Kreisoppa Tebberley

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The Economist had some letters in the last couple of weeks from people ruminating on terrible experiences of bookstore ignorance they had encountered: someone who asked for Dickens's A Christmas Carol and was sent over to the DVDs; someone who asked for Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and was told "If it's a book, it'll be over there"; and so on. I have encountered unhelpful bookstore assistants too, but I wasn't too ready to pile on with further stories, because I once (briefly) worked as a bookstore assistant. It was my first regular paying job, before I became a rock musician. And I still remember the day a middle-aged woman customer demanded to know if we had "Kreissoppa Tebberley" in stock.

I asked her to repeat the title, and it was quite clear she was saying Kreissoppa Tebberley. Unable even to parse it any more than phonetically, I ventured to ask what that first word was, so I could perhaps use its spelling and (for there was no web back then) find the title in question through the standard reference work Books In Print. But she looked at me as if I was an unsavory white thing that had crawled from under a rock.

"Kreiss!", she barked, more emphatically. But this didn't ring any bells with me. I probably looked like a rabbit in headlights by this point.

"Kreiss!", she shouted in my face. "Jesus Kreiss!"

The book turned out to be a book by the anti-fascist Italian doctor Carlo Levi of his period exile in the region of Basilicata in southern Italy. The people of the area used to say that Christianity had never really reached them because Jesus had not troubled to go further south than Eboli, to the north of them in Campania. He called his memoir Christ Stopped At Eboli.

I was indeed ignorant of that book, so in a sense she was right to regard me as an ignorant young puppy. But I no longer laugh at frightened young people who are unable to parse book titles barked at them by demanding middle-aged members of the literary classes. I remember Kreissoppa Tebberley, and the woman who (doubtless) went away thinking she had met a bookstore assistant who had never heard of Jesus Christ.

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42 Comments »

  1. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    May 6, 2010 @ 2:36 pm

    A high school classmate of mine once described her first day working at a donut shop. A customer asked for "go-go juice", and she, being young and momentarily thrown by the cutesy language, said "Um… I'm not sure we have that here."

    The customer replied, "You don't have coffee?"

  2. Josh said,

    May 6, 2010 @ 3:16 pm

    You could have taken the opportunity to inform her you were from a place just south of Eboli, and so were unfamiliar with this "Christ" person :)

    I, too, used to work at a book store. I always loved getting requests to help find "the big green book about Ireland". They don't know the author, don't know the title, aren't sure if it's fiction, travel, history, and still get mad at you when you don't offer to manually search through all of the tens of thousands of books by hand.

  3. Zubon said,

    May 6, 2010 @ 3:33 pm

    Librarians, one might note after Josh, are surprisingly effective at identifying "a pink book with a dog on the cover" and such. It perhaps becomes less impressive the 20th time they identify "that book with an apple/chess piece on the cover" as part of the Twilight series.

  4. Ralph Hickok said,

    May 6, 2010 @ 3:44 pm

    This naturally brings to mind this audio sketch from Monty Python's Contractual Obligation Album:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eCM2nEBE0RY

  5. KevinM said,

    May 6, 2010 @ 3:54 pm

    In Eboli, they call the telephone the "halo statue" (because that's what you say when you pick it up).

  6. jfruh said,

    May 6, 2010 @ 4:01 pm

    Out of curiosity, was the woman in the anecdote a native English speaker?

    [Yes, a native speaker of southern British Standard English. Many speakers drop final voiceless stops after a voiceless sibilant, especially after long vowels: post, least, last, etc., are frequently pronounced without the [t]. —GKP]

  7. S.Norman said,

    May 6, 2010 @ 4:13 pm

    When I worked in a bookstore, a women asked for the new Pooh book by that French author. When I suggested the name 'Milne' she assured me it was a French person named 'Mil-nay' who wrote the Pooh books and she wanted his latest. I was surprised Mil-nay was still writing after being dead for so long. She left with the book she wanted, "The Te of Piglet" by Benjamin Hoff.

