Sunday, April 15, 2012

Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops

This was going to be a fairly ordinary interview as part of a virtual book tour for an author I "only" know from Twitter, but then, on Tues night, I popped in to meet Jen Campbell at her event at the fantastic Edinburgh Bookshop (which I could easily live in) ...and, well, after only planning to stay, umm, 20 minutes, I left three hours later, after 2 glasses of prosecco and much merriment! And... with some lovely photos of the author herself (taken with the Hipstmatic app on my iPhone so they're very "artistic"):

So what is this all about? Well, I don't often laugh out loud while reading a book. It is rare indeed. But Jen Campbell's fantastic Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops, published a few weeks ago by Constable, had me chuckling, giggling, and interrupting J's reading to make him listen! It is exactly as it says, a collection of some of the weirdest things said to Jen and to other booksellers in bookshops. This is clearly a very good idea for a book - Jen's been interviewed on Radio 4's Open Book program and got lovely mentions in the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph newspapers here in the UK.

I am delighted to have Jen here today: she is a writer and bookseller living in London, a published poet and short story writer. Weird Things is her first book; her poetry collection The Hungry Ghost Festival will be published later this year by The Rialto. She blogs at This Is Not The Six Word Novel. Before getting to my interview with Jen, here's a little taster from the book, which you will have your chance to win:
customer: Doesn’t it bother you, being surrounded by books all day? I think I’d be paranoid they were all going to jump off the shelves and kill me. 
bookseller: . . .

Tania: Your book made me seriously question the sanity of many members of the public. It might almost been seen as a philosophical tract about sense versus nonsense, or a scientific work about the bizarre workings of the human brain. Did you feel you learned anything about the human condition from all these interactions?

Jen: Being able to share these moments, first on my blog, and now as a longer collection in book form is, I guess, my open 'WTF?' question to the world. The fact that the blog posts made their way quickly across Twitter, and made people giggle, validated my own sanity, which I found myself questioning at times when the oddest things that were said to me. You know, doing a double take and inwardly saying to myself: "There is no map of Atlantis... I definitely don't have a book that forecasts the weather for the rest of the year... no, books are not edible... nor do they conduct electricity... and, no, this is not Hampstead Heath; this is a bookshop."
    As to whether it helped me understand the human condition... no, probably not, but perhaps I'm now more prepared ;)
   [Also, I must point out that I would never, ever include quotes from anyone who was actually mentally unstable. These quotes are just rude/odd/bizarre things said by people who should know better.]

customer: I do find it odd that people manage to make a living out of writing books for children. I’m sure any mother could do it. 
bookseller: Why don’t you try it yourself? 
customer: I always mean to, but I’m very busy right now with my pottery class.

T: It's really funny to read - but how did all this make you feel at the time? Especially as a writer yourself, what did you learn from these interactions as to how people interact with books and the book trade?

J: Some of it made me blink and do a double take. Some quotes are funny, and were at the time. There were rude things said to me, which aren't included in the book [my decision] but were included in the blog posts which definitely were not funny. However, the quotes that reoccur quite frequently - price-checking on iphones; people calling up the bookshp for advice on books and then saying they'll go and buy the book on Amazon; one person who thought that all independents were owned by Waterstone's - these definitely show that, for some, there is a lack of understanding when it comes to the book trade.
   A lot of people forget how many people have to be paid for the production of just one book [editors, writer, illustrator, designers, production, marketing, an agent, wholesaler, and then the bookshops who have to pay rent, staff, business rates etc], and think that £7.99 for a paperback is too much. It's not a massive sum; it's less than the price of a cinema ticket or a take-away, and a book can change your life. Sounds corny, but it's true. I love a good curry as much as the next person, but one tikka masala's probably not going to change my outlook on life.
   Also, the big one: "It must be lovely working in a bookshop; you get to read all day." *sigh* I wish I had a penny for every time this was said to me.

T: I loved your section at the end with quotes from other booksellers, do you think there's something about a bookshop that leads to this kind of craziness? How do you try and explain it?

