Thursday, March 15, 2012

My First Year in Bookselling

Sometimes I find it hard to believe that I spent the best part of 18 years working in bookshops. Where did all the time go? It's not even as if I wanted to be a bookseller. I just needed a job and my girlfriend told me that there was a vacancy in a new shop called Waterstone's. I'd never heard of them.

I got the job after an interview with a woman with shaking hands, who already seemed tired and disillutioned with her new shop. That probably wasn't a good sign. I was offered a starting salary of £7,250 p/a, rising to £7,500 if I completed my three month probationary period.

Even 20 years ago, if you earned less than £10,000 a year, your options in life were pretty limited. With such awful pay, the job could only be a useful stopgap. It certainly wasn't a sensible career choice.

Sadly, I didn't have a Plan B and my Damascene moment never came. Some booksellers passed through the shop like gap year backpackers in Goa, taking a breather before going on to enjoy successful careers in television or publishing. I stayed and became Colonel Kurtz.

I spent the early 1990s at Waterstone's in Richmond - an affluent suburb of London that was quickly changing from old money into a ghetto for post-apartheid South African exiles, American business execs and semi-retired rock stars. I think my mother was the last working class person to grow up in Richmond. There should be some sort of plaque on her old house.

Starting at Waterstone's was a baptism of fire. I wasn't well-read in those days (I was more interested in music) and each shift was like being on Mastermind, except that the rounds lasted for three hours at a time and you weren't allowed to make a mistake or say "Pass".

Some people shouted at me because I hadn't heard of the book they wanted. Others merely resorted to sarcasm or barely-concealed contempt. At first it was deeply humiliating, but as my knowledge and confidence grew, I realised that it was unreasonable for people to expect me to be omniscient. It wasn't a personal failure if I'd never heard of an obscure, long out of print novel that was published in 1948.

I noticed that a lot of older people seemed to resent the young and welcomed the opportunity to bully them. Men in their 60s would regularly chastise our 18-year-old Saturday girl for her poor general knowledge of politicians of the 1950s, forgetting that they had lived four times as long, whilst middle-aged women expected me to be their gimp, running up and down the three flights of stairs until I'd reached the bottom of their long lists (sadly the demands stopped there).

The worst were the South African women, dripping in gold, with vulgar Gucci sunglasses and rottweiler accents: "Yeess, Ah'm wanting to know if you hev eeny books bah theess lady?" The answer was always Jackie Collins and even if the book was staring them in the face, it seemed to go against the grain for them to do anything for themselves.

Every day was a struggle, but luckily I picked the job up quite quickly and learned to talk with great authority on subjects that I knew nothing about. I also realised that I had a knack for making sure that we didn't run out of the bestselling titles (harder than it sounds when publishers took up to three weeks to deliever and there were no computerised stock control systems).

But perhaps the most important lesson I learned was how to answer back in a way that wouldn't get me the sack. Once people could no longer smell the fear, they treated me with respect and I began to enjoy my job more.

Interestingly, the really successful people - whether they were famous authors like Anthony Burgess or celebrities like Mick Jagger - were unfailingly polite. It was the noveau riche who were a pain in the arse. They were usually quite thick as well, but felt that their wealth conferred a natural superiority.

Anthony Burgess. One of my colleagues dared me to tell him how much I enjoyed his 'Chocolate Orange', but I chickened out.

For some reason that I couldn't fathom, the most ghastly people always bought Ayn Rand or The Art of War, whilst the dippy ones couldn't get enough of A Year in Provence. I tried hard not show my contempt for people's book choices, but when one Tim-Nice-But-Dim customer held up a copy of The Bridges of Madison County and said "This is wonderful, isn't it..." I cracked and launched into a Bernard Black-style diatribe.

Apparently the poor man left the shop looking as if he'd been horribly violated. I'm amazed he didn't complain.

During my first year at Waterstone's, I quickly discovered that bookshops were magnets for eccentrics, kleptomaniacs and the mentally ill - and that was just the staff (the most audacious book thief was a man called Desmond who decided that the most efficient way of stealing stock was to become a bookseller). We also had a loyal following of lost souls who spent so much time in the shop that their stock knowledge easily equalled ours.

In many ways bookselling left a lot to be desired. The money was terrible, working with the public was exhausting and the shift system meant that many evenings and weekends were wasted.

However, the best parts of the job more than compensated for the irritations. I loved having the freedom to spend vast sums of money buying new titles from publishers' reps (all of whom seemed to be called Brian or Keith), taking a punt on an unknown author or range, only to find that I'd spotted a new trend, like the Aga saga craze. In my first year at Waterstone's, two buying decisions alone paid for my salary.

Trying to look busy, waiting for the self-timer to go off

I also loved meeting authors and publishers, deciphering the complex web of friendships and petty rivalries between people in the book world. I never read reviews in the same light once I realised how many of them were written by friends reviewing each others' books.

Sometimes I even liked working with the public - usually on a quiet evening when there was time to talk to customers, find out what they liked and make recommendations. Seeing people enjoy the shop, relaxing in an armchair with a book from a new display I'd created was very rewarding.

