Adventures in the Book Trade (Part 3)

In which The Author and his friends have some mischief

A Facebook friend of mine is named Jen Campbell. She’s one of the few cull survivors I haven’t actually met in person (see With Unfriends Like These.) She only made it through the night of the long knives by virtue of one thing: she’s written a book entitled Stupid Things People Say in Bookshops. I’ve yet to see a finished copy, but I think I’ll be able to relate to a lot of her and her contributors’ overhearings.
But it’s not just customers who say stupid things in bookshops. I remembered this particular incident yesterday, while listening to the news that the GCSE results were out.
Like the previous instalment of these Adventures, this one also relates to an old TV advertisement. Dating from 1986, here’s Maureen Lipman as ‘Beattie’ (or ‘BT’ – geddit?) ringing her grandson to see how his exams had gone:

When I was in Blackwell’s I worked with a lovely girl named Kathryn, who was famous for having no knowledge of Maths or any of the Sciences. She did, however, have a degree in Theology. (You can see where this is going, I’m sure…)
My Iraqi pal Maz and I worked for some time approaching Xmas 1989 in the old B&S Spares shop in Merthyr. It was a double-edged sword, really. It had the advantage that I could just hop on the bus and get to work, instead of having to mess about with buses and trains. Unfortunately, it meant that everyone in the Heads of the Valleys catchment area thought 99p was the standard price for a new paperback. Now, of course, remainder shops are commonplace. Every town has a branch of The Works. The one in Aberdare is currently selling The Chambers Dictionary for £9.99 instead of the £40 cover price. (Don’t get too excited, though, crossword fans – it’s the 11th edition, not the 12th, which Azed currently uses!)
At the time, though, they were a bit of a novelty. Maz and I spent all day huddled in front of a Calor gas heater, sinking endless cups of coffee just to keep warm, surrounded by unstable mountains of books which would have buried us without trace if someone had nudged them with a walking stick. We were also sick of the colour yellow by the time we came to close it down. Whoever thought of painting the entire shop daffodil yellow must have had some serious psychiatric disorder.
But we had a good laugh while we were there. Above all, Maz was intrigued by my stories about Kath’s lack of numeracy skills. When they finally met, at the Xmas party, apparently he introduced himself and said, ‘Oh, you’re the girl with the ology. You’re a scientist!’
Back at the Polytechnic, Kath and I were putting some returns together one quiet afternoon. In the good old days, we used the Publishers Association yellow forms, which needed to be written in a firm hand to get through the three carbonless copies to the bottom sheet. You’d fill in the quantity, ISBN, title, author, retail price, the subtotal for each line, and the grand total at the bottom of the form. Kath was working on a pile of law books. I know they were law books, because Sweet & Maxwell were one of the first publishers to do away with silly price-points like £14.99, rounding up instead. So, Kath had packed up ten copies of a £30 textbook, and was doing the paperwork a few yards from where I was working on another box. She’d just about completed the yellow form when I heard the immortal words, ‘Steve, have you seen the calculator?’
I reminded her that one didn’t actually need a calculator to multiply 30 by 10. For a moment the Girl With the Ology teetered on the point of becoming a true mathematician before returning to the Safe Zone.
Kath and I once played a great trick on Richard, our branch manager. Once again we were packing up returns, and the floor was strewn with boxes and that weird polystyrene packing material that looks like miniature prawn crackers. Richard was due back from lunch, so we decided we’d fill a box with nothing but polystyrene, and tape it up as he came back in. Our timing was perfect. He’d just come back onto the shop floor when we called him over. Kath and I each took one end of the box and really struggled to lift it.
‘Give us a hand with this, please, Rich,’ I said. ‘I think it might be too heavy for the couriers.’ Richard braced himself to take the strain. Kath and I winked at each other and tossed the box into his arms. If we’d had CCTV in those days, the image of Richard’s face would have been priceless.
In Dillons, we had a large cardboard cut-out of the Michelin Man, which came as part of the new travel guides promotion. When we took the display down we left the figure in Goods-in as an unofficial motivational tool. Every day, the Michelin Man would have a new speech bubble pinned to it: ‘Have you taken stock out?’, for example, or ‘Take your mug back to the staff room!’ (The back area behind Goods-in was the smoking area.) One day, nobody had bothered to add a speech bubble to it. Helen mentioned it while we were walking in, and I told her that he was having ‘a bit of a Zen day.’
Later that morning, she asked me a question to which I didn’t have an answer. I replied, ‘To quote the Michelin Man, —’ and pulled a silly face. She laughed so much she fell over one of the plinths on the island fixtures, in the middle of a shop full of customers.
Lisa was terrified of spiders, and we decided to exploit this fact when a child left a plastic spider in the kids’ section. We used fishing line to hang banners and display material in the windows, so we had a big reel of it tucked behind the counter. A couple of us fixed the spider to the end of the line and gently lowered it over the banisters, so that it descended very slowly to the back desk downstairs. Lisa was sitting there, engrossed in some ordering, when it entered her field of view. That was another moment which called for CCTV.
My cruellest prank, though, was aimed at Carolyn. She was a student who only worked Saturdays, so I used to see her every other week. Her love life was unstable at best, and every time I saw her it turned out that she’d upgraded her last boyfriend for someone else. Anyway, it was April 1st and I was in Goods-in clearing a backlog of small parcels. I always had the radio on in there – for timechecks as much as anything – so when the 10am news bulletin came on I popped my head round the door of the shop.
‘Carolyn,’ I called. ‘You’re in Swansea Institute, aren’t you?’
‘Yes,’ she replied. (I knew full well that she was a student there, of course.)
‘Oh, right,’ I said, pretending to be worried. ‘It’s just been on the news that there’s a case of suspected meningitis in Morriston Hospital. They’re asking students at the Institute to look out for the symptoms.’
One of the methods by which meningitis can spread, I warned her, was by kissing an infected person. This (as far as I knew) was total bollocks,but it was enough to scare the pants of a 19-year-old student. For the rest of the morning, I kept nipping out onto the shopfloor and giving her fictitious updates on the spread of the outbreak. She’d almost managed to convince herself that she was displaying all the classic symptoms when lunchtime arrived. I was on my way downstairs when I looked back at her and said, ‘Oh, by the way – April Fool!’
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