by Elżbieta Piepiórka
Welcome to the second segment of my three-part series on the inner workings of a second-hand bookshop. Disclaimer: this one is a cynical breather, sandwiched between two slightly more profound pieces. Please bear in mind that all stereotypes are conflated, exaggerated and inflammatory, yet contain grains of truth. The following list details the seven types of customer that stay most memorably in my mind…
These creatures come in a surprising range, anything from a philosophy student to an actual hiker. They’ve got the hiking boots and rucksacks, usually empty. A camera swings from a string around their necks. They might keep money in an eyewear pouch, they’re definitely suspicious of contactless payments, and they will crack a joke about not wanting to get with the times. Three waterproof layers and a wool sweater (this does not exclude summers). They’re a blur of khakis and olive green and more often than not, they’re looking for books on natural history, theology, history, or transport. Tend to travel solitarily or in twos. Why are they prepared for an apocalypse? What could they possibly climb in the centre of York that’s higher than Clifford’s Tower? Who knows.
They’ve grabbed a book from the outside display, got one foot through the door, and literally chucked the book at your face. It doesn’t matter that you’re already serving a long queue of customers or that you’re holding a column of books. As soon as they realise they must wait, they stand right next to you, outside of the queue, blocking as many people as they can manage. They make a ritual display of all their favourite gasps of impatience, eye-rolling, and foot-stomping. The book they’re so impatient to possess is either a £1.99 children’s paperback, Orwell’s 1984, or the history of some British monarch. When you ask if they need a bag or a receipt, they say no. That’s right before they try to yank your copy of the receipt from the till – and fail – and exasperatedly ask for a bag. On their way out, they stop to look at some other books. It turns out they weren’t in a rush after all!
The Amateur Seller
Both you and the manager have told them multiple times that you don’t sell magazines, but that won’t stop them from trying to sell you some, because it’s a second-hand bookshop and the magazines are old. Then they pull out a book which their grandparent owned, a rare copy indeed. Except that it isn’t, and you can get a better copy on Amazon for less than a pound. They want £20 for it and that’s their final offer. They’ll call you twice more and come again next week.
They visit every day and they know the stock better than you do. Are you sure they’re not actually sleeping upstairs? They always have an extra cool look, mostly decade-specific. You feel like you know them, because you know what they’ve been reading every day for three years and you know what day they wear their extra nice tweed jacket. But you don’t. You’ve never even made direct eye contact. You’ve perfected smile number four and learned not to make any sudden movements. You’ve learned telepathy, memorised their pin, and written a training manual for new employees on how to deal with The Phantom – that’s just easier than trying to get them to engage in human interaction.
The opposite of The Phantom, you’ll never see them again. But now you know where their ancestors are from, why they’re allergic to the colour orange, what grades they got on their maths quiz in year two and why their housemate split up with their ex. It’s been three hours and by now you’re not even pretending that you’re listening. You’ve served thirty customers and picked up five phone calls. You’ve gone to lunch and come back. They’re still there, by your side, and they’re starting to mutter something about getting your phone number to continue this conversation.
They always come in screaming ‘it’sssss a libraryyyy’. Mandatorily must push all books to the very back of the shelf. Will amaze you with their enthusiasm and knowledge. Brighten up your day, until you see them reaching for the antiquarian section. In internet speak they are ‘10/10 chaotic good’. Often accompanied by a grandma, who’s asking if we have The Wonky Donkey.
The Genuinely Inspiring Human
As much as villains and odd characters stick in our minds, the world is full of heart-warming heroes. These are your fellow bibliophiles whose faces light up as they come in. Their relatives can claw and scream at them, but they’re on a different plane of reality. They’ll pick up a history book and tell you more interesting things on that topic in five minutes than the book ever could. They’ll casually mention that they have published their own books whilst raising a child, and keeping two other jobs. They’ll whisper that they should be in bed, because they’ve just had an operation, but the siren call of books was too seductive to ignore. The world will be alright as long as we still have people reading and loving literary culture.