Of all the myriad business relations in our modern society, the one between book buyer and bookseller remains the least disturbed by modern technology. The essential relationship is still one-to-one.
Bookselling is not a service the average supermarket manager is preared to give. Indeed, only a dedicated ookseller could take such clients in his
stride, regard them with affection, and know that they also must serve those who stand and browse.
It also requires tact, and sometimes a delicate lack of curiosity. Bruce Surtees of The Book Cellar in Toronto recalls a regular customer whose book-buying habits were odd, to say the least. "With a book in his hands," Bruce says, "he would have a far-away look in his eyes. And then, he'd dive his nose right into the book, and rub his face up and down into the page. After that, if he liked the
smell, I guess, he bought it. He was a very nice man. He just had that peculiarity." Did he ever explain his actions? "We never mentioned it to him."
It's not always bizarre eccentrics, though. Specialized bookstores enjoy specialized problems. The Village Bookshop in Edmonton is devoted to children's books. You might not think this would be problematic, but it is. There was the case of the grandfather who wanted a good illustrated edition of Grimm's Fairy Tales for his grandchildren. He bought a splendid new version, freshly translated from the original.
Unfortunately, the translator was a trifle too faithful to the original for the grandfather's tastes, especially when he sat down to read aloud The Story of the Fisherman and His Wife, which began, "Once upon^a time, there was a fisherman and his wife who lived in a pisspot by the sea." That may have been more accurate than calling it a "hovel," but the grandfather seemed strangely concerned about such academic scrupulousness.
The manager, Diane Woodman, faces these problems all the time. Part of her job, she feels, is to anticipate such crises; but she simply missed that particular offending word. Some customers must be warned in advance. "In the original edition of Red Riding Hood," she says, "Red Riding Hood is eaten up. That's it. End of story. People have brought that one back, too. They don't want Little Red Riding Hood to be eaten up by the wolf." Her experience suggests that the well-stocked bookstore should always provide a choice of endings.
Some customers don't seem to realize that the neighbourhood bookstore can't stock everything in print. (Last year, over 40,000 new books were published in the U.S. alone.) And naturally enough, the book customer can't be expected to remember all their titles.
Donna Esnor of Readmore Books in Halifax remembers a typical customer's request: "I had a woman come into the store one day and say, 'I don't know what it's called or who wrote it, but it's got a picture of a police car on the cover.' " Donna found it. Ring up another sale.
Less successful was another customer who wanted a book but only knew that it was orange. No title, no author, not even a glimmering of the subject matter, just an orange book, faintly remembered.
The customer would know it when she saw it, she said. Like the Holy Grail, it eluded discovery. No sale.
Coles Notes, Canada's gift to the anxious students of the world, seem to pose a problem for British book buyers. One particular bookseller over there has had to deal with two odd requests: "Have you got the coalman's notes on 'The Tempest'?" And "Do you have Cold's Notes on 'A Winter's Night'?" Both seem
to reflect the eternal problem of keeping warm in the British climate.
That reminds us of the book buyer in Vancouver who wanted the complete drawings of Mallory. By a process of deduction, that came out to be Beardsley's illustrations for Mallory's Morte d'Arthur. For some reason, booksellers savour the choicely garbled request, like the customer who wanted a title by "Andrew Glide." Some linguistic juggling deciphers that as André Gide.
Malapropisms seem to be the lot of booksellers. Elgin Blair of Insight Books I in Mississauga, near Toronto, was asked !
for the paperback edition of Richard Rohmer's "Exhiliration." Blair didn't ask if it were spelt with a double x. On a previous occasion he dealt with a customer's demand for "that book written by a bunch of rabbits" (Watership Down).
It's hard to think of a bookstore without browsers, and most booksellers have a love-hate relationship with them.
After all, they may yet buy something one of these days. But even so, it strains patience at times. A Toronto bookseller tells of some of his regular browsers who spend a hour or two at a time, reading whole chapters of books, even dogearing their places so they can find them again the next day. "They get especially huffy," the manager says, "if we sell 'their' copy of the book."
The audacity of the practised browser may eventually inspire a little guerilla warfare by the beleaguered bookstore owner. In this particular shop there was a clerk who smoked cigars (back in the days before Toronto's anti-smoking bylaw). "He went up," the owner recalls fondly, "and blew cigar smoke directly into the face of this one browser who'd been there for hours. The guy was wrapped in a cloud of smoke. It didn't faze him. He just stood there, with his eyes watering, and read through it. Finally, we spoke to him, and he said he always read a book first to see if he liked it. If he liked it, he bought it. He did finally buy some things. But not too much.
He obviously didn't like everything he read."
It wouldn't be right to leave the impression that only book buyers are out of touch. A clerk reading through orders received in the mail called out to a colleague: "Have we Ulysses by Joyce in stock?"
"Joyce who?" came the reply.
Gerald Levitch is a Toronto-based columnist and broadcaster whose special interests are music and books.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.