Thursday, April 12, 2012


After my recent post about publishers' sales reps, it seems only fair to turn the spotlight round to the booksellers. What type of people work in a bookshop? Are they passionate, slightly unworldly bibliophiles, who live and breathe books? Or are they a bunch of slackers, who break out into a cold sweat at the prospect of having to do a proper job?

During a very dull moment in a waiting room, I tried to remember everyone I'd ever worked with. I got to 200 before my memory started to become hazy. I felt slightly guilty when I realised that I hadn't given some of my ex-colleagues a second thought since we'd last met, but I expect they'd probably say the same about me.

The weekend staff were particularly hard to remember. The boys, who all seemed to be studying 'A' level English, merged into one amorphous blend of earnestness and skin complaints, although there were a couple who amused me by telling dirty jokes (which I then passed on to the reps).

The girls were easier to recall because some of them had recently friended me on Facebook, in a barrel-scraping attempt to pass the 500/1000 friends mark (I quietly 'defriended' them after a suitable period, but I doubt that they noticed).

However, they weren't 'proper' booksellers. The weekend staff were merely taking a brief pitstop on their way to a glittering career (at least, that's what they told me). The idea of becoming a full-time bookseller horrified them almost as much as the thought of their parents having sex.

When I asked one girl what job she wanted to do, she replied: "I don't know yet, but I do know one thing: I'm not going to work here." She later became our floor manager.

As for the proper booksellers, in the early days of Waterstone's, the slackers ruled the roost. For them, bookselling was a continuation of university life, with its constant shortage of money and cramped bedsits; redeemed only by brilliant conversations with like-minded people and long periods of inertia. The hours weren't as great, but at least you didn't have to wear a suit.

Anyone who actually wanted to be a bookseller was regarded with a mixture of contempt and suspicion. Was that really the limit of their ambitions?

In hindsight we were probably awful. Our hatred for the customers - those people who dared to interrupt our conversations and ruin our displays by buying the books - was only exceeded by our contempt for a head office who lived in an ivory tower and dared to suggest that we should only stock books that seemed likely to sell. Philistines!

Oddly enough, the customers seemed to like our bolshy attitude and inappropriate clothing, so when one male member of staff decided to create a bondage outfit out of dustbin bags (complete with holes for the nipples) and serve at the till, no-one batted an eyelid.

The till-points of Waterstone's contained many frustrated writers, artists, teachers and media people, waiting for their dream job to come along. Surprisingly, their hopes weren't always in vain. After a year of displaying no discernible work ethic or talent, X would effortlessly drift into a key role at the British Council, whilst Y suddenly became a production assistant at Channel Four. How did that happen?

The Waterstone's staff uniform, circa 1993

At the end of five years of watching other people move on to better things, I felt that I ought to create an illusion of progress and left to run an independent bookshop. At the time it seemed like a sound move, but I quickly discovered that I was working for the Arthur Daley of bookselling, with van loads of dodgy stock mysteriously appearing on the shop floor overnight. I didn't want to be Terry McCann, so I started job hunting.

In 1996, a new bookselling chain - which seemed to have risen without a trace - was advertising for managers. After a rather unconventional interview with James Heneage, the managing director, I became a 'manager-in-waiting' at Ottakar's.

Ottakar's, which was a nationwide chain of smallish shops in market towns, was a revelation. I soon realised that outside London, booksellers were a very different breed. The staff I met actually seemed to take a pride in their work and would happily break-off a conversation if they saw that a customer needed help. I felt as if I had joined a group of evangelical Christians: wide-eyed, enthusiastic and committed. Some of them even wore ties.

I've no doubt that the good morale was a reflection of the leadership, but I also noticed that outside London, booksellers were generally more motivated than my former colleagues. They weren't passing through on their way to something better. This was their career.

Keeping up with such enthusiastic people was exhausting, but I did my best.

At Waterstone's most of the staff I met were in their 20s and all of them were graduates, as Tim Waterstone refused to employ anyone without a degree (by doing this, he missed out on some very good booksellers).

Ottakar's was very different, with a mixed bag of people whose ages ranged from 16 to 65. Some of them had degrees, but many had simply joined when they left school or moved across from a completely different area of retail. Sometimes the recruitment criteria were a little too lax, for me at least.

It took a while to get used to seeing a copy of the Daily Mail (or worse) in the staff room and when I spotted well-thumbed copies of novels by Patricia Cornwell and Terry Pratchett, I realised that there weren't going to be many fist fights for a proof copy of the latest Umberto Eco.

My shop in Crawley

I was at Ottakar's for ten years and, during that time, came to recognise similar types in every branch I ran or visited. Every shop had its high flyer (usually under the age of 23) who seemed more competent than the manager and was usually destined to be their boss in four years' time. Some managers felt threatened by them. I just saw an opportunity to take a long holiday without worrying about the shop.

