Confessions of a Bookseller

A full colour photograph of the interior of a secondhand bookshop, showing rows of shelving packed with books in multiple categories and subjects.
Photo Credit: Tomas Anunziata from Pexels

Lifting a notebook from the surface of his battered 1960s partners’ desk, Marcus Cruikshank eased back in his ox-blood coloured leather Chesterfield captain’s chair and, stroking his new ginger goatee, read aloud the words he had written moments before: ‘Confessions of a Bookseller: A Taxonomy of Bookshop Customers.’ Yes, I think that might work well enough, he mused. This was his fourth attempt at a title for what he intended to become a published book. Perhaps more than one? He rather liked the sound of the title, the first part being reminiscent of the series of bawdy British sex comedy films of the 1970s he had seen on DVDs starring Robin Askwith and based on the books by Christopher Wood. Indeed, Marcus had two of Wood’s books for sale in his antiquarian bookshop, though he thought he might struggle to sell them in these more enlightened times. Such bawdy films, like their seaside postcard equivalents, were relics of the past, which realisation caused him to state, ‘Geez, Askwith must be in his late sixties or early seventies now?’ to an invisible audience — the bookshop not due for opening just yet. The thought that Askwith might even be dead made Marcus a tad gloomy, mindful as he was of his own advancing years… although only forty-two. Tempus fugit! A season for all things. ‘This won’t do,’ he proclaimed aloud, deciding a distraction and a stretch of his stiff legs were necessary.

He rose from his chair and sauntered across to the small kitchen area that was recessed off to one side of the dark, dusty, and dishevelled rear multifunctional shop space he and his brother, Albert, had labelled bookshop-cum-office-cum-kitchenette, and switched on a dirty jug kettle. Within five minutes, he was returning to his desk with a chipped and stained novelty mug of steaming tea — bearing the inscription ‘Write on’ and an image of an antiquarian typewriter — to continue contemplating his ‘confessions.’

Marcus read his book title again and returned to sharing his thoughts aloud. ‘So, I rather like this mischievous and attention-grabbing main title. And the subtitle appears to add counterbalance with its scholarly feel, giving a nod, as it does, to that branch of science concerned with the principles of classification. And what is being classified in this case? Well, the people who come into my bookshop, of course; my customers. Although they’re not all customers, are they, as in paying customers? To be sure, they’re of all shapes, sizes, and kinds, and pop in for many reasons, which is the whole point of this book I’m planning, isn’t it? To educate the world about the odd mix of people who cross my threshold.’

He grabbed his Uni-ball pen and started scribbling in his notebook, intent on identifying the main customer types. ‘Should be a snap; after all, I’ve been at this game for two decades.’ At the elapse of just over thirty minutes, Marcus put down his pen and read through each scrawled entry. In keeping with the taxonomy concept and being a student (albeit a poor one) of Latin, he had endeavoured to apply a genus to each customer type. He had arrived at something that was not an exhaustive list, but it would do for now, he thought. I’ll add more material and check for accuracy later. Well now, what do we have?

1: Peritum (Expert). Applied with mocking intent to the individual who is blatantly not an expert at all, but someone with scant knowledge (of the subject in hand) who has appointed themselves an expert and decided to inflict their lack of understanding on others. It is my misfortune that I cannot escape the genus Peritum; I work here, after all. However, I always have time for a genuine expert, of the species Verus Peritus, although their company only extends, in most cases, to sitting on shelves between the covers of a book, rather than in front of me as flesh and blood. How refreshing it is when this rare breed visits in person!

2: Iuvenis Familiae (Young Family). The key sub-groups here are: dog-tired parents, or Canis Lassus (who turn up with their sprogs so to have them distracted long enough to secure some all-too-brief peace and rest); the forsaken child, or Puer Derelictus (dumped by a parent who’ll be ‘back in a minute’); aspirational parents, or Ambitiosa Parentes (who attempt to force their child to read beyond their ability or tackle a subject the child has a zero interest in); then again, book-loving kids, or Liberi Amantes (who are unfortunate to have non-reading, non-aspirational parents).