The first year passed quickly. 12 months on I still had no idea what I wanted to do and although I hated being poor, I realised that I loved my job. The books were interesting, my colleagues were bright, funny people and I felt that I was quite good at what I did.

Some of the staff of Waterstone's Richmond, on Brighton Pier

I stayed. The money gradually improved and by the time I was a manager in London, I was able to afford a mortgage, meals out and a decent holiday every year. It didn't last. I ruined it all by having children and leaving London. I have lived in penury ever since.

I'd probably still be managing a bookshop now, if HMV hadn't bought Ottakar's. But I'm very glad I left. I don't think that I could ever go back to working weekends, dealing with the public and putting up with head office edicts any more. Once you've tasted freedom, it's hard to go back.

However I miss the fun: the buzz of a crowded shop on the last Saturday before Christmas, meeting old friends at drunken book launches and having a good bitch with the publishers' sales reps. I don't think there's much fun in the book trade any more, so perhaps I was lucky to get out while I did.

How many other jobs give you the opportunity to play with wigs, make-up and live snakes?


zmkc said...

Wonderful post

Martin said...

Being a bit unconventional, myself, I used to take staff to Waterstone's, for their annual appraisals. A comfortable setting, away from the workplace, where we could talk in a relaxed way. In my latter days, I switched the venue to the pub. The meaningless ritual of appraising was more bearable for all concerned, with a little alcohol and a light lunch.

Glad to hear that you're enjoying your new life.

Annie said...

Hello. Very nice post, it brought back memories. I used to work at Books Etc (it was a quiet branch in Holborn, now a Waterstones, and amazingly didn't open on weekends.)
Our shoplifters used to mainly shoplift True Crime. One tried to put a whole shelf of True Crime down their trousers. I miss working in bookshops. Bravo for bookselling independently.

Richmonde said...

You don't look how I imagined you at ALL - yellow, scaly, fork-tongued...

Steerforth said...

Martin - Appraisals! Another pointless, time-consuming exercise. Good for you for making them more bearable.

Annie - Poor old Books Etc - ruined first by Borders, then Waterstone's. The book thieves were amazing weren't they. Did you ever get the man with huge, Times Atlas-shaped pockets?

Richmonde - I'm a master of disguise!

Canadian Chickadee said...

If that's you in the last photo, you bear an uncanny resemblance to Gene Simmons of Kiss ....

Steerforth said...

It is me, but under make-up and a black wig. I really don't look anything like that, sadly.

It was for a Harry Potter launch and I thought I'd add a bit of excitement by having some live snakes and poisonous spiders (I probably broke a few health and safety regulations).

It was great fun and I got a prize out of it too - a day on the Orient Express. Very nice!

Sarah said...

That was so interesting hearing about the different people who bought certain types of books. A fascinating insight.

The best bookseller I ever came across was one in an independent shop in Dallas, TX. I went in and asked him to recommend a good read. He looked at me, asked me a couple of questions and handed me Arturo Perez Reverte's 'The Club Dumas'. A great choice because I loved the book and the style and went on to read others.

He obviously had human psychology down to a T with regards reading choices.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

What a wonderful posting. I particularly loved the bit about the South African women with the rottweiler accents who could never find Jackie Collins! I used to be friends with poet/author David Dabydeen who considered it incredibly flattering every time someone shoplifted one of his books. But I can imagine it is a pain in the proverbials in real life. Great photo of you in Harry Potter character guise!

Annabel (gaskella) said...

Another wonderful post. Despite all the pitfalls of working in a bookshop, if I wasn't happy in the little job I'm in, I'd still want to work in a bookshop.

Gardener in the Distance said...

Steerforth, I couldn't say it better, what you've said here, about the challenge of bookselling. I began in Melbourne in 1981, and my experience has been much like your own. It is the whackiest, least rewarding, most ephemeral of "careers": in my own case, it seemed to be all I coud do. And now, at 53, I work 2 days a week in a second-hand bookshop, being diplomat, priest, policeman and Mr Nice to people I take to be fictional, but who are apparently more real than me.

Annie said...

Ha! I never met the well-organised shoplifter. Oops, forgot the apostrophe... *blushes*

Biscuit said...

Have you seen 'Notting Hill'? It's not a great film of course but the bit about shoplifting books made me think of a wonderful scene from it featuring Dylan Moran.

I've never worked in a bookshop but I know a great deal of people who do/have, as well as people in publishing (small-scale, Canadian presses etc) and this post was very, very familiar.

Levi Stahl said...

When I think about it, I'm kind of amazed at how brief a time I was a bookseller--about two years at a literary and scholarly shop in the States, and six months at Books, Etc. in Whiteleys of Bayswater. Yet that short period helped me know what I was doing when I started out in publishing, and I find myself still drawing on it thirteen years later. Your stories call up a lot of memories, including of colleagues who had to essentially push shoppers out the door so they could lock up at 10 PM on Christmas Eve.

Your bit about the celebrities being friendly jibes with my experience: Sinead O'Connor shopped in our branch of Books, Etc. regularly and was always nice, and Chrissie Hynde, who popped in to buy a gift, was kind enough to offer to wrap it herself if i was too busy.

