I'm feeling quite cheerful today, particularly as I've just been hearing about what an awful Christmas most of our friends have had. As Tolstoy observed in Anna Karenina, people are miserable for a variety of reasons, however there does seem to be a consistent thread running through most of the anecdotes I've heard: 40-something parents, squeezed between demanding young children and needy, elderly parents, several of whom have become too ill to return home and are still in Lewes.
My mother-in-law attempted to spend Christmas with us, but had to abandon her journey because of the appalling weather. She got as far as Victoria Station, which was apparently full of exhausted, folorn-looking pensioners, dragging wheeled suitcases of presents. In their ap-free existence, they were blissfully unaware that the entire transport network had been shut down.
Our Christmas was rather pleasant, apart from my growing conviction that I was going to die soon.
I'm trying to convalesce, but it's difficult. When you work for a company or organisation, sick leave can feel like a minor victory against the machine. But now I'm the machine and I can't afford to take two weeks off, so I've been making short trips to work to fulfill orders and deal with enquiries.
I'm relieved that I don't run a bookshop. I entertained the idea a few years ago, but was warned off by James Heneage, the former MD of Ottakar's. I'm very glad that I listened. I would have had to borrow money, either to buy an existing business or establish a new one and would have been servicing a debt in the face of declining book sales.
Selling on the internet is easy, compared to running a shop. I don't have to start work at 9.00 and no longer have to worry about window displays, bestsellers, promotions, local parking charges, bad weather, staff sickness, health and safety audits, cashing-up, cleaning, deliveries, Christmas opening hours, signing sessions or dealing with customers. I have no 'brand'. I just sell my books for a pound or two less than the next person.
I've noticed that each country I sell to has its own quirks. German customers can be obsessed with delivery times, but are scrupulously honest. Italian buyers often seem pleasantly surprised when the book actually arrives, as if it is an unsual occurence. Americans rarely leave feedback unless they are annoyed, which distorts the seller rating.
Some of them are also very sensitive to 'odors'.
I realise that it is rather offputting if a book smells and if I detect a strong scent of tobacco or mildew, I'll either bin the book or mention it in the listing. Unfortunately, judging by the comments I receive, a small number of books slip through the net, probably because my nasal acumen has been dulled by the cowshed opposite my unit:
Britain appears to be the home of pedants. My actual customers are fine, but I occasionally receive strongly-worded emails from browsers informing me that my book listing about so-and-so is woefully inaccurate and that the real first edition was published with a blue cloth cover in 1872. Sometimes, the timing (usually sent after 10.00pm) and tone suggests that the author has had a few drinks.
Of course I don't like to make mistakes, but if the only existing record for a title is in error, I have no way of telling. I welcome politely-worded corrections, but take exception to the more pompous, boorish emails.
I'm also slightly irritated by the emails I get from secondhand booksellers, particularly the ones in block capitals that read: "PLEASE ADVISE BEST PRICE INCLUDING DEALER DISCOUNT AND 2ND CLASS POST."
In a nutshell, they want to buy a book from me for around £4 and sell it on for a markup. I've no objection to that. If a seller has found customers who are prepared to pay more, then good luck to them. But when they want me to give them a 10% discount, cheaper postage and pay by cheque (which requires a time-wasting trip to the bank), I become rather grumpy and want to say "Just buy the book, like everybody else".
Fortunately, most of the people I deal with, in every country, are thoroughly decent and reasonable (they are bibliophiles, after all) and the majority of emails are from customers telling me how delighted they are with their purchase. It's particularly gratifying when someone has been reunited with a much-loved book from their youth.
Perhaps the aspect of my work that I find most satisfying is when a book that was destined for the scrapheap - literally - now has a new lease of life, bringing pleasure to another generation of readers. My business is small enough for me to care about each individual order and I enjoy finding out why Mrs X in Wyoming has spent so many years looking for the 1927 novel I've just sold to her.
The other advantage of selling on the internet is that my working hours are completely flexible, which means that I can deal with my son's various problems without having to take time off. Sometimes a whole day can be lost to medical appointments or a sudden crisis, so it is useful to be in a postion where I can catch up at the weekend.
I often go to work on Sunday, but I don't like it. The building creaks and groans, with noises that sometimes sound as if someone is standing behind me. It's very M. R. James at times.
I mention M. R. James as if I'm familiar with his works, but apart from one short story and the odd BBC drama, I'm a stranger to his oeuvre; probably because I find it hard to become engaged with something I don't believe in. I prefer the more worldly company of Anthony Trollope.
On the subject of Trollope, again, I'll end with this anecdote, which I forgot to mention in my last post:
One day, Trollope was in his club and heard two men complaining bitterly about how annoying one of his characters was, in a story that was being serialised. Trollope tapped both men on the shoulder and said: "Gentlemen, I shall have her killed within the week."