Stranger than fiction

On weird things people say in bookstores

Photo illustration by Sarah MacKinnon

It turns out so many weird things are said in bookstores that an entire book has been written about it. The 25-year-old author, Jen Campbell, says it happened by accident.

Campbell experienced her fair share of odd conversations at Edinburgh Bookshop, where she worked while she was doing her master’s in English literature at Edinburgh University. After graduating, she moved to London, where she now works at an antiquarian bookstore. “Old books seem to inspire a whole new level of strange requests,” she says.

One day, after a man walked in and asked her if she was sure the “bookshop was a bookshop and not somebody’s house,” Campbell decided to post some of the quotes on her blog. The links to those blog posts were tweeted and retweeted by people in the book industry. “People seemed to find them funny,” she says.

Campbell was at work when a publisher called, saying he and his colleagues thought the quotes were great and wanted to turn them into a book. Weird Things People Say in Bookshops was published in the U.K. in April and has recently been published in North America as Weird Things People Say in Bookstores.

Campbell asked for submissions from booksellers across North America, and stories from Canadian bookstore owners and sellers made it into the book. “I’m not sure how many submissions we got, but there were a lot,” she says. One of the Canadians quoted is Christopher Sheedy, who runs Re: Reading, an independent bookstore in Toronto. “Someone mentioned her tweets and said I should read them,” says Sheedy. “I laughed out loud when I saw them.”

He has his own collection of weird encounters. “I had this 19-year-old come in and ask, ‘Do you have a book called Tequila Mockingbird? It’s about drinking and it’s for my dad.’ ” This has happened a lot, says Sheedy. Another common occurrence is when a person comes in and says, “I read a book in the 1960s and don’t remember the name, but I think the colour of the cover was blue.”

“I get a lot of variations of that,” he says, as do most booksellers. He has had every type of customer, from a man who said, “I’ve never read a book. Where should I start?” to a woman who came in on a Saturday and asked, “Are you open on Saturdays?”

Campbell recounts a male customer asking which book he should read on the subway to get girls to sleep with him. Another wanted a book with real photographs of dinosaurs. Campbell’s book is so popular it made the Sunday Times bestseller list for five weeks, and when I went to Type Books in Toronto, it was sold out. Manager Sarah Ramsey has been a bookseller for 11 years. “I have heard everything you can imagine, and when I read that book I had a total sense of déjà vu.” Once she had a customer who wanted to take War and Peace on a beach vacation. “He was really disappointed when he saw how large it was and wanted to know if it came in two parts, so he could carry it around in his pocket. I was like, ‘Well, the peace part would be very small, and then you’d still have the problem of lugging around the war part.’ ”

Jenn Hubbs, who runs Curiosity House, an independent bookstore in Creemore, Ont., has been asked strange questions too. “A patron came in and wanted a book on how to arrange his own burial in his backyard, and he wanted it to be ‘natural and organic.’ ”

Another wanted an Indian cookbook that didn’t include spices. “In those moments, you just have to keep a straight face and say, ‘Let me see what I can do.’ ”

Campbell says she always tries to help customers find whatever book they’re looking for, no matter how little information they have, or how adamant they are that a book is called something entirely different from its title. “Silly questions are not hard to handle—it’s the rude and unpleasant ones that are difficult.” Campbell is the one laughing now. She has already signed a deal for a sequel, due next year.

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