These are arguably the five worst customers anyone working in retail has encountered.

Life behind the counter can be a war of nerves. The customer believes they are always right. You, the shop assistant/assistant manager/second-in-charge/shop owner/school or uni student trying to make ends meet, must abide by their every whim, and smile graciously that they even deigned to enter the vicinity of your shop. It’s a tough world out there in brick and mortar – any retail or service worker could tell you that.

But let’s not dwell on the misery. Once you realise others are going through precisely the same thing, like any group therapy, you feel a whole lot better for it. That’s the comforting (and often darkly disturbing – oh, humanity) takeaway from Sydney author Elias Greig’s new book out just in time for retail’s big Christmas crunch, I Can’t Remember The Title But The Cover is Blue.

Greig has worked in retail for more than a decade. Starting as a shoe salesman, Greig became a bookseller in Sydney’s northern beaches, which helped fund his BA, MA and PhD at the University of Sydney. But it also gave him a compendium of experiences with every customer under the sun. After having a read and many, many LOLs later, I picked five of the ones that reminded me a little too closely of my former life as a video store attendant (does that age me?)…

Elias Greig
I Can't Remember The Title But The Cover is Blue by Elias Greig is a great stocking filler. Image: Mamamia

Sunday, 3.30 p.m.
Muscular father and son duo, both tanned and wearing grey singlets, enter store with sense of purpose, scoop up and pass from hand to hand a copy of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. At Muscular Son’s urging, Muscular Father places book on counter and gestures brawnily at it.
Muscular Father: That one, mate.
Me: *tight-jawed approval* Great book. *blokey nod and smile-frown*
Muscular Father: *hands over money*
Me: Did you see the movie?
Muscular Father: Nah. Any good?
Me: *more blokey nodding* Great film. You should go.
Muscular Father: *twists mouth; pained expression* Yeah, but it’s got whatzername in it, doesn’t it?
Me: Reese Witherspoon?
Muscular Father: Yeah, see, she doesn’t do anything for me – physically – and I can’t be bothered watching anyone I’m not attracted to for that long. She just doesn’t do it for me. *thinks for a moment; faraway Hemingway look* Bit like Meryl Streep.
Me: . . .
Muscular Son: *wordlessly pushes Muscular Father – hard – out of the way, picks up book and meets my eye, smiling desperately* Is it a good book?
Me: *Equally desperate smile* It’s fantastic –
Muscular Son: Awesome! *gives absurd thumbs up*
Me: Enjoy it! *absurdly returns thumbs up*


Watch: Shop Assistants Translated (Post continues after video)

Video by Mamamia

Saturday, 2.30 p.m.
Brisk lady with a high blonde ponytail and a maddeningly fussy start-stop way of speaking: Hi. I’ll take this. *drops luridly pink children’s book on counter*
Me: Sure –
High Pony Start-Stop: Actually. It’s a gift. Would you mind wrapping it for me?
Me: No worries –
High Pony Start-Stop: Actually. Would you mind? I’ve got a few more. I didn’t buy them here. Could you wrap them up with it? *drops two more pinky-purple books on counter; winces a smile*
Me: *cheerfully* Sure –
High Pony Start-Stop: What colours do you have?
Me: In the paper? We’ve got a few . . . *ducks behind counter to bring out rolls of gift wrap*
High Pony Start-Stop: *leans over counter* Do you have pink?
Me: *head in paper draw* Yep. *surfaces* It looks like this.
High Pony Start-Stop: *sharply* And? What else?
Me: Green, orange, and a sort of silvery black –
High Pony Start-Stop: Actually. Would you mind doing all three in different colours? One pink, one green, and one black?
Me: *bland smile* Sure –
High Pony Start-Stop: And then just wrap one ribbon around all three?
Me: Sure –
High Pony Start-Stop: What kind of ribbon do you have?
Me: . . . We’ve got a few different colours . . .
High Pony Start-Stop: *raises eyebrows* Can I see them?
Me: Sure – any particular colour you’re after?
High Pony Start-Stop: *incredulously* Um . . . ? I won’t know until I see them?
Me: Right. *manages not to grind teeth* Well . . . *makes a small pile of different ribbons on counter*
High Pony Start-Stop: Wow. You’ve got heaps.
Me: We do. So – *heartily* which one?
High Pony Start-Stop: Oh. God. I’m not sure now. Pick one for me.
Me: . . . Ah – what about this one? *holds up stripy ribbon*
High Pony Start-Stop: *sharply* Yep. Looks good.
Me: *begins to wrap presents*
High Pony Start-Stop: Actually.
Me: *wide-eyed, edging towards hysteria* The colour no good?
High Pony Start-Stop: No. The colour’s fine. But can you do me a gift receipt, just in case they need to return it?
It’s a gift, so . . . ?
Me: Of course – one second. *writes gift receipt, slips inside front cover, and recommences wrapping*
High Pony Start-Stop: . . . Actually.
Me: *alarmed, wide-eyed, quiet breath out, still wrapping* Was there anything else . . . ?
High Pony Start-Stop: *writhes closed lips* Nope. I can’t think of anything else to ask you for. *ghostly smile*
Me: *still wrapping; manages a kindly smile* Getting your money’s worth, eh?
High Pony Start-Stop: *with passion* Oh, absolutely! The minimum wage in this country is ridiculous. It’s completely over the top!
Me: Oh. *measures out ribbon; cuts* Well. *evens and loops ribbon* I hope I’m justifying my wage.
High Pony Start-Stop: *steely smile, pointed eye contact* We’ll see in a minute.
Me: *ties ribbon in a bow, smooths, cuts rough edges* There we go – how’s that?
High Pony Start-Stop: Perfect. Looks great.
Me: Thanks. So, that’s $12.95
High Pony Start-Stop: *sharply* Is it? How much was the wrapping?
Me: The wrapping was free.
High Pony Start-Stop: *Huskily, and with deep satisfaction* Good.


