On reflection, my relationship with bookselling has mirrored Elizabeth Kübler-Ross's model for the five stages of grieving:
1. Denial: This is just a temporary expedient while I find something that is more suited to my talents.
2. Anger: It's been two years now. I'm skint and I still have no idea what to do with my life.
3. Bargaining: While I'm here, I may as well apply for that floor mananger job in Kingston.
4. Depression: I've just turned 30 and I'm still working in a bookshop. What a loser.
5. Acceptance: Actually, there are worse jobs than this. At least I'm a manager now. The pay is better, the work can be interesting and most of my colleagues are lovely people.
As time went on I began to appreciate my work far more, particularly when I worked for Ottakar's. How many other jobs would have given me the opportunity to discuss bedtime reading with Katie Price, or bemoan the state of the book trade with Jacqueline Wilson while sitting on a moving merry-go-round?
But the price for these precious moments was a heavy one: Christmas. I'm not just talking about the Phil Spector loop tapes, but also the sheer volume of books that had to be sold in November and December. It was exhausting.
Most branches of retail sensibly spread their sales across the year. However, in the book trade, 50% of the income is earned during the last ten weeks of the year and much of that money comes from a relatively small selection of bestsellers - usually hardbacks that consist of the following:
- Two ghostwritten celebrity memoirs, one of which will be by someone in Eastenders
- A sci-fi/fantasy novel by a man called Terry
- The new Patricia Cornwell thriller
- The Guinness Book of Records
- A biography of a very dull sportsperson/yachtswoman/commentator
- A quirky, humourous title that has taken everyone by surprise
- A Jamie Oliver cookery book
- A Nigella Lawson cookery book
- A tie-in with a television series on BBC1, usually presented by a man called David
- The Booker Prize winner, if it's by an author whose name is pronounceable
- A misery memoir of horrific child abuse - Happy Christmas!
- A beautiful children's pop-up book, handmade by Bolivian peasants earning 50p an hour
- A stocking filler about bodily functions
- The Friendship Book
As a manager, I knew that my head was on the block. If I ran out of any bestselling titles, it was a big black mark. However, if I ordered too much stock and was still stuck with it on December 27th, I would also be in trouble.
In addition to the bestellers, there were plenty of other things that could go wrong and at some point in the early hours of the morning, I would often wake up and go through tedious lists in my head:
- Did we have enough Book Tokens?
- Remember to increase the change float for the weekend.
- Find out if any of the weekend staff can cover if someone phones in sick.
- Don't forget to check that we have enough carrier bags.
- Get more of that bestelling pop-up book because it won't be reprinted before Christmas.
- Mustn't forget to refresh the window display.
- Tell X that they can't block the fire exit with boxes.
- Check last year's sales to see how many Jamie Olivers sold in the final week.
- Make sure the sale posters have arrived.
- Check WH Smith to see if they're selling Y for less than us.
The challenge of having to take five times as much money, unpack five times as many deliveries and have enough staff to cover these tasks (and the extended opening hours) was a daunting prospect, but I learned how to avoid the pitfalls and genuinely enjoyed the challenge and camaraderie.
I miss that moment on Christmas Eve, after the doors have finally closed, when you know that the madness is over for another year and that in spite of sickness, missing deliveries and dreadful weather, you've pulled it off. After wishing the staff a Happy Christmas, you walk around the empty shop and take stock (not literally, I hasten to add), looking at the books that surprised everyone by becoming bestsellers and those that were supposed to, but didn't.
Your 16-year-old self would probably be rather disappointed that you've ended up running a shop, but there's not much call for third-rate composers these days and after all, this is a bookshop. So many people would think that having a whole bookshop to yourself is heaven and suddenly, you realise that they're right.