“We’ve Left a Bit of a Mess”

Josie Leavitt - August 14, 2013

I’ve heard this phrase somewhat frequently in the 17 years I’ve had the store. Usually, people are being overly dramatic about the mess they’ve left. It’s often just a few books on the floor and maybe a stuffed animal that has migrated sections. Most people say this when they’re actually starting to clean up. We always tell them that it’s okay and they should go about their day.

Summer visitors to the bookstore tend to be more chaotic than any other time of year. Partly it’s because there are more people in each group, which increases the chances for large messes. I find stacks of books on the floor to be a sign that a family has had fun looking at things. I don’t mind reshelving; in fact, I’d always rather reshelve stacks than have families help because I know where everything goes. The chaos increase is also due to the fact that some folks have food with them.

We have a very delicate sign on the front door that says: Please, no food or drink in the bookstore. This is often ignored and we’re not really great about asking people to leave the store if they have ice cream. Generally, we don’t have horrible messes to clean up, until Monday.

This Monday there was a family of five in the store. They were rambunctious and clearly book lovers. Books were starting to pile up around them, so we just kept our eye out for anything that looked like it might get damaged by little feet. All was well, until just before they left. The dad was paying for the book they had picked out. I hadn’t seen the kids walk in with candy, but it materialized during their visit. Did you know that certain kinds of jawbreakers have a hard shell that can melt when it gets hot? Did you know that there are about four cups of blue sugary syrup that come from a jawbreaker left in a hot car and then cracked open by a three-year-old?

There was blue paint (I’m calling it that, because that’s what it looked like and what it cleaned up like) everywhere in one section. The mom noticed as she was gathering the kids to leave. She looked at the floor, the shelves, and her daughter’s hands and said, “I think you’ll need a mop.” She washed her daughter’s hands off and left the store. We were left to clean up. I never mind cleaning up, although I’m always a little stunned when the offer to help clean up isn’t made, even if I have no intention of letting the customer clean up. It just seems like common courtesy to at least offer.

Luckily, the candy shell was water-based and did clean up without too much fuss. No books were damaged and apparently there was still plenty of candy left to stem the tears that had threatened. I shared this story with co-worker David who told that just the other weekend a child urinated in the store because he couldn’t tear himself away from a Star Wars book. I laughed and was really happy that I had that day off.

So, what’s the worst mess you’ve had at your store? And how did you deal with it?

11 thoughts on ““We’ve Left a Bit of a Mess”

  1. Diana

    Luckily I was not present during all the biological messes from adults, but one evening I had asked a rowdy group of kids to leave. They were angry of course and as they left I heard “Don’t be surprised to find $&!} on your sidewalk!”

    I didn’t think much would come of the threat but after another customer left I heard them exclaim at the back door. I knew then that those kids weren’t kidding. Yuck.

  2. Vicki Erwin

    It’s not the messes and cleaning them up that bother me so much as the ones made and left without even one word about it. For example, we have a trunk where we display picture books. Someone spilled an entire cup of coffee in it and didn’t say a word. The books displayed soaked up every bit of that coffee, making it easy to clean up but ruining about $100 worth of merchandise. I have several stains on rugs that could have been prevented if the customer had only told us what happened. We aren’t ogres! Really. We would just go about cleaning it up.

  3. Joanne Mattern

    I work in a library and the worst mess we had was when a disabled preteen who was one of our regular patrons soiled his pants, got the mess on his hands, and proceeded to touch lots of DVDs and track “it” all over the carpet as well. Not the child’s fault, but the mother (who had left him alone to look at our booksale racks) acted like it was no big deal. Our director phoned her and said her son was always welcome in our library but she had to supervise him and if that ever happened again they would not be welcome any more. We didn’t see much of them after that.

    Another night someone threw up on the carpet and then thoughtfully covered it up with the dailly newspaper so no one noticed it for awhile. Of course our custodian was off that night. Ugh!

