Sunday, November 12, 2006

Bookshop Memories

George Orwell wrote this essay about bookselling 70 years ago, but it could have been written yesterday. Here are a couple of extracts...

When I worked in a bookshop - so easily pictured, if you don't work in one, as a kind of paradise in which charming old gentlemen browse eternally among folios - the thing that struck me was the rarity of really bookish people. Our shop had an exceptionally interesting stock, yet I doubt whether ten per cent of our customers knew a good book from a bad one.

Many of the people who came to visit us were of a kind who would be a nuisance anywhere but have special opportunities in a bookshop. For example, the dear old lady who doesn't remember the book's name or what it was about, but does remember that it has a red cover.

Orwell's wise words provide a sort of fraternal solace, but it is also quite depressing to realise that this has always been the case and probably always will be.

When I started in bookselling I imagined that I would be meeting lots of people like myself who were interested in the arts and literature. My day would be filled with discussions with customers about the merits of particular authors and perhaps we would recommend titles to each other. Sadly, I can probably count the number of truly interesting conversations I've had with customers on one hand.

I've often thought about why this should be the case and I can only conclude that the sort of people whom I'd like to talk to, i.e intelliegent, thoughtful, empathic individuals, aren't in the habit of going up to complete strangers and starting a conversation.

When I ran an independent bookshop I had a dozen or so regular customers who would come in and talk to me. At first I liked the idea of getting to know my regulars and passing the time of day with them, but after a while I found that my heart sank the moment they walked in the door. I began to feel angry with them and couldn't wait for them to go. Why, I asked myself, was I being so hostile to people who were being friendly to me?

I realised the reason why: my regular customers weren't having a conversation with me, they were talking at me. I knew where they lived, what they read, how many children they didn't have and all of the minutiae of their lives. I had listened to all of their thoughts and smiled benignly, appearing interested in what they said. What did they know about me? When had anyone asked me about myself? None of my customers would have been able to relate a single fact about my life.

Looking back, many of these people lived alone and I may have been the only person they spoke to that day. I should feel compassion for people whose social skills weren't as developed as they should have been, but I only remember how hard it was to be a sounding board day after day.

Today things are much better. The intelligent, thoughtful, empathic people that I yearned to meet still rarely appear in my shop as customers but they make up the majority of my staff, who are a pleasure to work with. Thanks to my colleagues, I never wake up in the morning dreading the thought of going to work and ultimately, I feel very lucky to have ended up in bookselling.

5 comments:

Goncalo Veiga said...

I worked in a bookshop for 17 months... First for 11 months and I left for academical reasons and when I came back to my old city, the new manager, having known about my work, invited me to work back at the bookshop... I worked there for more 6 months. Then I left again, this time for pretense "academical reasons"...

Like you, I've had the opportunity to meet many people, a handful of those interesting, but the majority of them buying the books I knew that wouldn't last ten years past... Still, like you, I smiled back and tried to understand what they were really looking for and tried to be helpful and to listen to whatever they had to share. Interestingly, only a few would listen back...

Sadly, I left the shop and, unlike my other manager (one of my greatest friends ever now), my ex-manager has cut down my employer's discount and told me that I had to either take or release for sale the books I had stored for me to take in the next few months... When one puts down things like this, I obviously chose the latter: put them on sale, I told her. R. (my old manager) will make me his discount on his store. And he did and told me "How can a person be like this and do this to you?" He knew her.

Still to this day I haven't entered at what used to be my second home...

Aww, the bookshop world...

The magic lingers on though... now that I'm a costumer.

Goncalo Veiga said...

P.S. Could you tell me the name of that Orwell's essay, please?

Steerforth said...

It's called 'Bookshop Memories' and can be found in his selected essays.

Susan Hill said...

It is because to most people the staff of book or any other shops, like waiters, are completely invisible.

Steerforth said...

Yes, I agree. That's why I like holding author events, as they can provide a more relaxed setting and give readers, booksellers and authors a chance to exchange views.

I'm not a big fan of signing sessions, but listening to writers discuss their work is always rewarding. Peter James came to our shop in June and was fascinating. My favourite anecdote was about his father, who whilst watching a TV adaptation of 'Kane and Abel' suddenly stood up, said 'Fuck this!' and dropped down dead. Peter James later told the bemused Lord Archer that he was responsible for his father's death!