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One of the first things I was told as a rookie bookseller many years ago was the following old chestnut: 


  • The Customer Is Always Right.


I was also told:


  • Don’t spend too much time on the toilet.
  • Don’t wear a short skirt if you’re doing a window display and
  • Nobody wants to see your armpits.


My UK Bookselling Diploma thus obtained, I was now clearly ready to hit the shop floor.


As far as The Customer Is Always Right was concerned, well it may have had its uses for customers (particularly those in the wrong) but it soon became apparent to me, as a bookshop worker, that if you use this as a starting point when dealing with customers, it just puts them all on an absurd pedestal.

It is almost impossible for any customer to live up to the stringent demands imposed on them i.e. that of Being Right.


Take the customer who:


  • puts a wet umbrella on top of your display table
  • insists on a refund on a book you’ve never stocked or
  • unleashes three unattended under-5s loose on your children’s section.


(or all three at the same time)


Whatever allowances you make as a shopkeeper, it would be pushing matters a bit to describe any of this behaviour as “right.”

Rightness is just a hell of a lot for customers to live up to.


So these days, in my own shop, I find it far more useful to adopt the following mantra when dealing with customers: 


The Customer Shall Not Cause Me Actual Bodily Harm


With this as my starting point, customers never fail to please:


Well, she was a tiresome, irritable, time-consuming pedant, but she didn’t punch my lights out. All is good.  


Expect very little from customers and your expectations will always be exceeded.

(Unless of course you do end up in a physical scrap, but thankfully this is pretty rare.)


Plus this now leaves us free to try and interpret what customers are really saying, without the absurd blanket of rightness getting in the way.  

With that in mind, I’ve called upon my many years of bookshop experience and intense customer-watching at close quarters (no, not in the pervy sense, those cameras are for security only) to bring you:  


Things customers say (and what they really mean):


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1: “Alright if I have a browse?”


To a non-bookseller, and probably a few booksellers too, this seems like a pretty innocuous request.

However, in my experience, people who ask if they can browse never buy anything. Never. Ever.

In fact, asking this question in the first place just seems to be shorthand for:


Can I hang around your shop reading your stock? I will not spend so much as a penny in here. 


Of course, plenty of people do enter bookshops with no intention of buying anything and then go on to make purchases, having clearly been knocked off their feet by where we stick stuff our bespoke curated hub, but these are never the people who told you they were just having a browse in the first place.


These are the “I wasn’t planning to buy anything, but then I found this!!” brigade.


And we love them!


No, the ask-if-I-can-have-a-browse type never goes on to become the I-can’t-leave-without-this type. That’s just the way it is.


That’s why, in my shop, asking whether you can have a browse has, over the years, become only slightly more welcome than asking if you can take a dump on the carpet.


If I’m honest, it’s not really the browsing that makes my heart sink, it’s the asking.

Plenty of people come into my shop and don’t buy anything and this is fine, but while they are in the shop, there is always that slight possibility that they might.

It is the frisson of possibility that these self-proclaimed browsers cruelly snuff out, that magical hope of a sale that accompanies anyone entering a shop.


“Will they? Won’t they?”


In this case, sadly, they very much won’t.

But they might stay for an hour anyway.  


If you get too many people asking to browse in one trading day, it can almost invite sympathy for the man who charged customers to look round his bookshop.


(Well, sympathy for the charging element anyway, maybe not for calling a customer “a pain in the arse.” Then again…..)    


It often transpires that those who ask if they can browse are actually waiting for another person, and this person can apparently be found in the actual shop they want to be in.


So your bookshop has been chosen as a kind of least unbearable alternative in which to kill time. Thanks.


  • Actual response to Alright if I have a browse?: “Feel free.”


  • Preferred response: “No. This isn’t a library. We don’t do taster sessions. Get like a real customer, or hit the road.”     


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2: “How are you coping with Amazon and everything?”


On the surface, this question suggests great concern for you and your Indie bookshop.

But don’t be fooled. These people are digging.

They want to hear about the struggle and the deprivation, about the small guy being crushed under the wheels of the large corporate machine.


They won’t be happy until they find out that you are sleeping in the storeroom, eating rats, and washing in public fountains, using a sycamore leaf as a flannel.  


Don’t give them the satisfaction.


