I took this just over an hour ago, as I was leaving work. It looks quite idyllic, but that's because you can't see the mud or experience the smell of rotting hay. I've never been anywhere so filthy. Spring seems a long way away.
But whenever I start to feel demoralised by the biting cold winds and short days, I remind myself that at least I'm no longer working in a bookshop at Christmas.
All retailers experience seasonal fluctuations, but few are more dependent on the Christmas period than the book trade, with 50% of the annual turnover packed into the last two months of the year. The frenetic pace is a far cry from the quiet, civilised image of bookselling.
When I worked at Ottakar's, a good Christmas meant pay rises, new shops and a managers' meeting abroad. A bad one resulted in a pay freeze, no shops and a meeting in Birmingham.
At Ottakar's, Christmas always began in March, when the lead titles for the autumn were revealed at the annual managers' conference, in a migraine-inducing Powerpoint presentation of book covers and loud music. Sometimes it felt as if we were watching a repeat of the previous year: Jamie Oliver, Nigella, Terry Pratchett, token sportsperson, token rock star, Wilbur Smith, quirky humour title, lavish history hardback, beautiful pop-up children's title, reckless attempt at in-house publishing, celebrity memoir, 'lyrical' literary novel and the obligatory amusing travelogue.
At some point in the presentation, the managing director would address the 120-odd managers and try to persuade them that this was the most crucial Christmas ever. Even more crucial than last year's most crucial Christmas ever. How much of this actually registered with the managers was debatable, as many of them were busy concentrating on trying not to be sick or fall over, after enjoying the previous evening's free bar.
After March, we would forget about Christmas for two months. Then, one day in June, the publishers' reps would begin arriving with larger folders containing the 'blad'
for the autumn titles. The festive season had begun.
Once, managers were responsible for ordering everything for their shop, but after the collapse of the Net Book Agreement, chain bookstores began buying the lead titles centrally. Commercially it made sense. Instead of 100 shops ordering small quantities of titles, a buyer at head office level would place one huge order for the whole chain, gaining an extra 9 to 10% discount from the publisher, which could then be used to provide a 'money off' offer to the customer.
Once the stock had arrived, it was the manager's job to ensure that they identified the bestselling titles and reordered enough stock to last them until Christmas eve.
This wasn't always as easy as it sounded. A book that had sold 11 copies a week in October might conceivably sell 200 a week in December, but if it didn't, you would be left with boxes of unsold stock and incur the wrath of your superiors.
The obvious answer was to only order enough stock to get you through the next two weeks. Unfortunately, this was a risky strategy, as some books regularly went into reprint (particularly if the author had just appeared on Jonathan Ross) and being out of stock of a Sunday Times Top 10 bestseller was even worse having too many copies of a dud celebrity memoir (the most notorious of which was Anthea Turner's
autobiography, which reached No.457 in the bestseller charts).
But even if you managed to get your stock levels exactly right, the shop could still grind to a halt if you'd forgotten to order enough bags or failed to increase your change float. As for staffing, I've lost count of the number of times my perfect rota would be sabotaged by someone phoning in to say that they had "a bit of a cold".
Getting the staff levels right was always a challenge. Instead of opening from 9.00am to 5.30pm, the working day increased each week until, a few days before Christmas, it lasted for 13 hours. As a manager, I had to plan two or three staggered shifts, ensure that the tills were covered during lunch breaks and also provide enough muscle to deal with the deliveries, which were at least four times their normal volume. As for the customers, sometimes the shop felt like the Storming of the Bastille:
During the final week before Christmas, I would invariably end up working for 13-hour days, dividing my time between placing last-minute hotline orders, unpacking deliveries, replenishing the tables and helping on the tills. By Christmas Eve, I had reached a point of exhaustion where I felt as if I had flu and, sadly, was rarely in the mood for a family celebration the following day.
Indeed, two months of grumpy customers, long opening hours, semi-hysterical emails from Head Office and a loop tape of carols did tend to kill off any latent Christmas spirit and when the 25th finally arrived, I had to pretend to be full of festive cheer. But at least I now had a break.
15 years ago, we used to enjoy a three-day holiday (returning on the 28th for a delightful day of people returning unwanted presents). This gave booksellers whose families lived hundreds of miles away enough time to travel home for Christmas (particularly as I would always close the shop early on the 24th).
But gradually this changed. As high street sales began to be affected by internet and supermarket competition, the pressure to open longer and close for fewer days increased each year. When I left bookselling, Christmas Eve was no longer a comparatively relaxed half day, but a frantic operation in which the shop was prepared for the sales. Also, the three-day break had now contracted to just the 25th.
In spite of everything, I used to get a buzz from bookselling at Christmas. Ottakar's was a good company to work for. But by the time HMV had bought the chain, it was no longer any fun. I did not appreciate receiving the 'planograms' that told me where to put my books, or the boorish senior manager whose sole mission seemed to be to find fault with everything he saw (a stark contrast to the Ottakar's managing director, who could have restored morale on the sinking Titanic).
One day, almost exactly five years ago, I drove to work on a frosty Saturday morning and parked my car a few hundred yards away from the shop I managed. As I walked through the deserted town centre, I asked myself what could worse than losing my job and the answer suddenly became very clear: keeping it. I left that evening and never returned.
Five years on, for the first time since the 1980s, I have managed to listen to 'Carols From Kings' without breaking out into a cold sweat (although I still feel like punching someone when I hear 'Let It Snow'). Perhaps some vestige of the Christmas spirit remains!
I'm sure that there are some bookshops out there where the Christmases are still enjoyable, but even if you're an independent or work for an enlightened employer, it must be very demoralising to have to compete with Amazon and the supermarkets. I think I'm better off with the mud and cows.