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The IOBA Standard is the journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association and covers the book world, with a special focus on the online used, out-of-print, and collectible bookselling markets.


“Yet More Bookworm Droppings

Book Store Lore

“Yet More Bookworm Droppings” by Stuart Manley

Back in the sixties, in an earlier life, I used to work night shift in a telephone exchange. For our younger readers, in these days of mobile phones, 3G and web communication, I will need to explain. In the not too distant past, none of this was available. Local calls were the only calls you could dial yourself. Everything else had to go through an operator—trunk calls or long-distance. And international calls were a major project, booked in advance.

Sounds so quaint, doesn’t it? Anyway, that is what we night telephone operators did—on receiving a call we would ask, “Number, please?,” the caller would give the town and number, and we would trunk the call through using cables and plugs, making out a bill chit while we were doing it.

Every now and again, instead of giving the number wanted, the caller would get flustered and start asking questions. We used to collect these conversations in a little black book for break-time entertainment. As operators in a telephone exchange, our favourite ran something like this: “Number, please?” “I want to make a telephone call.” To which the only reply is, “Well, you’ve come to the right place!”

When we started the bookshop, we soon began collecting customer sayings in the same way. This is not at all original—there are two excellent little books available called Bookworm Droppings and More Bookworm Droppings—hence the title of this piece.

Many of the pieces are variants of the classic, “I don’t know the title and I don’t know the author, but the story goes like this . . .,” but for booksellers they provide a constant source of light entertainment and on occasion, frustration.

Anyway, for better or worse, here is a selection from the Barter Books little black book—all of these are real—none are made-up.

-“Excuse me, I’m looking for Anne Frank’s Diary. I’m afraid I don’t know who the author is.”

-“Tell me, young man, is the price on the book what you have to pay?”

-Customer: “Excuse me, can you bring dogs into the shop?” BB: “Yes.” Customer: “Oh good—I’ll go and get my husband.”

-A Scotsman walked in on a Saturday evening, leaned over the counter and whispered, “You got any pornography?”

-“Excuse me, does anyone here know anything about books?”

-Customer: “What price are your books?” BB: “They vary.” Customer: “From what to what?”

-Customer: “Have you any talking books?” BB: “Yes—they are just over here.” Customer: “No, I mean books.” BB: “They talk—they’re tapes—that’s why they’re called talking books.” Customer: “No—Tolkien. I want Tolkien books.”

-“How long is a First Edition a First Edition for?”

-“I’m looking for a book. I don’t know if it exists but it may well be called … … …. Do you have it?”

-Within Barter Books there is, as one of a series of three murals, a 40-foot mural of famous writers (see Shakespeare, Dickens, Hemingway, Stevenson, Brontë, Austen, Eliot, Faulkner, Shaw, Joyce, Twain, Beckett, Woolf, and many more are all there. This led to a customer asking, “Are they all local people?”

-The more expensive books are kept in locked glass cases with a notice asking customers to enquire at the counter if they wish to examine the books therein. This led to a customer coming up to the counter to ask, “Do you have the key to the glass cases?” To which one of our less on-the-ball staff replied, “Do you know who wrote it?”

-Sad to relate, another member of our staff took the customer to the dinosaur section when asked for Roget’s Thesaurus.

-“Can you tell me who wrote Winston Churchill’s autobiography?”

-Customer: “Have you got any books on spirits?” BB: “As in ghosts?” Customer: “No—books.”

-Customer: “This book is secondhand?” BB: “Yes, all our books are.” Customer: “Was it new originally?”

-Customer: “I’m looking for a book about Hitler about a Reich. It’s the first or second or something.” BB: “That would be the Third Reich.” Customer: “Was there a first or second? Or any more than that?”

-Phone rings: “Could you look around the bookshop for a brown briefcase with a children’s book in it?” BB: “When did you think you left it?” “Sometime last year.”

-“It’s a poetry book. It’s about this size and it’s green with a tree on it. Do you have it?”

-Customer: “The name’s Appleby.” BB (after some time searching): “I’m sorry—I can’t find your card.” Customer: “Oh, I forgot—it’s Smith.” (Clearly a newlywed!)

-“I’ve got three old Shakespeare books I found in the attic—they’re First Editions.”

-Phone: “I’m ringing from Newcastle. Do you have the phone number of the café in Craster?” BB: “I’m sorry, but you’ve phoned Barter Books.” “Yes, I know that, but I thought you would be able to look it up for me.”

-Customer, on having some Reader’s Digest Condensed refused: “Oh, so you don’t take any old book?”

-“Hello, I’ve come to see the valuer to see if he can value some books. They are big and old. They are about Britain. They belong to my mother. We don’t want to sell them, we just want to know how valuable they are.”

-“Do you keep your books in the same place, or do you move them around? We were here last year and we saw a book and we’ve looked for it and it’s not there.”

-Phone rings: “When are you open till?” BB: “We’re open until 7pm.” “And do you close after that?”




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