Even if the above is actually all true, keep it sealed. Put on a happy front. It’s worth it.

Otherwise, before you know it, they will pass all information of this ilk onto their like-minded associates and you’ll get even more of the buggers coming in, asking you:


  • “How are things? Any better?”
  • “It must be very tough for you.”
  • “Is there anything I can do?”


Obviously every bookshop has to find its own way. A sale is a sale after all, but personally, I don’t want to sell books out of pity, or because my shop has become a cause.

This is likely to happen if you go down the sob story road when answering this kind of question.  


The other thing that occurs to me, when customers ask how I am “coping with Amazon” is that Amazon has been going since 1995. It’s not exactly new.


They might as well ask how we are coping with the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Black Death and the Peasants’ Revolt.


One or two staff absentees but nothing I can’t handle.


The majority of Indie Bookshops have opened during the Amazon era, so the question people should really be asking is:


How Are Amazon Coping With You?  


And you can tell them:


They clearly aren’t. Last I heard: their workers were urinating into bottles as an extreme time-saving measure.



The following question would actually show a much better understanding of the Indie Bookshop experience:


How are you coping with customers asking how you are coping?


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3: “I could go mad in here.”


This is often announced by people as they enter my shop.

Unfortunately, could is the operative word here.

Could but probably won’t.


People that do go mad (ie buy loads) in bookshops tend not to announce this fact beforehand.


So “I could go mad in here” basically means:


I’m a huge fan of books, a complete book person, but I’m only going to tell you this, I’m not going to actually prove it by buying books. In spite of being a complete book nut, your shop is not actually enough in itself to make me go nuts and buy books. 


Thanks so much.   


I recognise that people have financial constraints, luggage constraints and so forth, but then why say you could go mad in the first place?

Do people use this line when they enter restaurants, pubs or brothels?

I suspect not, but for some reason, they think it’s OK to say it in a bookshop. 


So I could go mad in here literally means: I will not go mad in here.


Plus, let’s face it: no-one likes a could.

How many hearts have been unlocked by an “I could love you”?  

Not many. 


No-one wants to know that:


  • Whitney Houston could always love you. (Sorry, Whitney. I need more commitment than that.) 
  • The Who could see for miles (but unfortunately it’s now clouded over a bit).
  • Marvin Gaye could hear it through the grapevine (but frankly he just can’t be bothered).
  • The Wurzels could have a brand new combine harvester. (They’ve taken it for a test drive, now just waiting for an insurance quote, before making the seller a slightly reduced offer).


No, we want decisive action at all times.


Go mad. Don’t go mad. We don’t care. But don’t tell us one thing, and then do the other.


(Although the other way round I could probably manage.)  



  • Actual response to I could go mad in here: “Book lovers always welcome!”


  • Preferred response: “Seriously. Do it. Just go completely fucking apeshit. Give us your credit card and let’s max the fucker to kingdom come.”


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4: “I’m wrecking the joint.”


When carelessly knocking books and other items onto the floor of a bookshop, it is imperative that the customer immediately announces:


I’m wrecking the joint.


This they must do in the most jovial manner possible.


This immediately absolves the customer of any actual responsibility for damages incurred.


I’m wrecking the joint. Ha ha. All part of the crazy slapstick world that is me! I’ll be spilling coffee on your books and sneezing on your pastries next. Someone should write a show about this. Am I right? Crazy.


Yes. I see what you did there. My damaged stock is now officially a funny thing.  


Outside the confines of a bookshop, I’m not sure how far you can really push the whole laughing-off of misdeeds?


Where does it all end?


  • I’m wrecking the joint (ha ha ha)
  • I’m throwing litter on the street (hee hee hee)
  • I’m reversing my car over your cat (ho ho ho)  
  • I’m in bed with your partner (heh heh heh)


I suppose we just have to put up with the joint-wreckers, and just grin and bear it.

They don’t do it on purpose. I hope not anyway.


  • Actual response to I’m Wrecking The Joint: “Don’t worry. It’s OK. No harm done.”


  • Preferred response: “Freeze, bitch. 3.99. Now, or the kid gets it.”


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5: “Do you have any signed Harry Potter?”


This has a variety of meanings and interpretations:


A) The customer thinks you are stupid and might have a signed Harry Potter book just lying around at the regular price.


