In a nutshell, he says: treat other people they way you'd want them to treat you, but don't take any crap. You might think that's blindingly obvious, but this simple common sense has eluded thinkers like Plato and Jesus.

Peter Singer - sheep may safely graze

This book was my staff recommendation in Crawley - a town where many grandmothers are still looking forward to their 30th birthdays - and to my amazement I sold more than any other title I'd picked. At first the book cost 8.99, but every few months it would go into reprint and reappear at a higher price. Eventually, Oxford University Press increased the cover price to a level that made it impossible to sell the book. This was a great pity. I wonder how many they're selling now.

I have thought about Singer's book a lot recently as I have been faced with several ethical dilemmas in the last year and it has made me realise how marginalised the subject of ethics has become. We use the word ethical more than ever in our daily lives, but usually as consumers. Questions of good and evil seem to be largely reserved for theologians, but in today's secular society we need to re-establish a common ground that can partially fill the void left by the moral certainties of the past. We could do worse than start with Peter Singer's book.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

New Year's Day in Sussex

First the party, then the hangover, followed by the obligatory walk in the countryside. I could almost cut and paste last year's entry on this theme.

We went for a walk to the Long Man of Wilmington, a hillside figure that has defied scientific and archaeological analysis and remains an enigma. Nobody knows how old it is or why it's there, although the general consensus is that it's a few thousand years old. Is he a fertility symbol, a warning to enemy tribes, a tribute to the gods or simply a primitive work of art?

During the Second World War he was painted green to stop the Luftwaffe using him as a landmark. Recently he was given a makeover by fashion gurus Trinny and Suzanna on their television show, causing a storm of protest from outraged pagans and members of English heritage.

It seemed appropriate to spend part of New Year's Day visiting something very old and as I'd already seen my mother at Christmas, this was a good second choice.

I can't say I'm feeling very optimistic about the coming year. For reasons I can't go into at the moment, the future is looking a little bleak. I can only hope that the setbacks are temporary and lead to something better.