  8. Ray Girvan said,

    May 6, 2010 @ 4:20 pm

    I work in a bookshop too; it pays to treat the customer's specification for long-lost books as "fuzzy", however distinct their recollection. A while back someone asked for Gary Thornton's In the Night; a lot of questioning about the plot identified it as Guy Thorne's When It Was Dark.

  9. Stephen Jones said,

    May 6, 2010 @ 4:26 pm

    I remember the first cricket match I umpired where one of the schoolboy players asked me to give him a guard. "Sorry," I said, "I haven't got one."

  10. Larry Goldsmith said,

    May 6, 2010 @ 4:27 pm

    A good book, but the movie is one of the few I have seen that is even better than the book.

  11. Sili said,

    May 6, 2010 @ 4:40 pm

    Librarians, one might note after Josh, are surprisingly effective at identifying "a pink book with a dog on the cover" and such.

    I guess that goes to show that I'm not a librarian at heart.

    I only worked in a school book depot so the number of titles was limited, but I was still stumped when the students asked for the red book the others'd been handed in German, or the blue Danish reader and so forth.

    We tried our damnedest to drill into the teachers that the should give the student's the shelf number clearly marked on the back of each book.

  12. Jeff DeMarco said,

    May 6, 2010 @ 4:48 pm

    Yes, the movie of Christ Stopped at Eboli is excellent, though a bit depressing. The same problems happen in sheet music stores, compounded by the fact that many individual pieces are going to be in collections. You really have to know the repertoire!

  13. tablogloid said,

    May 6, 2010 @ 5:08 pm

    Geoffrey, I worked in a record store and a customer came in and asked if we had that Jimi Hendrix album with the "excuse me while I kiss this guy" song on it.

  14. Morten Jonsson said,

    May 6, 2010 @ 5:24 pm

    I'm reminded of Coleridge's complaint about "a stupid haughty fool," the librarian of the Dean and Chapters Library in Durham. "I asked . . . if he had Leibnitz. 'We have no museum in this library for natural curiosities; but there is a mathematical instrument setter in the town, who shews such animalcula through a glass of great magnifying powers.' Heaven and earth! he understood the word 'live nits.'"

  15. Bloix said,

    May 6, 2010 @ 5:47 pm

    A fellow in a CVS drugstore once asked me where he could find the toot peace. What? the TOOT peace. What? Toot Peace!!! For brushing the Teet!!!

  16. Doctor Science said,

    May 6, 2010 @ 6:29 pm

    No discussion of this topic can be complete without including New England Law Library's "Well, Its Red" search function.

  17. Karen said,

    May 6, 2010 @ 6:47 pm

    Also having worked in a book store, I have my share of stories (ranging from "it was black and in the back corner last Christmas" to my personal favorite, the guy who wanted that "Satanic Virgins" book by the Muslim fella) so I don't respond well, either. In fact, most of the stories I hear sound very much to me like esprit l'escalier snobbery, if not downright meanness, about someone who hasn't encountered something the storyteller deems important. There are a lot of books out there, after all.

  18. Rob P. said,

    May 6, 2010 @ 8:12 pm

    For me the two most memorable are "that blue book about this big," and, "the book I heard about on NPR last weekend." There were a lot of questions like that at the regular bookstore. It seemed to get worse when I worked at the software/book store. We had two main classes of customer, those that weren't sure what kind of computer they had and couldn't answer whether it was IBM compatible, or later, whether they had DOS or Windows, and those who were computer professionals who seemed to assume that I might know which book was best for learning ADA programming or some such. I always wanted to answer that if I were very familiar with the advanced programming books they were asking about, I would not likely be working for less than $5/hr in a mall.

  19. James said,

    May 6, 2010 @ 8:49 pm

    I'm not at a bookstore, but a customer once asked for "MICKEY MOUSE BANG BANG". He wanted a mouse trap. I am often impressed by the linguistic inventiveness of non-native speakers.