B) The customer has spotted a glaring flaw in your shop. He is here to inform you that selling signed Harry Potters would be a much more effective way of making money.


C) The customer operates in a financial sphere way above your petty little shop with your 7.99s and your greetings cards. Pah!


D) The customer is using this as a segway into some tedious stories you don’t want to hear, possibly along the line of how he (and it is always a he) bought a signed Tolkien from a charity shop for 2.99 and a first edition Harper Lee belonging to the author with a letter to Truman Capote inside it, this one from a car boot sale in Hillingdon priced 50p etc etc…


E) The customer has a first edition Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (unsigned) and mistakenly thinks it is worth a lot.


  • Actual response to Do You Have Any Signed Harry Potter? : “No. Sorry.”


  • Preferred response: “Yes I do, but you’re gonna need at least two grand up front to even have this conversation with me.”


See also:


That JK Rowling. She’s worth a bob or two. Eh Eh. Wouldn’t mind a bit of that, I can tell you etc…..

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6: “Have you got……….?  It’s a bestseller.”


Here, you are being informed by the customer that the book being asked for is very widely known.


In fact, you being asked for this book is pretty much akin to a pet shop owner being asked if he’s heard of “a cat” or a milkman if he’s heard of “milk”.


The customer expects instant product recognition and will probably sigh in disbelief or roll her eyes if you even begin to look anything up on your system.  


This question has the distinct whiff of:


I don’t normally come into your shop, but just this once, I’m stooping, because you might actually have heard of it.


The customer of course is unaware that quite a few “bestsellers” sell in great quantity precisely because they are available in Tescos at half-price and therefore won’t necessarily be stocked in Indie Bookshops in the first place.

Plus these days, any book that sold ten copies abroad somewhere tends to be marketed as an “International Bestseller.”  


“Bestseller” has no quantifiable meaning.


If you put the many thousands of bestsellers, at any one time, all together, and then order them all by sales, most of them would cease to be bestsellers in an instant. Fact. (ahem)


  • Actual response to Have you got……….?  It’s a bestseller: “Sorry, no, but I’d be more than happy to order if for you.”


  • Preferred response: “It ain’t a bestseller round ‘ere, darling. Now beat it.”


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7: “I’ll definitely come back for that.”


This means: You will never see me again. For some reason I am incapable of telling you I just don’t want it.


When customers ask if they can have a look at a specific book and then they don’t like it, or it’s not what they thought it was, or it’s too expensive, that’s fine.


It really doesn’t bother me.


I am not the author, the author’s sister, the publisher or the cover designer.


I didn’t hand-stitch the book together in my spare time. 


I’m not sure why so many customers have to say they will “definitely come back for it.”    


Are they worried that we might try to convince them to buy it? 


What do you mean, you don’t want it? This book is a tense, surprising and elegantly-crafted historical novel of real depth, for fans of Sarah Perry, which will grip you from the outset with it’s heartwarming perceptive and refreshingly-unique prose, being both a haunting, brooding feminist parable which I read in an afternoon, unable to tear myself away, and a glittering, seductive and utterly enthralling magnum opus about identity and the hidden power within, from an author with an infectious passion for the human condition, whose craftsmanship and sure-footed prose ensure a satisfying conclusion, and who will surely win the Booker Prize one day, if not for this beautiful, poignant symphony of memories, dreams and transient realities (part fairy tale, part coming-of-age story and part revenge tragedy with literary connections), then for a future work of similar mesmerising grace, solace and epic beauty. Come back and like this novel. Now! Oh, they’ve gone. 


Actual response to I’ll definitely come back for that: “Brilliant. We’ll see you later then.”


Preferred response: “Gosh. I only have one copy. Why not pay for it now? Then I can keep it for you until you’re ready to collect it. I wouldn’t want to disappoint you by selling out.”


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8: “Do you have a copy of…..? I’ve tried everywhere.”

(See also:)

“You did well there. Foyles/Blackwells/WHSmith/Waterstones don’t have this in stock.”


Both of these are tantamount to admitting:


“You are my fifth-choice bookshop.”


As spectacular misfiring compliments go, these are right up there.


As a small bookshop, obviously we like nothing better than being openly compared to larger chain bookshops.


