23 January 2011

Overheard in the Bookshop

The things they say...

1) Second- hand booksellers

If the hilarious Book Worm Droppings is any indication, the astonishing things that are overheard in second-hand bookshops must rival, if exceed, anything that the TV scriptwriters of the much missed Black Books came up with. Perhaps the book inspired them. Who knows ? In any case, for sheer laugh out loud hilarity the compilation that bookseller and publisher Shaun Tyas brought out in 1988 using material from his own encounters with customers and fellow dealers, as well as examples sent to him by booksellers throughout the world, has become a minor classic of its kind and well worthy of standing alongside the better known Bizarre Books.

In this first blog I will be including some extracts from Droppings that focus primarily on the remarks of booksellers, but first here are a few of the ruder remarks I have had to endure over a long career as a collector. They are in no particular chronological or thematic order .

‘ I’ve heard that there’s a good public library just up the road ‘
Said to me sometime in the late eighties by the irascible wife of a well-known book dealer in Selly Oak, Birmingham, recently retired. I had been perusing for ten minutes or so some of the more choice volumes in the shop, including William Hone’s very scarce History of Lotteries. Taken aback, I could only reply that ‘ Unfortunately, those library books aren’t for sale ‘ before I exited the shop in a flustered state. I’ve never been back.

‘ You can’t afford that ‘
Delivered within a few minutes of my arrival. I had been carefully examining an impressive stock of quality antiquarian books presided over by a bustling, pompous little man in his sixties (I was just twenty) in Moseley village, Birmingham. Admittedly, my hair was long and I didn’t dress like the sort of man who might have the money to buy a first of Fielding’s Pamela, or whatever it was. The shop closed not long afterwards.

‘ Please don’t put them back in the wrong order ‘.
Or words to that effect. I wasn’t aware that the distinctly unprepossessing antiquarian volumes listing badly to the left on a shelf were in any meaningful order and said as much. Nevertheless, the shop owner fussed and flapped around, while I meekly left his interesting and pleasantly serendipitous North London store vowing never to return. I wrote him a facetious letter not long afterwards accusing him of obsessive behaviour and he replied almost immediately with some sort of explanation, which I still feel was suspiciously far too long at six pages , although thankfully it wasn’t written in green ink.

And here are some dealers’ remarks from Bookworm Droppings (1988)

I’m sorry, Sir, but without a title or an author I’m going to have difficulty finding it...

But why is it so expensive ?
Well, Sir, if you would like to sell us your house at its 1953 price, you could have the book with our compliments…

I expect you remember me !
No, Sir, Who are you ?

That comes to £342 and fifteen pence. Tell you what, forget the fifteen pence.

If you’re not going to buy a book, then get out of my shop!

No, I don’t think we can serve you at the moment, we’re doing a stock-take.

Have you got a copy of the Glastonbury Festival Handbook ?
We don’t stock that sort of thing here , sir.
( a reply from Heffer’s, Cambridge )

It’s the dirty shoes I’m looking at. Do you mind not coming in when it’s raining?

We no longer bother putting the opening times on the door---then it doesn’t matter if we’re not here !

Thanks to Shaun Tyas, compiler of Book-Worm Droppings, which is available, together with its sequel, More Book Worm Droppings, from him at Shaun Tyas/Paul Watkins Publishing , 1, High Street, Donington, Lincolnshire PE11 4TA. Google for more information.


Many thanks indeed Robin. I am reminded of Driffield's preferred answer to the bookshop question 'Are you looking for anything in particular?'. The bicycle- clipped Driff would respond (truthfully) 'I am looking for a £1000 book priced at less than a £100.' Sometimes he would reel out a bunch of weird subjects on which he was currently pursuing books 'Suicide, mourning, scatology, stuttering and golfing apparel...' That usually shut them up.

I recall one customer laboriously taking 6 books out of our window and presenting £5 for about £90 worth of books. He explained that the notice in the window said Books £5 for 6. We explained this referred to the books on the stall outside. Wacky baccy may have been ingested. Another asked if we sold Sunday papers, one lost soul wanted scratch cards...
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