Readers say the darndest things

Bookstore culture from the inside
By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  September 14, 2012


Bookstores — those endangered spaces perpetually under threat from market forces and the relentless march of technology — trade on charm. Consider the way the afternoon light plays across bountiful rows of colorful dust jackets and the incalculable stores of knowledge contained therein. Delight in the intellectual community that arises — as though by magic! — from mere proximity to so many books.

Revel in the knowledge that, like you, the bookseller behind the counter is a reader, a bibliophile, a book nerd, a fellow traveler on the sea of letters, and pleased as punch — perhaps even honored — to assist you in your quest to find the perfect volume to take home. Say the magic words — a carefully considered string of titles, like the combination to a safe or a Masonic handshake — and she'll open to you like a flower and lead you to her secret stash: an overlooked classic, an unputdownable thriller, an unfairly maligned bestseller that, if you can stomach the hype, is actually all it's cracked up to be.

Or maybe you're scared of her. Maybe you never did very well in English class; maybe her large glasses and exasperated air remind you of a certain junior-high librarian who, in addition to being over-stern, seemed to judge your predilection for Sweet Valley High when it was no longer age-appropriate.

Or maybe you don't like books very much at all. Maybe you're just a clueless asshole who thinks bookstores sell pizza or provide free daycare or allow you to photocopy that recipe you wanted for next week's dinner with your mother-in-law.

Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores (Overlook), a new book compiled by the English bookseller Jen Campbell, takes on the oblivious and the incorrigible. The anecdotes that constitute the British edition, released in April, were culled from Campbell's own exchanges at a bookstore in London called Ripping Yarns. She posted great blocks of them in installments on her blog; they went viral thanks to an endorsement from the multimillionaire Neil Gaiman. ("So sad," he blurbs.) For the American version, Campbell turned to American, Canadian, and British booksellers for their best material.

Here's a representative example from a bookseller in Hollywood:

CUSTOMER: I'd like a refund on this book, please.

BOOKSELLER: What seems to be the problem?

CUSTOMER: I barely touched it. It's ridiculous!

BOOKSELLER: What do you mean?

CUSTOMER: I mean, all I did was drop it in the bath by accident. And now, I mean, just look at it: the thing's unreadable!

On the surface, this interchange isn't especially — well, not even remotely — deep. Nor are the others Campbell includes, though most are at least moderately funny. Taken together, however, they stand as the most probing sociological exploration of bookstores since University of Chicago Press released Laura J. Miller's Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption in 2006. Collectively, these anecdotes hold up a mirror to the disappointments, aggravations, and petty resentments inherent in a bookseller's typical workday, perplexing interactions with the general public caused by and contingent upon class, capital, and the neoliberal global economy.

In other words, bookstores aren't usually all that charming. I should know.

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