3: Amator Maleficarum (Lover of Witches) or Occultist. Guaranteed to make a strong impression, or none, as there appears to be no middle ground into which (or witch?) they fall. This genus of customer is best classed under the umbrella term, occultist. Subgroups are the dark artist — MIB or Homo apud Nigrum (man in black); the conspiracy theorist, or Coniuratio Theoristae (often asking for books about the onetime owner of one half of the Glengower Free House (Snowdon House) in Aberystwyth, the obstetrician Dr (Sir) John Williams, accused of being Jack the Ripper, the 1888 London serial killer); the spiritualist — tarot readers/astrologists/Feng Shui fans/spiritual healers and similar; the ghost hunter, or paranormal investigator.

4: Homo Desidiosus (Idle Man). Most often men, but sometimes women and adolescents. These ‘customers’ are adept at appearing to be embroiled on a sacred mission in search of some great tome but are just loitering. Often, also, someone not disguising their intentions at all, and again only passing the time, i.e., mooching without intent to buy. Subcategories include the browser of erotica, or Pasco Erotica (men, women, and adolescents, but with different behavioural traits); the loiterer, or Cessator (general browser) without resolve to buy; the bored husband (terebravisse virum) or wife (terebravisse uxorem) impatiently waiting for their spouse to finish browsing and making their purchase, while engaging in sighing/time-checking/playing games on their mobile phone and offering pleading and jaded looks to the latter; the self-published author, or Auto-edidit Auctor donning their marketing hat and pushing their too-good-to-be-missed ‘gem,’ which they guarantee will fly — as you wish they would.

5: Magna Persona (Loud Person). It would be reasonable to assume that bookshops are not unlike libraries, or museums, or churches, or chapels of rest, in that their patrons do not appear to question the need for silence and an ‘invisible’ presence. My bookshop seems to be an exception to that rule! Types: the whistler (what this might be in Latin I do not know, or for any of the others in this category!) You know the kind — they feel obliged to whistle tuneless, unrecognisable, loud ditties as they wander about, ignorant of the irritation they are causing in their wake. The sniffer. More irritating (yes, it is possible) than the whistler, the sniffing/non-tissue using customer snuffles with metronomic precision every few seconds. Add to the list of ‘incurables’ the hummer (a little more tuneful than the whistler); the farter (both audible and silent types. With the former, you have been audibly pre-warned to take evasive action; with the latter, they ambush you without mercy); the tutter, who is never happy with anyone or anything, and spends their (one hopes, brief visit) shaking their head and issuing disapproving clucking sounds from their mouth.

Marcus was firm in his view that there were, without question, other customer types ripe for addition — including those who would fall into a catch-all category — but he’d fix that in time. He chuckled at the prospect of having copies of his book available in the shop and being able to observe his customers as they picked one up and scrutinised it. What surprise or indignation might they show! He considered whether he ought to use a pen name so no obvious connection could be made between the book and himself, but his ego would not allow it; anyway, where would the fun be in that? Imagine the amusement he would have once his patrons knew the game was up; that he was aware of their motivations and character traits! Then again, the thought struck him that out there, somewhere, some smart alec had already trumped him and written a book about opinionated, idiosyncratic antiquarian bookshop proprietors. Or would once they’d read his book.

He sauntered through into the front reception and display area of his shop, still cradling his cup of now lukewarm tea. ‘It’s a funny old game,’ he said, in sage-like fashion. In his twenty-plus years in the trade, he was likely to have met every kind of customer there was, well deserving of their place in the hall of fame that was to be ‘Confessions of a Bookseller: A Taxonomy of Bookshop Customers.’ He sighed, then flipped the door sign round to announce he was ready for the next round.

J.P. Priestley

(First published on Simily.co)

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