  4. jane davis

    I’m actually quite horrified by how common this seems to be (and I’ve have to clear up an indecent amount of mess in an office environment before, which I won’t go into.) I’m not sure what I’m more shocked by: the dishonesty or the lack of respect for books. I suspect that, if asked, the parents who put the damaged books back on the shelves wouldn’t see this as theft, but would say that this is the risk that you take by being in business. I recently reported to a manager at my local Waterstones that a family was allowing their child to chew on an expensive book (not a children’s book, but something it had picked up from the adult section, we’re talking RRP of £40) while they sat and drank coffee. The parents were quite unconcerned – they were just happy that their child was quiet so that they could enjoy half an hour’s peace. It was a kind of ‘she’s not hurting anyone’ attitide. It’s a bit difficult to enforce a no food or drink rule when most book shops now have a cafe inside. If you walk into a china shop there will be a sign that says ‘all damage must be paid for.’ The nature of book shops is that customers must be expected to crease a spine or two before they decide to buy, but if I find a less than perfect copy on a shelf I’m afraid I won’t buy it – especially if it is a children’s pictiure book that I am buying as a gift. Given that books generally work on a sale or return basis, I’m guessing that the damaged books will be returned to the publisher?

    1. Spellbound


      Unfortunately (but completely reasonably and fairly) bookshops can only return damaged books to the publisher for credit when the books were damaged during packaging or shipping. If a customer damages a book I’ve put out on the shelf and doesn’t pay for it, I still have to turn around and pay the publisher for that book. So I lose money. It is stealing, plain and simple. Thank you for being the kind of customer who respects books (and other people’s property) and for alerting that manager to the potential damage about to be wrought. Would that more people in the general public were as responsible as you are.

      I will say, after a few years doing business in a neighborhood where most of my customers were locals and then a few years downtown with mostly tourists, locals almost without fail tend to be more courteous and respectful of our books and physical space. Perhaps because they see our business as being run by people they know, as opposed to some faceless entity. Or perhaps because we know where they live. :p

  5. Brad Jones

    We have been at this for some time (20 years), so none of this surprises me but does make me smile as I recall similar atrocities. The good news is that after having been in the restaurant business nothing that happens in our bookstore seems to rise to the level of grossicity that happened regularly in food service. Just another reason to love the book biz!

    Brad Jones

  6. Becky

    We had a rather grouchy elderly woman in once who peed on our shelving stool. I agree; I’d much rather clean up spilled coffe or cookie crumbs – even throw out a poopy diaper – than have to mop up after an adult.

  7. Carol Chittenden

    Aside from unspeakable matters in the restroom, it’s mostly a matter of bodily fluids. We’re relatively strict about ice cream, candy, coke, etc. after a toddler dropped her glass juice bottle onto a metal spinner base, spreading sticky juice and broken glass on the newly shampooed carpet — and her parents were VERY defensive when we were a tad upset. I think the stain from the full jumbo coke is still in the cookbook section of carpet, 20 shampooings later. But what bothers me most (as long as I’ve got a good rant underway here) is the merchandise that we deliberately keep on higher shelves that we find imprinted with little tooth marks and damp with slobbers — abandoned by parents who allowed it to happen, but dishonest enough to pretend it didn’t. Truth to tell, though, for every one of those, we have hundreds of wonderful customers who are careful, thoughtful, and responsible.

  8. EWRichmond

    One of my co-workers at a previous job had an elderly man approach the counter and ask, “Do you have a rest room?” The owners had not seen fit to have a public toilet in the store, so he was he was about to answer, “Sorry, no.” “Never mind……I’m peeing right now.” (My poor friend is/was the worst possible person to handle such situations, too.)

    Here at Children’s Book Cellar, I’ve had a child pee herself in one of the chairs (wooden) at the train table and a dog poop on the rug. Mercifully, most of the time, messes are books in disarray (including the floor) and maybe a lollipop stick on the floor.

  9. James

    I work at a library and, without getting too gross, I had to take a biohazard kit to clean blood off of a computer chair. I won’t tell you how it got there other than there was no violence involved and the woman left before we found out about it.

    I would much rather have to clean up candy messes than the stuff that I have to deal with from grown adults.

    1. Kathy

      Two teenaged boys came in and went back to the kids section. They left soon after, acting squirrely. So I checked. Big wet spot in a back corner. Only a couple of books were wet, but needless to say those two were not welcome in the store again.


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