Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Best of Times

It's exactly ten years since the bookshop company I worked for - Ottakar's - was taken over HMV Media, who incorporated the shops into its Waterstone's chain. I was happy at Ottakar's. It was a company that valued individuality, not only tolerating the quirky and eccentric, but actively encouraging it. Ottakar's and I were a good fit.

The company culture came from its founder and managing director, James Heneage - a man who was the antithesis of the grey-suited businessman. Fiercely intelligent and disarmingly honest, he had an unusual background. Expelled from a famous public school, he went on to join the army at Sandhurst and was allegedly responsible for the only mutiny in his regiment's history, when he got his soldiers lost in a jungle.

I suspect that many of the anecdotes about James were apocryphal, but it wouldn't have surprised me if they were true. James was a larger than life character, with a clipped military voice that boomed across the room. During a visit to one shop in early December, James was dismayed to find that there were no Christmas decorations and bellowed at the manager "What are you? Some sort of Calvinist?!"

But underneath the bluff exterior, there was a great warmth and we all felt that he was on our side. I have met many politicians, actors, writers and artists, but few of them have had the charisma that James Heneage possessed. He was a natural leader.

I enjoyed the job because in addition to the mundane business of running a shop, I had the opportunity to hold events, write articles about authors and meet a variety of people at launch parties. Sometimes the encouters were quite surreal: a conversation about NCP car parks with Lee Child, meeting John Grisham in a medieval hall that looked like something out of Hogwarts, dancing with a very drunk Mrs Doyle from Father Ted, meeting a True Crime author who told me that he could kill me with his bare hands if he wasn't a Buddhist, discussing the book trade with Jacqueline Wilson whilst sitting on a merry-go-round, advising Katie Price what she and Peter Andre should read in bed was all very amusing.

I also worked with some lovely people - bright, unpretentious, full of fun, mostly. Most of the staff went on to greater things, but a few would have struggled to find employment anywhere else; for example, one member of staff liked watching DVD boxed sets of Apollo landings in real time and also had a collection of music by Nazi swing bands (one dance hit was called 'Bomb England'), but they loved their books and were a real assett to the business.

When the company was taken over, the new owners said how much they valued our 'passion' and wanted to incorporate it into the wider business, but within a year my job had turned into a very dull admin role, with all of the important decisions made elsewhere. After 18 unhappy months, I decided to leave Waterstone's before they left me.

But rather than dwell on sad endings, here's a small celebration of what I loved about Ottakar's:

Partly out of devilment, but also in an attempt to boost sales, I held an event featuring dangerous and exotic animals during the school holidays. In hindsight, it could have ended badly, but luckily it passed without a hitch. This woman has a rather useless chameleon on her arm. Why hasn't it turned blue?

In this photo, I'm holding a tarantula, wondering what will happen it it jumps off and runs away.

The Science Museum decided that their existing bookshop was too dull and asked Ottakar's to come in and make it more 'visitor friendly'. Less charitable souls might say that we took a good academic bookshop and dumbed it down, but it went down very well with the Museum and I really enjoyed the challenge of setting up a shop in such a unique envionment.

I'm not sure if the Museum realised how little we knew about science - we were completely winging it - but I think we got away with it.

I was very flattered when James Heneage told me that I was the ideal man for the job, possessing the necessary tact and diplomacy to deal with the museum authorities. Later I discovered that four people had turned the position down before I was offered it.

We had to work with the existing fixtures and fittings, all of which were very drab, but managed to come up with something half decent. Unfortunately, the director of the museum didn't like the illuminated sign, as he felt that the phrase 'Adult Books' had unfortunate associations.

An Ingmar Bergman moment from a lovely weekend in Sweden, courtesy of one of my ex-booksellers from the Clapham branch, who let us use her flat in Stockholm. As much as I love books, it's the people that I valued most about the job.

In the Crawley branch, we held the longest ever Jacqueline Wilson signing event, which lasted for eight hours. This photo doesn't do justice to the length of the queue.

Even the most jaded, world weary bookseller would be hard pressed not to be moved by an event like this. Jacqueline Wilson was wonderful and made every child feel as if they had a special bond with her. It was quite terrifying when it started, as I had no idea that so many people would turn up. When some very 'assertive' mothers started to surge forward, I had to act quickly to avoid a punch-up.

In Ottakar's the ethos was that quirky, interesting shops were good for business. Staff were encouraged to think of innovative ways to display and promote books, which made the job far more interesting for them. Every shop I worked in had at least one talented artist who produced the most astonishing windows.

In 2005, I had to open a shop in Worthing at the same time that my father was dying. It was a challenging time, but in many ways it helped having something to focus on. It was the first time I'd had the opportunity to recruit a team of staff from scratch, so I decided to follow my gut instinct and pick people I'd be happy to go to the pub with. The result was one of the happiest places I've worked in.

The set-up week involved converting a bare shell of a unit into a fully stocked shop with 25,000 books within five days. Every day we worked for up to 12 hours, then went out drinking. No matter lively the evening was, everyone was back the following morning at 8.00 sharp, which was quite remarkable in some cases.

The takeover of Ottakar's wasn't a certainty. The bid had been referred to the Monopolies Commission and we spent the best part of a year wondering what our fate was going to be. But on a Monday morning at the beginning of July, I turned on my PC and saw an email that read 'Welcome to Waterstone's'.

My heart sank.

If I ever come into a small fortune, I will revive a branch of Ottakar's just for the fun of it. I suppose the name is copyrighted, so keep an eye out for a bookshop called Ottokers, O.T.Takars or Otto Kerr's.


zungg said...

