Credited, usually, with the patience of a saint, I was nevertheless tested at times.
“I’m looking for a book.”
I looked up from my desk at the back of the shop, where I was cataloguing a copy of Pepys’s diary, bound in worn morocco leather that had no doubt, decades earlier, been an impressive maroon. The man was tall, ascetic, with a boyish face. His black hair was neatly parted and his nose was thin and pronounced. Ominously, he sported a dog-collar.
“Ah, yes, what’s it called.”
“Oh, that I’m not sure about. It’s quite a long title.”
“Well, who’s it by? I can look it up for you.”
“Ah, hmm, the name escapes me right now.” He gazed around the shelves intently, as if it were his first venture into a second-hand bookshop.
I felt the first bubblings of annoyance. “Well, look, what’s it about. Is it fiction or non-fiction?”
He looked down at me, blinking rapidly. “Oh, it … it’s non-fiction. Sorry, I’m not being much help, am I?”
“Well, is it a book on theology?” I suggested helpfully, taking account of his garb.
He smiled. “No, even us rectors need to read something other than the bible!”
“Look, can you remember anything about it?”
“Yes, it’s blue, and I think … an American author, something to do with the sea.”
Oh, that narrowed it down to a couple of million books then. I smiled my best bookshop-owner’s smile. “Look, perhaps you could come back when you have the author and title? But, while you’re here, why not have a look around. It might jog your memory?”
He returned to the counter some twenty minutes later clutching a number of books, just as I’d moved on to cataloguing a dog-eared copy of The Collected Letters of Samuel Johnson. Truth to tell I was glad of the diversion from Mr. Johnson’s wordy missives. “Did you find the book?”
“The one you asked me about when you came in!”
“Ah, no, alas, it’s gone clean out of my mind. I do hate it when that happens, don’t you?”
Well it was part of my job that things didn’t go ‘clean out of my mind’ but I concurred politely, totting up books on chess, crosswords, violin-playing and one on how Aristotle invented science, to a respectable thirty-five pounds. That would at least cover heating and lighting for the day, I reflected.
The following morning, the shop bell rang and a woman appeared, her ample figure clothed in black. Her hair was platinum white, cut in a neat bob and she wore a little powder, pale-blue eye shadow and pink lipstick. She carried a book on chess – Rubinstein’s Fifty Best Games, which I recognised as one I’d sold to the vicar the previous day.
“Can I help?” I asked.
“Yes.” She gave a pleasant smile. “My husband bought this yesterday. I’m afraid he’s rather absent-minded. He’d already got a copy.”
Absent-minded seemed too kind but I smiled back. “I can refund you,” I said, ignoring my usual policy. “By the way, did he remember the book he was after.”
She handed me a slip of paper on which was written in neat fountain-pen, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Stephen R Covey.
Trying to keep a straight face, I said, “Well, you’re in luck. I’ve got a copy in the back. I’ll just fetch it.”
I returned moments later with a virtually unread copy. The previous owner didn’t seem to have scored too high on the effectiveness scale. “You can have it for … er, three pounds.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful,” she exclaimed, taking the book and flicking through it with pink-painted nails. “My name’s Susan by the way. My husband – the vicar – is Cecil.” She held out her hand.
I shook it and stood mesmerised as her jade-green eyes stared into mine.
She seemed in no hurry to release her grip. “Look, you must come to tea.” She proffered a card. “Tomorrow would be good.” Glancing at a sign, she said, “How about four o’clock? I see you close early.” Hesitating, she added, “Although Cecil will be at choir practice till five, I’m afraid.” She didn’t look too afraid.
“Oh, that’ll be OK.” I thought I could live without Cecil’s company for an hour.
She smiled and handed me three pounds.
In the words of Mr Covey himself, it had all the hallmarks of a win-win situation!
Featured in the book, Letters from Reuben and Other Stories: 40 Little Tales of Mirth
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