  20. Roger Lustig said,

    May 6, 2010 @ 10:05 pm

    30 years ago my dad wrote down title, author & publisher of a book he wanted. Got all 3 wrong, too. At the Doubleday store on 5th Ave. in NY, the clerk heard my warped request and instantly grabbed the book off a nearby shelf.

    It's an art.

  21. Zora said,

    May 6, 2010 @ 10:26 pm

    There's a mailing list for librarians ("STUMPERS" ) that consists of reference questions otherwise unanswerable and the attempts of various contributors (not all of us librarians) to answer the question. There is a lot of traffic in "what was the poem that went …" and "the novel about a girl who moves to Italy, with a purple cover".

    I single out for special praise Dennis Lien, who seems to know ALL about science fiction and pulp magazines, and T. F. Mills, your go-to man for military history.

  22. Simon Cauchi said,

    May 6, 2010 @ 10:37 pm

    Zora, you're out of date. Stumpers is now Project Wombat.

  23. Simon Cauchi said,

    May 6, 2010 @ 10:38 pm

    And there's a story behind its new name, but I can't remember what it is.

  24. maidhc said,

    May 6, 2010 @ 10:41 pm

    I heard an obituary of Naguib Mahfouz on the radio which interested me in reading his books. However, I was driving at the time so I couldn't write down his name.

    I went in to my local public library and asked at the information desk "Do you know the name of that Egyptian writer who died recently?" I received the immediate answer "You mean Naguib Mahfouz?" I was impressed.

  25. Will Steed said,

    May 7, 2010 @ 2:26 am

    http://www.librarything.com/topic/17962 – This discussion topic has about 600 posts from librarians about strange and bizarre book requests.

  26. C Thornett said,

    May 7, 2010 @ 3:05 am

    UK librarians have long since learned to take note of books and authors read or dramatised on Radio 4. It's wonderful, as your memory suddenly blanks out both, to have the librarian fill in the gaps, but less wonderful to learn that a) all copies have already been borrowed or b) the ordering process takes at least 6 months.
    I've generally found bookshop staff very helpful and well-informed as well, though I think I usually do better than "the novel about a girl who moves to Italy, with a purple cover". At the least I would add 'on Women's Hour last week'.

  27. rone said,

    May 7, 2010 @ 4:01 am

    Reminds me of the bit in one of the James Herriott books where his new receptionist hands him a call about a case of "smiling Harry syphilis" which was actually "swine erysipelas", probably said with a Yorkshire accent.

  28. Adam said,

    May 7, 2010 @ 4:37 am

    "I'm want that book that looks like a dictionary and sounds like a dinosaur."

  29. Ray Girvan said,

    May 7, 2010 @ 8:02 am

    GKP: drop final voiceless stops after a voiceless sibilant, especially after long vowels: post, least, last, etc., are frequently pronounced without the [t].

    HG Wells's Kipps makes many references to "toast" as "toce", such as:

    … and suddenly got up and fled from amidst their ruined tea, the tea of which "toce, all buttery," was to be the crown and glory.

  30. Ken Grabach said,

    May 7, 2010 @ 8:30 am

    Public libraries have the same issues as do the attendants at bookstores. And sometimes it is the customer who garbles the title, and not the ears of the attendant. A friend and fellow librarian recalls being asked for the book "The Almighty Bill Terror", which sounds like it might have been a true-crime account of bringing some domestic terrorist to justice. It was, actually, "The Amityville Horror", a book of quite a different genre. In both bookstores and libraries, the locations for the genres would have been quite distinct and separate.
    Parsing the title would be the only way to track down the item, whether searching a system online or tracing it through a stacks browse.

  31. anchorageite said,

    May 7, 2010 @ 9:23 am

    I asked for the new Camper Van Beethoven album at a music store once (when the cover of "Pictures of Matchstick Men" was on the charts) and was told they didn't carry much classical music.

  32. Rodger C said,

    May 7, 2010 @ 9:28 am

    When I worked at a public library in the early 80s, there were a number of requests for "that new Stephen King book, 'Dance Massacre.'"

