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I spent the first 10 years of my working life in bookstores in England and Canada. While the pay was lousy (on both sides of the pond), I don't think I ever had as much fun in any job as I did in those shops. Which proves, if nothing else, that you don't have to earn a lot of money to enjoy your work.
Invariably, the primary source of merriment for my colleagues and me was our customers.
I know that book purchasers are not the only humans who unwittingly drive retail workers into snorts of laughter. A friend who worked at Sam the Record Man once regaled me with stories of clients who would walk up to him and ask things like: "Have you got this piece of music? I don't know the name of it, but it goes something like 'da-da-da-DA! da-da-da-DA!"
But I like to think of book buyers as a breed of their own. Often, they are too shy to speak out loud, let alone sing. They will thrust pieces of paper at you, and sometimes these notes have all manner of weird and wonderful other things scrawled on them. Once, in England, I was handed a shopping list that read:
1 lb tea
½ lb plain middle bacon
camera thing from Boots
something for Michael
chestnuts and lettuce
hairnet from Woolworths
Not recognizing anything even vaguely connected to books, I handed it back with a mumbled apology about not being sure I could help. After various to-ings and fro-ings, however, one of my colleagues was able to decipher that Rozay Psythus actually meant Roget's Thesaurus (not a bottle of wine after all!).
In fact, poor old Peter Mark Roget might have been sad to learn that we received many strange requests for his 1852 classic: Rogues Treasures was one; Roger the Taurus was another.
Over the years, my colleagues and I collected a long list of wonderfully mangled titles including Syd and Arthur (Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha); Watered Down Farm (Watership Down by Richard Adams); and my personal favourite, Pygmy Lion (Pygmalion), to which request I was dying to respond: "Are you Shaw?"
To be fair, not all the absurdity comes from the buyer's side. One of my junior colleagues, when asked if he had a copy of Ulysses by Joyce, was heard to mutter: "It would be helpful if you had her last name, too." And a new staffer, on being asked where Oscar Wilde could be found, responded: "Oh, I'm sorry, I don't think he works here any more."
While we all know never to judge books by their covers, booksellers should know not to judge book buyers by their covers, either. A friend was approached by a nasty-looking little man in a raincoat who asked, sheepishly, for books on "sex and heart." After being shown the Health section, the man said, a little more loudly, "No, no – sex and art!" Thinking he had finally figured it out, my friend directed the gentleman to our section on erotic art, only to finally be told, by a now incensed customer, that he was actually asking for books on "Saxon art, you fool!"
One bookstore in Nottingham was owned by a delightful but very formal gentleman of the old school (three-piece grey suit, French cuffs, watch fob – the lot). We were always trying to shake him out of his reserved demeanour with practical jokes. When we placed a plastic dog turd on the stairs, he nudged it delicately with the tip of his highly polished shoe (oblivious to the raucous cackling of four 25-going-on-8-year-olds behind the Science Fiction section), before asking one of the assistants to "kindly remove the object that some poor, clearly quite deranged, customer has unfortunately left behind."
The only time I saw him vaguely perturbed was the day he was approached by a brightly made-up lady with wild red hair wearing a fake leopard jumpsuit. She wanted to know if we had the latest biography of Yorkshire cricketer Fred Trueman, a fast bowler, but what she actually said was: "Ay up, me duck, 'ave you got Balls of Fire?" (We never did find out.)
Sometimes the exchanges between bookseller and buyer got so confusing that both ended up completely stumped – as in the following:
Customer: Have you got The Governess?
Assistant: Is it fiction?
Customer: No, it's a novel.
Customer (gruffly): I wants a book wiv words in it.
Assistant (smugly): Ah well, in that case you've come to the right place. Now, if we could just narrow it down a little …
(He was looking for a dictionary.)
Customer: Have you got Arthur Miller by Henry Fielding?
Customer: You know, the one about the geezer who 'ad lotsa wimmin.
Assistant: Oh, you mean Tom Jones?
Customer: A course I don't, ya nitwit – ee's a singa. Everybody knows that!
But my favourite request came at W.H. Smith's in Ottawa. A distinguished, professorial type approached me and said: "I'd like to buy some books." I said I'd be pleased to help and asked him what books he required. "Oh, about 40 yards worth," he replied. "I've just bought a house with lots of built-in bookshelves and I need to fill them up." I hope my selection measured up!
These days, I shop at the Crow's Nest bookstore in Collingwood, Ont., where I'm sure I unwittingly cause hours of mirth for the owners and staff.
Annette Snowdon lives in Collingwood, Ont.