This One Time, In The Bookstore

“Hi, I’m coming into Cavendish now. Could you send someone over to Seattle and reserve me two blueberry muffins?”
“Um, no. No I can’t. Because you called the bookshop and I don’t work for Seattle.”

Oh, retail.

There is something wonderful happening over on my Facebook page. I belong to a group of ex and current bookstore employees and there is a post running where everyone is commenting with their favourite, most absurd customer moments.

It’s very professional.

I haven’t worked there in over a year now so I don’t feel bad about posting these stories. The nineteen months I spent behind that counter were some of the best, most infuriating months of my life. I genuinely miss it. I’ve said it before, everyone should work in retail at some point in their life. It was the best education I ever had. Sometimes, when good people become customers, they lose all sense of logic and humanity and become irrational monster-customers. I’ve seen it happen too many times.

I can’t post all the stories because some of the booksellers involved still work there. But I’ll write down the stories that either happened to me or I was there to witness unfold. Every single story I’m going to tell you is one hundred percent the truth. Even the blueberry muffins. Here goes.

Book-clubs are super popular in the southern suburbs. The women (and they’re always women) come in with no idea of what they want and only a vague confidence in our abilities to recommend a good read. My favourite moment with a book-club was the day a lady said to me, “We only read good books. We’re a very educated group, we all went to university.” And then proceeded to reject every book I recommended and walked away with a pile of Jodi Picoult, Danielle Steele and Lesley Pearse.

I felt like telling her, for the record, that I had also been to university. And it really wasn’t a big deal.

Speaking of Lesley Pearse, I had a very sweet old lady customer who came up to the counter one day clutching a copy of Belle. Her son had given it to her as a birthday gift and she had started reading it but now she wanted to return it because, she whispered dramatically across the counter to me, “It’s pornography!”

Then there is every parent and grandparent to ever reject Where’s Spot? because their one year old is very advanced for his age. Very advanced.

Another thing customers like to do is tell you about this book they saw in the shop last week, but it isn’t in the same place. They can’t remember the author, title or genre but they know it’s a blue, softcover book and the title is printed at an angle across the cover.

“Unfortunately ma’am, we can’t search by colour of book cover.”
“Why not?”

And then they get very cross and tell you, you need a new system. One customer got very frustrated and stormed off. Half an hour later he came back, waving a red hardcover book in my face saying smugly, “See, I found it. I had to do your job for you.”

Shame. And then there are the customers who are very confident about what they want.

“I’m looking for Othello. It was written by Hamlet.” Not a joke. This was an actual interaction I had.

“I’m looking for the new Jodi Picoult novel called Lone Wolf.”
“I’m afraid that hasn’t been published yet, ma’am. It due for release in the UK next month and we’ll receive it shortly after that.”
“No, it has been published. I saw it here last week but I can’t find it now.”
“That must have been a different title ma’am. Lone Wolf isn’t available in print yet.”
“No, no you’re wrong. I saw it here. Are you calling me a liar?”

And a colleague had the complete opposite experience, where she tried to convince a customer that Guns, Germs and Steel had in fact been published already and he could buy a copy right then and there. He refused and left, utterly convinced that the Guns, Germs and Steel that he wanted hadn’t been released yet and she had the wrong one.

There’s at least one customer a year who asks if we have books on dinosaurs, but one with photographs. Not drawings.

And at least one customer a month who can’t understand why she can’t redeem her book vouchers at Seattle. “That’s ridiculous, aren’t you the same shop?” No. We’re not.

One colleague refused a phone request to run across to Col’Cacchios and make a dinner reservation.

And when crisis hits, expecting customers to cooperate is like expecting Miley Cyrus to put her tongue back in her mouth. When the whole of Cavendish is being evacuated due to a bomb threat or a fire in the Mugg ‘n Bean kitchen, there will always be the customer who just wants to pay for their newspaper quickly.

Or the time the shop flooded and the Seattle customers shouted at us for asking them to move so that we could stop the FLOOD OF WATER that was destroying our shop, the Seattle floor and THEIR SHOES. They were ankle deep in water and insisting on finishing their coffee.

But, on that note, on the day of the flood some of our customers did an amazing job of pitching in. They lifted piles of books onto the counters and grabbed mops to help staunch the flow of water. That was a, surprisingly, good day.

I had my favourite customers too. An old man who came in every evening, wearing a red sequinned hat. This little boy, who I wrote about before. The British gentleman who came in every afternoon to buy a Daily Telegraph, which he took down the street to Barristers and read it with a Guinness (I know this because a good friend worked at Barristers and we one day discovered that our favourite customers were actually the same guy). He knew more about my life, than I ever knew about him. Very interested in what I was studying and what my life plan was. I crushed hard.

But probably my most favourite moment ever, was when the day a lady asked me if she could remove the magazines from the plastic to read them. I told her no. The magazines cost over R100 each and there was no way to break the plastic without destroying it. She got very upset and said to me, “I want to speak to the manager!”

And I said, “That would be me.”

BOOM. Power.

And for the record, no we do not sell airtime. And the toilet is down the corridor to the right.

4 thoughts on “This One Time, In The Bookstore

  1. Awesome post – I worked in retail from December 2004 to February 2006 – it’s a different story when you’re no longer the customer. And oh the stories… Great post :)

  2. I love this post. I lived this life for 3 years and it was the best and most infuriating time of my life and I miss it so much.

    A customer made me cry without ever having met him and another customer sent me a bunch of flowers and chocolates to thank me for helping him to find a book for his wife. I loved being a bookseller, it taught me so much about people and myself as well!

    My least favourite people were book snobs because there is no place for snobbery in a bookstore, and my favourite people were kids and parents who were buying books together, with the parents encouraging the kids to read whatever they wanted.

    Thank you for writing this, it made me smile :)

  3. Love this! I worked in book publishing for nearly 10 years and I’ve met so many of those wannabe book snobs who really don’t have a clue. Agree that working in retail should be compulsory for everyone – it’s a rite of passage;)

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