  33. Zora said,

    May 7, 2010 @ 7:43 pm

    Not out of date, Simon, just hazy on the HTML tags. Project Wombat shows up in my contacts list as STUMPERS (list@project-wombat.org). In my original post I typed in the full address, with angle brackets, but forgot that the interface here would drop anything between angle brackets that wasn't a recognised tag.

    The story behind the Wombat, according to the FAQ:

    In May of 1994, several messages about wombats got caught in an endless mail-delivery loop and were sent repeatedly to subscribers. The word wombat became a joke, then a mascot, and finally a term for subscribers to the list. So when it was time to change the name of the mailing list, and we were going to be hosted by Project Gutenberg, there was an obvious choice…

    I wasn't there for that, but if I had been, I'm sure that "wombat" would be as funny as "ARMM" is to people who were on Usenet way back when. (See ARMM (Usenet) on Wikipedia.)

  34. Bruce M said,

    May 8, 2010 @ 12:14 am

    A librarian once told me about a woman who had come to her in a terribly agitated state. The catalogue contained no references at all to that famous painter Bottledjelly!

  35. Terry Hunt said,

    May 8, 2010 @ 8:20 pm

    I too was a bookseller for a few years, and noticed how surprisingly good my colleagues and I became at correctly identifying poorly described books. However, we were all stumped on one occasion by an elderly lady customer who came in wanting to replace a book she'd once owned but had long since lost. Could she remember the title? No. Author? No. Rough subject matter? No. Whether it was fact or fiction? No. "But," she recalled triumphantly, "it had a red cover!"

  36. Jonathan Cohen said,

    May 10, 2010 @ 12:12 pm

    In an inversion of this problem, when I worked in a bookstore, I often had to rectify the shelving errors of my colleagues, one of whom put "Opera Platonis" in the music section.

  37. Andreas Johansson said,

    May 11, 2010 @ 6:32 am

    I must be an extremely boring customer: on the (nowadays rare) occasions when I walk into a physical bookstore to ask for a specific book I usually have a slip of paper with me with author, title, and ISBN.

  38. A Parker said,

    May 12, 2010 @ 8:47 am

    Many years ago, when I was working in a public library, a lady asked to see "the electrical rolls". I was puzzled for some moments, until her further explanation made it clear she was looking for the _electoral_ roll (a list of the borough's voters, a copy of which used to be commonly held at bigger public libraries)…

  39. Ryan P. Murray said,

    May 12, 2010 @ 3:53 pm

    I was working at a record store in Minneapolis when an elderly-sounding gent called to see if we had a song he had heard on the radio. He couldn't remember the name, artist, lyrics, or the tune, but kept insisting, "It was a very lively song!"

  40. ellael said,

    May 12, 2010 @ 8:56 pm

    this can be an occasionally hilarious problem in bilingual Montreal – I remember with great fondness this monolingual anglophone girl telling me about this great bar she'd heard about called Sense of Peace and asking me where it was – it took a great deal of discussion before I finally figured out that she was talking about the famous watering hole 'le Saint-Sulpice'

  41. Nicholas Waller said,

    May 16, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

    A bit late to the party, but still… I was a publisher's rep visiting the Social Sciences department on the top floor of Dillons in Gower Street (in London) in the early 80s. A middle-aged woman, seeking books for her college-bound son, had been directed there so the staff could fulfill her request for some textbook on "Eunuchs", but they were stumped. Luckily the publisher I worked for, Prentice Hall, published books on the C Programming Language and UNIX, so I stepped in to direct her down to the basement where the computer science books lived.

  42. kavita said,

    February 21, 2014 @ 7:25 am

    this can be an occasionally hilarious problem in bilingual Montreal – I remember with great fondness this monolingual anglophone girl telling me about this great bar she'd heard about called Sense of Peace and asking me where it was – it took a great deal of discussion before I finally figured out that she was talking about the famous watering hole 'le Saint-Sulpice'

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