Perish the thought that we might succeed on our own terms.  


Plus, who wouldn’t enjoy being patted on the head for stocking a hugely popular book that a large shop doesn’t have?

All this does really is act as an unwelcome reminder of just how many copies the large shop must have sold, in order to be out of stock in the first place.

Now you can happily compare this information with the measly two copies your small shop has managed to shift.

Oh, and one of them was to a staff member. 


Great. Thanks.  


What is clear here, is that if any other bookshop currently had this book in stock, then be under no illusions, this person would definitely not be in your shop.

You are relying on all other shops selling out of stock before this person enters your premises.


Mind you, if you’re an optimist, you could call this an extra sale, as this person is not really your customer in the first place.

You’ve stolen one from the other side.

Maybe you’ll get promoted to fourth-choice bookshop next time.



Actual response to: Do you have a copy of…..? I’ve tried everywhere : “No. I’m really sorry. I could try and order it.”

Preferred response: “Sorry, no sloppy seconds in this shop.”


Actual response to: You did well there. Waterstones/Foyles/Blackwells/WHSmith don’t have this in stock: “Thank you. 8.99 please.”

Preferred response: “Thank you. 8.99 plus 5 pounds for the swear box for mentioning another bookseller by name. That’s 13.99 please.”   


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9: “I’ve come in for that 60 quid leather-bound Robert Frost book/stuffed badger that you had in the window.”


This basically means: I’m in the wrong shop, possibly even the wrong town/city.


People do get absurdly convinced about things they claim to have seen in shops. 


I’ve had customers earnestly tell me about entire sections they have encountered in my shop:


You used to have books on traction engines. Just there. No you did. Maybe before your time.


Some customers get quite put out and agitated if you try and correct them.


It might well be that their sanity is very fragile. One small knock and the whole edifice will collapse:


 If there was no stuffed badger, then maybe my partner doesn’t love me, and my children didn’t move abroad for the weather, and perhaps my whole cloche hat and patterned tights look is not as kookily à la mode as I like to believe, in fact my whole life could well be meaningless. 


Do I want all this on my conscience? Not really.


I tend to let these things go and pretend the customer was right:


What a shame. We sold that book on Rheintalflug Seewald Aircraft Markings just this morning. How unlucky.  


Though I’ve never had a stuffed badger in my window, admittedly I do sometimes put props in there to accompany particular books, so perhaps this is not as far-fetched as it might seem.   

My bloodied corkscrew, model train and bargain booze display for Girl On The Train was the stuff of legend.

It took years to clean up, mind you, and I did receive mild abuse from both a lady accusing me of spoilers, and a model train enthusiast.


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10: “Do you have a clean copy?”


Your average Joe (or Joanne) will think nothing of touching thoroughly-communal filth-encrusted door handles or handling germ-riddled grubby banknotes on a daily basis.

They will also be more than happy to go into clothes shops and try on items that may well have been in very recent direct contact with the private regions of complete strangers.

The minute they enter my bookshop however, they will insist on asking for a clean copy.


Sometimes the book in question has only been on the shelf for a matter of minutes.

Often, the same customer will have touched countless books themselves, but then still want a clean copy, unsullied by others.


OK, it’s understandable if the book is in some way damaged or marked, and yes, on rarer occasions I might actually have a clean copy too, or at least one that hasn’t been out, but more often than not, I do feel like saying to these people:


Yes, you’re in luck. I keep a replica of my entire shop on another floor, sealed off from the public for this very purpose.


There are certain types of book where the whole clean copy issue is a problem: art books, photography books and pop-up books for instance.


People will want to look at a copy but not necessarily buy the copy they are looking at.


This is where you can start to disappear down the whole display copy rabbit hole:


  • It’s expensive to have a display copy for every title you want to sell.


  • When you have one display copy, people start to think this might be the case with other titles too. They then adopt a less careful browse-and-destroy mode, until a lot of your stock resembles display copies anyway.


At which point, they will probably ask you:


Do you have a clean copy?


Er. That is the clean copy.


Nowadays, when people ask for a clean copy, I tend to tell them that I’ve only just put the book out, whether it’s the case or not.


What they want here I believe is reassurance, as opposed to say, truth.  


