RARE BOOK GUIDE - THE RUNNERS, THE RIDERS & THE ODDS
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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I overheard a pair of young women come into a Cardiff bookshop recently and say: "You don't hire fancy-dress costumes do you" in a manner that began as an enquiry and ended as a sort of rhetorical question. The owner managed to remain stoically courteous.
One Cecil Court bookshop owner gets fussy about customers one-handedly taking books from shelves. "Use both hands," he impores. When I saw him off-duty browsing another bookshop, he was aggressively pulling books with one hand(!). When I light-heartedly reminded him of his own motto... Well, if looks could kill. He muttered something in Latin.
One customer I had seemed surprised that a second-hand bookshop didn't sell bandages.
To be clear, he wasn't injured, he just wanted to buy bandages.
‘ Please don’t put them back in the wrong order ‘.
Was this Fisher and Sperr?
Mr Sperr approved of me after I said the one virtue of the Cup Final was that you could shop on a Saturday in peace and let me into the back rooms and gave me 10% discount. The discount was on his top-of-the-head prices, not the prices actually in the books, unfortunately.
My best one was a woman who came in to purchase a rosary & prayer for her mother who had passed on. Small rural shop sell everything along with the books.
A week later she returned with telling clerk her mother no longer needed them. Quick thinking clerk to her sorry since they had been in coffin no returned. She left. Several weeks later undertaker was in and asked what happened with the "heirlooms" I told him and we both had a good laugh. The kicker this person owns the local bank and is worth over 80 million.
There was the bookseller in Eastbourne who later moved to East Grinstead who fixed up his shop so that 75% of it was BEHIND the counter and the dreck was at the front. When asked if I could look at the more interesting stuff behind his head he asked: "Are you a dealer?" When I affirmed he replied: "All these are reserved. You can buy those." He pointed to the tat at the front of the shop. I made my excuses and left. A few months before he closed for good (surprise, surprise) I went back and waited for his lunch hour to begin in which he left behind an assistant. Carefully pretending to be Joe Public I asked to see a dustjacketed Agatha Christie behind the counter. It was priced ridiculously low and I made off like a bandit. Heaven knows if the assistant got it in the neck...
In the spirit of Shaun's wonderfully funny books we have been collecting Fresh Droppings here:
I went into a large Oxfam book shop last year and was stunned to see a (modern) copy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion prominently displayed.
I told the guy behind the till that this wasn't a good idea and was told 'we thought it would promote discussion'. I asked for it be taken down, explaining that it was a notorious antisemitic forgery and was told Oxfam wasn't in the business of censoring books!
I went home, sent a couple of emails, and it was gone by the afternoon - removed personally by a senior Oxfam person who went to the shop himself to do it.
Strange and disconcerting experience.
Edwin Moore should mind his own business. I suppose he'd turn down a cheap signed first of Mein Kampf? No, didn't think so.
Well Anon - I kind of think that challenging racist propaganda is the business of us all - and indeed I was thanked for my action by the charity.
As for a signed Mein Kampf, a signed Protocols would of course be even rarer - and just as fragrant. . .
. . .and of course though the point should be obvious, just to spell it out in case of miscomprehension: charity bookshops do not operate according to the same rules as the rest of the book trade. These rules normally privilege the charity books shop - I know of one charity book shop manager who actually boasted of taking trade away from 2nd-hand bookshops.
But with that privilege come boundaries. It is up to the normal run of 2nd-hand bookshops to decide what they should stock, sell or display as long as no law is being broken.
But nearly all charities these days have anti-discriminatory guidelines, guidelines which in this case were broken - well and truly broken. And there was not even an argument for antiquarian interest - as I said, it was a modern edition.
Censorship versus the sometimes dubious virtue of 'minding your own business' - this one could run...
This example can't run: selling the book broke the charity's own rules, so it had to come off the shelf, as the charity itself confirmed (and was very grateful for having it pointed out).
A more complex case would be if the charity was given an inscribed copy of (say) Mein Kampf in a box of donated books. I think in such a case you put it up for sale and put the money to good use. I was once left £200 by a teetotal and rabidly anti-Catholic aunt. I spent half on booze and gave half to the St Vincent de Paul Society!
Thanks Edwin-- I think that nails it. In the states St Vincent de Paul run good 'thrift' shops by the way...Have found some good book in them. N
My point (that this issue could run - not that I want it to) was only that these anti-discrimanatory guidelines can also be used to justify pulling copies of Huck Finn from the shelves as well as filth like the Protocols. Conversely, 'minding your own business' in the face of such anti-semitic garbage has had its own historical consequences of course...
Hi Anon - my argument really only applies to charity bookshops selling high-profile (and modern editions of) racist propaganda. And actually pushing it in the public's face for that matter
Re Huck Finn I join you in that battle. It is already - amazingly - the 4th most banned book in the US -
a situation which will probably get worse!
I expect to hear soon of a version of A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle which omits the reference to the 'Chinee' at the Burns Supper.
Anon, go and play in a chat room somewhere!
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