Bookshop Memories

I’m in the wind again, free of house and job for a time. It’s a good time to think on bookshops, and of working in them.

Of course, such pondering has been done before and better by the mighty Orwell. His ‘Bookshop Memories‘ remains pretty much definitive, and should be required reading for anyone interested in the business. From initial expectations of the place…

so easily pictured, if you don’t work in one, as a kind of paradise where charming old gentlemen browse eternally among calf-bound folios.

…to dealing with the madness of Christmas…

At Christmas time we spent a feverish ten days struggling with Christmas cards and calendars, which are tiresome things to sell but good business while the season lasts.

…and above all the remarkable number of very strange customers…

 In a town like London there are always plenty of not quite certifiable lunatics walking the streets, and they tend to gravitate towards bookshops, because a bookshop is one of the few places where you can hang about for a long time without spending any money.

…not much, it seems, has changed in the day to day of the book trade in half a century. Lots of nodding and smiling at marginally insane people and dealing with impossible customer requests…

the other dear old lady who read such a nice book in 1897 and wonders whether you can find her a copy. Unfortunately she doesn’t remember the title or the author’s name or what the book was about, but she does remember that it had a red cover.

…but also plenty of good times. Setting people on to a new author you think they’ll like, chatting with the regulars, and the soothing, relaxing feeling that comes from being around a large quantity of books, of having the wisdom of ten thousand lifetimes compressed into a few dozen bookcases around you. The imminence of such knowledge is a potent thing. Bookshops have an undeniable secular magic.

In the bigger picture, of course, much has changed. One of Orwell’s more confident predictions has sadly been refuted:

The combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman.

Independents have gone to the wall at a terrifying rate, and even Waterstones (who I have just finished working for) are now in serious trouble. A world in which Amazon and Sainsburys are the dominant forces in bookselling is not is not one to look forward to. On this issue, I am a (self interested) single issue voter. Waterstones, to its great credit, promotes new writing. Amazon and the supermarkets do no such thing. There is precious little space for new authors to gain exposure, and good bookshops are essential to keep new literature alive.

Much of the problem has come with the redefinition of what a book is worth. It is remarkable how little people now expect to pay for them. They will pay £15 for an empty moleskine notebook, £3 for a blank card and £2 for a single sheet of posh wrapping paper without blinking, but trying to sell a £7.99 paperback or (God help you) a full price hardback can be like pulling teeth. Amazon, after a couple of decades in the trade, has achieved a critical victory – it has altered perception of what a ‘normal’ price is. £4.50 for a paperback and £10 for a hardback are seen as the norm. And for a bookshop, this kind of pricing is unsustainable.

Perhaps it makes me an economic Luddite but, the demise of the Net Book Agreement now seems like an act of supreme greed and foolishness on the part of the industry. While it cannot be reintroduced in full – the discounting genie being well and truly out of the bottle – some kind of limiting on discounting seems sensible, perhaps even necessary. I would cap discounts at no more than 33%. This is the margin of the independents, and would allow them to sell books at cost rather than at a loss and still remain competitive with the big beasts. Encouraging market freedoms is one thing. Letting supermarkets punt out bestsellers at a loss in order to sell beefburgers and orange juice is quite another.

But enough of such speculation. Bookshops will survive, though they will become rarer, more niche, and with other sources of income. The Rude Shipyard in Sheffield is a cracking example of this – I’d guess that about 90% of their income derives from the cafe business, but it still has that particular magic that any good bookshop must have. It remains a hub of creative events, a centre for the local community, and this is what must be kept alive.

Would I work in a bookshop again? Certainly, and here there is another disagreement with Orwell, who had no wish to return.

The real reason why I should not like to be in the book trade for life is that while I was in it I lost my love of books…The sweet smell of decaying paper appeals to me no longer. It is too closely associated in my mind with paranoiac customers and dead bluebottles.

I cannot see working in a bookshop as a long term proposition, as over time they can become maddening, claustrophobic places to stay. But they never made me lose my love of books, mostly because you are constantly exposed to other people’s love of them. Everyday, I got to see people being excited by books, happy at the thought of buying them and taking them home, of having a long quiet time in a shared imagination, of sitting down and enjoying their own company for a time. That, after all, is what books can give us that is so valuable. They make us happy to spend time in our own heads, and, sad as it is to say, for many people that is a rare and precious thing.

It is rare to find a job, particularly in retail, that still feels honest and positive. For a number of reasons, I was often weary and dispirited coming home from the bookshop, but never with that sickly, exhausted feeling of doing something worthless, of doing a trade that is in some way poisonous to the human spirit. Even at the extremes of boredom or frustration, I never doubted that I was doing something worthwhile, because above all, as Orwell says (and it seems fitting to give the last word to him):

it is a humane trade which is not capable of being vulgarized.