Besides which, quite a few people come into contact with a book on its journey from publisher to wholesaler to shop in the first place.

There is no such thing as an untouched book, no ‘immaculate conception’ equivalent in publishing.

A book does not wondrously materialise onto a display stand in a shaft of white light.    


The clean copy enquiry is a close relation of the following question: 


“Do I buy the one that’s out?”


But I see this as a good thing.

Here is someone quite possibly new to your shop (and we all like a new convert) but a bit confused by the ways of the Indie.

They just need a little bit of guidance.

They are probably thinking:


How does it all work? I could just grab the copy that’s out, but then that leaves a gap on the shelf.  It’s all so confusing. What happens to the gap? Should I fill the gap? What happens if someone else wants the same book? Should I tell somebody this is the last copy? What are the rules? Should I stay or should I go? How soon is now? Do fries go with that shake? Dude, where’s my car?


And so forth.


This customer is possibly used to bookshops that will display huge piles of books rather than single copies.  

And faced with a huge pile of books, the solution is very easy: to get a clean copy, a savvy customer will choose any copy but the top copy, won’t they?  


Ah. Maybe not so savvy after all.


This customer is completely unaware of that old bookseller trick, where we regularly tend to a pile of displayed books by switching the order the books are in.

So, in fact, our savvy customer is more than likely to be actually buying the top (thumbed) book, now nestling innocently mid-pile.


Cue evil laughter from behind the counter.      


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11: “Is that your son/daughter?”


Some idiot customers are under the demented illusion that my staff members are a whole generation younger than me.

Did I mention that these people are idiots?

They clearly need an eye test. Yes, all of them.


Of course, this is entirely my fault for hiring staff members who could easily pass as 11 year olds.

What can you do?


So there we have it.


If you are thinking of opening an Indie bookshop (and you better hurry up before Waterstones beat you to it), and will perhaps be encountering Book Customer Speak for the very first time, then do please feel free to use this blogpost as an invaluable cut-out-and-keep beginner’s dictionary and phrase book.


You’re welcome!

4 comments on “Things Customers Say and What They Really Mean”

  1. I once had a customer, upon being told that I was closing my doors that year because I was losing too much money, tell me for a good 10 minutes how wonderful my shop was, how much time they love to spend in here, how they could spend thousands in here but then wouldn’t be able to buy food, how they love books so much they buy them all the time.
    This same customer used to spend ages in my shop about once a week, telling me these same things each time they came in.
    They never spent any money. I even told them (after the food comment) that if every person in the catchment area bought one book per year, I’d be fine and able to stay open, and they still insisted that they couldn’t buy loads of books but they’d love to.

  2. Wow what a change from respectful hush book sold proudly- the ‘yes sir’ sixties to the customer a live in comedian! What happened. A book sold in a retinue of waiting living stories.. waiting like you do.
    Keep busy old fruit.

  3. I once had a customer convinced he’d seen a rooster in my shop… convinced. “I buy everything in this shop sir and we’ve never had a stuffed rooster. We have a mog the cat, a Gruffalo, a lion but no rooster…”
    “Call me when you’ve found it.”

    Have also had plenty of “Is it ok if I have a browse?” very disconcerting. I thought it was just me! I often feel like sticking signs up saying there will not be a shop to browse in/take pictures of books in and then buy them on the un-nameable website that is trying to lord over the consumer market of every product in the land etc. if nobody buys things in the shop!!!!

  4. Before I took ownership of The Bookshop five years ago I was a very keen “browser”, that is I spent hours looking round bookshops without necessarily buying anything. This is one of the delights in visiting a bookshop – not going with any definite purchase in mind but simply looking at the shelves and being pleasantly surprised at finding a title you know you are going to really enjoy reading. So I have no objections to anyone spending time in the shop and not buying anything. A bookshop is not the same thing as a butchers or bakers! (Except of course that we do have to sell some stuff in order to survive!)
    I too get annoyed at the “Amazon Shopper”, get very annoyed at the customer (actually not a customer because they never end up making a purchase!) who regards the price on the back of the paperback as merely a starting point for negotiation and sometimes despair of the customer who wants to order a book but has no idea of the author and only the very vaguest idea of the title. But, heh, that’s the GBP* for you!

    * GBP = Great British Public

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