I don't miss bad customers, and I don't miss working weekends, but I do still somedays miss having regulars I liked and knowing, without having to make any special effort, what new and interesting books were being published.


I'm most surprised about your admission that you weren't always an avid reader. I imagined you being someone who'd constantly had his head in a book since the day you learnt to read.
I hope you write a book eventually. You know all the promotional tricks, and you'd get the chance to showcase your acting.
Dealing with the general public is always fraught with challenges, I'm no good at it. I'll be nice one minute, snappy and irritable the next.
Whatever you do in life, you'll forever be surrounded by books, that's a very good thing.

Brian Busby said...

You bring back memories that are so similar I almost feel we worked in the same store. And yet, mine come not from Waterstone's, but Chapters, its Canadian equivalent. Pay was miserable, shifts disrupted sleep and threatened relationships, yet I still look back with some nostalgia. In those days, when Amazon was still finding its feet, a bookstore with 100,000 titles was a gathering place for the odd, the educated and the truly disturbed. The promise of every F. Scott Fitzgerald title in print did attract.

No more. Books, fewer and fewer, now serve as a backdrop to scented candles, soaps, table lamps and other lifestyle kitch.

Never became a publisher's rep, though I did apply - the name wasn't enough, I suppose.

Rog said...

The Chocolate Orange would have been worthy of Ali G or Dennis Pennis.

Steerforth said...

Sarah - That's the mark of a good bookseller and I still think we need people to curate the vast number of titles in print, sorting out the wheat from the chaff.

Laura - It was a pain. Most of the book theft was committed by a small number of professionals and I got to know most of them by sight, to the point where they'd walk in the door, see me and do a 180 degree turn.

Gardener - Like Churchill's quote about democracy, I sometimes think that bookselling's the worst job in the world, apart from all the others!

Biscuit - I'm afraid I stopped watching Richard Curtis films after I saw the lamentable Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Levi - I'm relieved to read that others have had similar experiences. Getting people out of the shop was a real challenge and we only managed to achieve it by plunging customers into darkness, leaving a small number of lights on near the door so that they would be drawn, moth-like, to the exit.

Lucy - I'm afraid that working in the business has killed any desire I might have had to write a book. I've spent too many hours boxing (and sometimes tearing) up unsold first novels. I like blogging because it lets you scratch the writing itch without having to go through the whole painful process of spending months or years writing a book that's probably going to end up being pulped.

Brian - Yes, the shift system wasn't great for social or personal relationships. I remember the humilation of begging people to swap shifts with me so that I could say yes to an invitation somewhere.

Looking back, it was a frustrating job in so many ways, but like you I still feel nostalgic and find today's bookshops, with their 'related product' and EPOS-maintained stock levels, a poor substitute for the days when stock levels reflected what we though people should read.

Steerforth said...

Rog - If Burgess hadn't been such a harmless, bumbling figure, I might have given in to temptation.

juna said...

Have you read George Orwell's essay on his experience as a bookseller, Bookshop Memories? Like you, Orwell had interesting (and entertaining) things to say about the clientele and their reading habits. Sadly, the work also made him hate books for a time. Something about the quantity of volumes that he had to deal with became offputting.

Steerforth said...

Yes Juna, I've read it a couple of times and have always marvelled at how little things have changed in 70 years.

May said...

For some reason, I feel that being a bookseller would diminish my love for books (this doesn't make much sense since my love for mathematics did not keep me away from working with numbers).

Steerforth said...

May - I think you're quite right. I used to regard all books as sacred, but when I realised how much ephemeral dross was published, I quickly became disillutioned. I became even more disillutioned when I saw good books - first novels, collections of poems and innovative art titles - failing miserably and ending up being pulped.

I'm glad I left high street bookselling before the launch of the last Dan Brown novel. I wouldn't have liked to be one of those bookshop managers who had to pretend that they were "really excited" by the prospect of a midnight launch for the follow-up to the Da Vinci Code.

However, I also remember how bookselling gave me the power to promote books I believed in. Even in towns where nobody seemed to care about literary fiction, I managed to sell 30 copies of Bel Ami. I'm a great believer in sowing seeds. So although becoming a bookseller is, in many ways, a soul-destroying experience, what's left is the transfigurative power of great books to change people.

Perhaps I'm being sentimental, but that's what kept me going.

May said...

Well, I guess that spending time with a book, even one of Dan Brown's thrillers, is better than spending time on social networks.

By the way, since none of my (very few) blogger friends bothered to give me some advice, may I ask you if is there a thriller book that you would recommend?
It should not have to do with blood and homicides.
I like this genre but am invariably disappointed. The plot is either boring, weak or meaningless.

Steerforth said...

I can strongly recommend 'The Unit' by Ninni Holmqvist, which has the pace and tension of a thriller without the awful cliches and superfluous gore.

May said...

Thank you!
I see that it hasn't been translated in my language but I guess I could make a little effort and read it in English.

The hardest part will be finding time to read it. I seem to be stuck in the part when I savor the minute that I'll pick a book up. Anyway, I'll get it. Thanks.