J: I think anyone who has worked in retail has weird stories to tell. Bookshops in particular - especially antiquarian ones - seem to attract odd requests. Perhaps because, in the case of the latter, the books are old, read long ago and we associate memories with them that perhaps don't make sense to us, so when we try and describe a book to someone else it comes out sounding a little odd. But that only accounts for 1% of the strange requests and those are understandable - what's not is when someone might say they read a book and it was blue, and they were three, and truly expect you to know which book they mean. Sometimes I can find these books, and those are amazing moments, but normally with a little bit more to go on than just one colour.
   I don't think I can try and explain the international nature of Weird Things... - I've no idea. But at least it makes us giggle.

bookseller: Can I help at all? 
customer: Yes, where’s your fiction section? 
bookseller: It starts over on the far wall. Are you looking for anything in particular? 
customer: Yes, any books by Stefan Browning. 
bookseller: I’m not familiar with him, what kind of books has he written? 
customer: I don’t know if he’s written any. You see, my name’s Stefan Browning, and I always like to go into
bookshops to see if anyone with my name has written a book.
bookseller: . . . right. 
customer: Because then I can buy it, you see, and carry it around with me and tell everyone that I’ve had a novel published.Then everyone will think I’m really cool, don’t you think? 
bookseller: . . .

T: As an antidote, what was the most intelligent question or comment you received in a bookshop?
J: I don't know about intelligent [there's obviously lots of those, though], but the lovely comments are always nice. I'd say about 80% of the people who walk into Ripping Yarns bookshop [the antiquarian bookshop where I work] say: "Oh, the smell of books is amazing!". Then there are our loyal customers who want to support our bookshops and keep us running which is just fantastic; parents who bring their children along at weekends to read and show them their own favourite books from when they were young. I had a child in last week who looked around the shop with his mouth open, turned to his dad and said: "Bookshops are special places, aren't they, dad?" That sounds pretty intelligent to me.

Thank you, Jen! Jen has extremely generously given me a copy of her book to giveaway to one lucky blog reader! So, here's the challenge: What's the weirdest thing you could imagine someone might say to a bookseller? The most creative answer wins the book! Just put your answer in a comment on the post, you have a week, til April 23rd, and then Jen and I will pick a winner! 

Jen is appearing at Blackwell's bookshop in Oxford this Tues night, April 17th, at 7pm, so if you're in the area, pop by, say hi and buy a book! Find out more on her blog.


Sascha Loske said...

London, Charing Cross Road, c. 1998. I was working at Shipley Art Bookseller:
Besuited customer comes in and asks me with a very straight face: "Do you sell green penguins?"
(It took me a while to figure out what he wanted).

Cally said...

Great interview, the book sounds fantastic. Here's my effort at an odd question:

"What book would you recommend for my dead grandmother?"

obsessive compulsive dawn said...

Overheard in Borders

customer: Where's your science fiction? [clerk leads him to sci fi]
No, no, like equations and theory.
clerk; Well, that would be just Math and Science. Non fiction.
customer: Since all science is fake, I assumed you'd combine the sections.

DiRaega said...

The assistant manager in my bookshop was asked the other day if we sold Potatoes... I think she did very well to maintain a straight face!

Tania Hershman said...

Sascha- put us out of our misery! What did he want?

Cally, I like it!

OCD - that's just nuts...!

DiRaega, wow, this gets stranger and stranger...

Jen Campbell said...

Tania - I'm guessing the guy was just looking for Penguin Green Crime books. :)

Dan Purdue said...

The author Gervase Phinn tells a good anecdote about a bookshop experience. He was doing a talk but his luggage had gone missing, so he needed to get hold of one of his own books to read from at the event. He found a bookshop and asked the lady behind the counter whether she had any books by Gervase Phinn. "It's pronounced 'Jervays Fine'," came the reply, "and you'll find her books on the first floor."

My weird question, and not one that I'd ever ask, I hasten to add, is:

"What's the best, most obscure book of short stories you have in stock? I need to win a competition and it would save a lot of time if I could just copy out one nobody's ever heard of."

Katalin Havasi said...

Customer: Do you have a book that doesn't contain the word "which"? I hate that word.

Tania Hershman said...

And the winner is... Dan Purdue! For not only sticking the assignment to make up something weird, but making it about short story collections, which of course would utterly bias me! Congrats, Dan, email me your postal address, taniah (at) gmail (dot) com.

Martha said...

Great interview and the book sounds absolutely hilarious! (Adds it to list of books to buy asap...)

Dan Purdue said...

Brilliant! Thank you - to Tania for arranging this, and to Jen for putting together what sounds like a fantastic book.


Fantastic stuff, Jen. As a former bookseller, I empathise.