A wonderful post.

Tororo said...

We wish you the best of lucks, Mr Kerr.

Annabel Gaskell said...

When Ottokars opened in Stevenage it was like a breath of fresh air after our only indie bookshop had shut. It was a small branch, but always came out with a book or two each visit. It sounds like it was a great company to work for.

George said...

I suspect that it was the beginning of the end for the US chain Borders when the founders sold it to K-Mart. It is a shame to see these things happen.

Polly said...

But it sounds like you really were "the right man for the job". I hope a similar opportunity arises again for you.

Wish there was an indie book shop around here. We just have Barns and Noble, and that's 35 miles away!

Toffeeapple said...

Oh, I do so miss Ottakars; such an exciting, original place to be.

Steerforth said...

Zunng - Thank you.

Tororo - Merci.

Annabel - It was. Other business could have learned a few lessons from it.

George - Borders was an interesting case. When it opened its first London branch in 1998, it looked like the future of bookselling. I was very impressed by the range of magazines and journals and the listening stations for CDs. How wrong I was.

Polly - Perhaps I was - the Museum seemed happy with the result.

Toffeeapple - There was the sense that however bizarre your idea was, if you could justify it, it would be given a chance.

Taxmom said...

This is a lovely post. I love the bookstores (increasingly rare) with 'staff picks' that put me on to something I never would have chosen otherwise. Your events all sound inspired and it must have been great to have admin who let you take an idea and run with it. Even though it is only marginally related to to your topic, I kept thinking you could have titled your post after Grillparzers' tragedy: (King) "Ottokars Glueck und Ende".

Lucille said...

I still miss the branch of Ottakars we had in otherwise unlovely Bromley.
A Waterstones has opened in Rye but it is hiding its identity under the name The Rye Bookshop. I have seen another blogger referring to it as an indie bookshop in her review so it is fooling people.

Angela Lambert said...

Sooner or later you will open a book shop.Probably a lot further down the road and maybe ,as your son keeps surprising you,with him.

Polly said...

Steerforth, (I used to have a racing pigeon named Steerforth) check out I just did a search and found a few sellers of vintage books on there. Use the term "vintage" rather than second hand. I sell my hand carved rubber stamps on there and was surprised at how quickly customers found my shop. Etsy only takes about 3% commission and a 20 cent listing fee. It's helping to support my horse and donkey habit :)

I'd love to sell locally - the nearest tiny town gets quite a number of tourists and is a haven for artists and musicians, a really cool, happening little place ( Floyd,Virginia) - but all the vendors take 30% 50% commission on each sale!

I can just imagine the wonderful,evocative settings your books would be pictured in.

Kristin said...

What a wonderful post about a wonderful place. I hope you do one day fall into a fortune and get to open up shop again. said...

Bookshops are actually opening up again here in the U.S. Not in very large numbers but it's happening. Mostly, smaller shops, more local chains. I've not seen anything quite like the Ottaker's you describe, though. Sounds like a wonderful job that you were lucky to have.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post as always. How about Otter Tarka ?

Anonymous said...

Loved your descriptions of meetings with famous literary figures. My most embarrassing was while working at Battersea reference library in the mid 1990s. A very pleasant, well spoken middle-aged gentleman came in and asked to reserve a book from our architecture Special Collection. "Can I take your name". "Merlin Holland". "Gosh that's a very unusual and historic name". No answer, slightly long pause and blank stare. "Hmm... well Oscar Wilde's grandson was called Merlin Holland" Half expecting him to ask who was Oscar Wilde. long pause "I am Oscar Wilde's grandson... " Oh the embarrassment but it ended well and I can say that I have shaken hands with a man who shook hands with a man who was tucked up and no doubt fell asleep to the most wonderful bedtime stories read or improvised by his father, the inimitable Oscar.

Martin Hodges said...

In my working life there were few places I really enjoyed turning up at, day after day. But in 1986, after a long spell of unemployment, I landed a seasonal delivery job with a Cornish brewery. In 1987 I was offered a full-time job. My years spent there were near perfect. Delivering alcoholic beverages during the day, in one of the prettiest counties in the country, and studying for an Honours degree in European Humanities in the evenings and weekends. I'm certain I'd have enjoyed working in your branch of Ottakars, Steerforth. Great post, as ever.

Lesley Smith said...

We did so love Ottokars in Aberdeen, which was a regular stop for my parents, and latterly my mother, for a new book, and where we, when visiting, would uncover glorious treasures, local authors, contemporary literature in translation and a superb poetry section, plus friendly and kind staff who dealt flawlessly and usually successfully with requests of the "I can't remember the author or the title but it's about the history of Scotland after World War II and was reviewed a few weeks ago" genre. Just reading your piece transported me to Union Street, Ottokars, and the excitement of finding something I didn't even know I was looking for...

zmkc said...

The Christmas/Calvinist story reminds me of a larger than life Professor of Anthropology called Professor Forge who came from Britain to work at the Australian National University. One evening, all Canberra's meek and mild fans of classical music were waiting to get into a concert at the School of Music, entry to which was being hopelessly mismanaged. Forge turned up, very tall, wearing a Hawaian shirt, his grey hair standing out round his head. He always carried with him the faint, rather pleasant, smell of cigars. Looking round, he summed up the situation immediately "Why are we all queuing in this asinine way", he boomed. Here was clarity, here was someone who would make the world a better place, I thought. Sadly, he got ill shortly after and died. Probably the cigars.