Saturday, 11 a.m.
Infectiously peppy primary teacher: Hi! I have a book to pick up! Indian in the Cupboard?
Me: One sec . . . Yep, here it is. I remember loving this as a kid.
Infectious Pep: Me too! I’m reading it with my class!
Me: *catches the pep* Cool! I’m sure they’ll love it.
Infectious Pep: Yeah! Though I’m leaving out one bit.
Me: Oh? Which bit?
Infectious Pep: You know, the part where they become blood brothers.
Me: *chuckles* I can see how you wouldn’t want that to catch on in the playground!
Infectious Pep: *leans in with bulging eyes* I KNOW! I mean, HELLO! AIDS!

Sunday, 11.40 a.m.
Curly-haired sarong lady fresh from the beach enters shop with sense of purpose; strides into the fiction section. Emerges moments later with growing urgency, interrupts my conversation with another customer.
Curly Purpose: I can’t find N –
Me: *distractedly* Hold on one second for me – *finishes up with other customer* How can I help?
Curly Purpose: I can’t find N!
Me: *thinks very hard; skips many questions* So which book were you after?
Curly Purpose: Suite Française
Me: I know it. *checks computer* We’ve got it – it’s by Irène Némirovsky –
Curly Purpose: *becoming exasperated* I know who it’s by, I can’t find –
Me: You can’t find N – ahhh, I see. Fiction is over here. *leads the way*
Curly Purpose: Yeah! *walks with me* I got up to M, but I couldn’t find where N began – where do you start N?
Me: *awed silence*

Friday, 10.30 a.m.
Monologuing pashmina woman with consciously international accent: Hello I need a bhook for my daughter she had a chald last year and I’m looking for something with Australian animals in it suitable for a two-year-old girl something not too heavy I can post –
Me: *smiles; already weary*
International Pashmina: Is this section the section for children’s books with Australian animals in them? I don’t whant anything too complicated she’s still a chald and her mother is –
Me: *hands over a series of conspicuously Australian children’s books, including Possum Magic, Wombat Stew, Diary of a Wombat, etc., etc.*
International Pashmina: *still talking* I’m not su-ure about whombats – they’ve never seen a whombat and – OH!
Me: *starts* Oh?
International Pashmina: *points at book on display* Is that Mr Chicken Goes to Paris?
Me: *smiles* Yes.
International Pashmina: Isn’t that funny? Do you know I bought that not long ago at the Louvre! *waits for the paroxysms to start*
Me: *smiling* Did you?
International Pashmina: I did! In Paris! *waits for my head to explode*
Me: *still smiling*
International Pashmina: How long have you had Mr Chicken Goes to Paris?
Me: Ah, about –
International Pashmina: *interrupts* Because I jhust bought it at the LOUVRE! Isn’t that FUNNY? *invisible jazz hands*
Me: *still smiling* Mm.

I Can't Remember The Title But The Cover is Blue by Elias Greig is out now via Allen & Unwin, Booktopia and all good booksellers.

Have you got any stories from retail or customer service life to share? Drop them in the comments below or email [email protected] if your story is particularly bizarre!