The 7 types of people you find in bookshops, from self-appointed experts to furtive loiterers

Shaun Bythell
·6-min read
Inspired by some of his more demanding customers, Shaun Bythell reveals the inner workings of bookshop regulars  - Janna IIvonen
Inspired by some of his more demanding customers, Shaun Bythell reveals the inner workings of bookshop regulars - Janna IIvonen

In 20 years of running a second-hand bookshop in Wigtown, Dumfries and Galloway, one thing has worn me down to a shadow of my former self: customers. The relentless, exhausting, moronic questions, the endless haggling and the condescension with which many members of the buying public treat people who work in shops have reduced me – during opening hours at least – to a life of surly misanthropy.

Of course, the overwhelming majority of our customers are charming and polite, but it’s the difficult customers who stick in your mind when you lock the shop at the end of each day. Yet, after 116 days of forced closure during lockdown, and much to my surprise, I began to miss them; all of them – even those who irritated me.

Consequently, my new book, Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops – which could easily have been nothing more than a spleen-venting rant – harbours small embers of warmth towards the people on whom I depend for a living.

When I began trying to reduce the rich tapestry of human life that crosses the threshold of the shop to seven kinds, I quickly realised it was an impossible task. No two customers are the same, so the variety of “types” is as vast as the number of people who visit bookshops.

There is, though, some commonality between them, which gives the cynical observer scope to make sweeping generalisations, and this is what I have attempted to do in a sort of cod-Linnaean taxonomic system.

The customers in the book are divided into seven genera, and each genus is then subdivided into several species, all united by the overarching characteristics of the genus. These are: Expert, Young Family, Occultist, Loiterer, Bearded Pensioner, Not-So-Silent Traveller, and Family Historian.

The various species of the genus Expert have very different qualities from one another. On the whole, the Expert’s ambition on entering the premises is to make it plain to the staff and other customers that he (or she) knows a lot about his chosen subject. If – as a consequence – the opportunity arises to berate a member of staff for failing to know as much as they do about the mating habits of the Bolivian tree frog, so much the better.

The worst sort of Expert is the autodidact. For reasons I’ll never understand, the self-taught Expert feels the inviolable need to lecture. My suspicion is that they have learnt a great deal about an obscure subject that very few sensible people care about.

Bookshop staff make the perfect captive audience. Conversation (well, soliloquy to be more accurate) begins with a request for a book which, of course, won’t be in stock. In the unlikely event that the bookseller is afforded the opportunity to explain this, the Expert will ignore them and continue with the ominous words “I’ll tell you why I’m looking for it…” These are possibly the most terrifying words anyone who works in a bookshop is ever likely to hear.

Shaun Bythell at his bookshop in Wigtown - Stuart Nicol
Shaun Bythell at his bookshop in Wigtown - Stuart Nicol

Unlike Expert, the genus Young Family is easier to warm to, in part because it’s almost impossible not to feel a degree of sympathy towards exhausted parents.

The species that this umbrella covers include various permutations and combinations of children desperate to read, parents determined to force their unwilling children to read, parents who don’t enjoy reading, children who would far rather be doing other things, and parents who have mistaken the bookshop for a crèche.

The Occultist is one of my favourite types. I don’t mean I like them as people, but I do enjoy encountering them, largely because of their unbelievable belief in the utterly unbelievable.

One occult book dealer used to turn up once a year in a hearse, from which he emerged, dressed entirely in black, sweating through his mascara, and flipping his few remaining strands of dyed black hair over his balding pate, before asking me to direct him towards the appropriate section.

Best not to laugh, though, as I discovered the last time he visited. He left with a curse, and I haven’t seen him since. Owing to a similarity in dress sense and general aroma, I include conspiracy theorists and ghost hunters in this category, too.

Of all the species lurking under the genus Loiterer, perhaps the commonest is the erotica browser. In my shop, the erotica section is near the railway section, and we frequently find erotica stuffed hastily between books about Victorian steam-engine sheds and narrow gauge Welsh railways as the browser panics at the familiar sound of a spouse’s approaching footsteps.

Another species of genus Loiterer is the self-published author. The last thing I wish to do is to mock people who have self-published – some truly great books would never have reached an appreciative audience had the authors not had the courage to take this approach.

For me, the problem arises with the author who catches you unawares and unable to make an excuse, so 40 minutes are spent hearing they’ve written a story about a mouse for their granddaughter (who has illustrated it) and that all their friends and family have told them how wonderful it is. Of course they have.

Possibly the most common genus of customer in my shop is the Bearded Pensioner. This is not a gender-specific category, and includes Lycra-clad octogenarian cyclists (who only come in to look at OS maps to plan the next leg of their journey), red-trousered retired Army officers, and the unending stream of people who travel the country in motorhomes, causing tailbacks that can be seen from space. Species include customers who refuse to accept the asking price of anything, regardless of how underpriced it might be.

Chiang Lee, a Chinese writer and illustrator, wrote a series of books in the mid-20th century under the nom de plume The Silent Traveller, in which he visited places around the world, quietly observing the costumes and customs of the people who lived there.

The Not-So-Silent Traveller genus has species including the whistler, the hummer, the sniffer and the farter, all of which are common not just in bookshops, but everywhere. For me, the sniffer – with his metronomic three-second wet nasal inhalation – is the most irritating: his affliction – or affectation – could so easily be cured by the judicious use of a handkerchief. I wonder how they’ve coped with the enforced use of face masks.

The final genus is the Family Historian. This group consists almost entirely of Americans of Scots ancestry, in many cases going back several generations. They invariably expect to find thousands of books about whichever clan or family they were associated with, and are always bitterly disappointed to discover there really aren’t that many clan histories, and probably none telling them what they want to discover – that they are the rightful heirs to a roofless pile of moss-covered rocks in Argyll and a title about which no one could care less.

And yet, and yet … from science-fiction fans to home mechanics – deep down, I love them all.

Shaun Bythell is the author of Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops (Profile, £7.99)

Which one are you? Let us know in the comments section below.