These high flyers were usually counterbalanced by one or two no-hopers who could spend an hour discussing Robert Jordan's 'Wheel of Time' series with a customer, but still hadn't unpacked yesterday's delivery. They seemed to think that promotion was a simple award for long service and could never understand why some young upstart had been promoted over their head.

In Ottakar's, although the booksellers came from a variety of backgrounds, the one thing they all shared was a genuine love of books and a morbid fear of having to sit at a desk for eight hours a day. Bookselling provided a variety of work centred around something that actually mattered, which was not something that the local call centre could offer.

The last day of Ottakar's, Worthing, before it was converted into a Waterstone's

At my branch of Waterstone's (which was probably atypical) in the early 90s, the attitude was more cynical. The staff had no loyalty to the company and regarded their jobs as a temporary expedient. They might enthuse over certain titles, but the idea of being passionate about all books would have been viewed as absurd. Indeed, neatly hidden away at the till point was a small sticker that said "Books are crap".

However, in their own way, the arrogant slackers of the early Waterstone's years were often very good booksellers. Freed from the constraints of the career ladder, completely indifferent to the concerns of area managers, they ordered what they liked. One buyer was chastised by his manager for buying ten copies of a £100 Ansel Adams book, but they all sold within days

Fifteen years on, the new owners of Waterstone's were keen to turn their backs on an era in which the easiest way to identify a member of staff was to look for the scruffiest person in the shop. Graduates were no longer essential. The main qualification was a passion for selling. To the horror of many, a couple of managers had been recruited from Gap and Burger King!

There was a clear message: we don't think bookish people are always good at selling. In today's tough commercial climate, we need proper retailers.

(This YouTube video is a brilliant satire of Borders and the pre-Daunt Waterstone's - sadly embedding has been disabled, so follow the link and skip the advert after five seconds)

In my darker moments, I wondered if they were right. Perhaps the traditional booksellers were just unemployable misfits who'd enjoyed years of sanctuary in the book trade. However, after three years of 'retailing', with planograms, loyalty cards and a staff training scheme called 'Get Selling', Waterstone's was on its knees and almost disappeared from the high street, until a Russian oligarch came along and bought the company from HMV.

Today, things have come full circle. Unable to compete on price, booksellers are returning to their traditional role as curators of the huge, bewildering range of books in print. However good Amazon is, they will never be able to match the fiction-in-translation table at the Brighton branch of Waterstone's.

During the next decade, many bookshops will go to the wall - that much is certain - and booksellers will become an endangered, exotic species. However, the best bookshops should survive (high street landlords permitting).

But to return to the initial question: who becomes a bookseller? Looking back over 20 years of bookselling, I don't think I could say that there was a typical bookseller. There were some quiet, bookish types (who often left to train as librarians), but there were also louche bohemians, alcoholics, artists, drug dealers, ex-nuns, former policemen, future policemen, writers, rock musicians, reiki therapists, scientists and poker players.

Misfits. All very different, but all round pegs that didn't fit into square holes. With fewer bookshops on the horizon, things are going to get much harder.


lucy joy said...

Do you think there's a career you'd have been more suited to?

Steerforth said...

In another life, writing music for stage, film or television would have been my idea of Heaven. I did do it briefly and loved the challenge of coming up with music that fitted the atmosphere of the play.

Sadly, it didn't pay the bills and now I can't even read music properly.

I'm very grateful to bookselling for saving me from having to do a sensible job. It was an occupation that, until the last couple of years of Waterstone's, didn't 'mess with my head'. I met some great people, had a lot of fun and read some wonderful books.

Sorry for that dull, serious answer.

lucy joy said...

I wasn't after a silly or funny answer! I'm always interested in finding out more about jobs/careers, and whether or not there are any regrets. When Rob started at the college 6 years ago, there was a chap literally counting the years and months to his retirement, it soon became weeks and days. On the last week before his retirement he was quiet and sad, and on the last day was in a right state, didn't want to retire. I can see the same thing happening with my father.
Work, at the very least fills that time in the week which for so many, would be consumed with activity of a most unproductive nature.

Annabel (gaskella) said...

Your branch of Ottakars sounds like it was fun. I must admit that when Ottakars opened in Stevenage it became a real refuge for me, it was small but cheerful and full of good books. Where I live now, I'm lucky enough to have an indie bookshop that has fantastic booksellers - it makes a big difference. They work very hard at making the shop the success it is. I hope the shop is still there when my daughter is old enough to need a work experience placement!

Steerforth said...

Annabel - I am the winner of the official Ottakar's 'Best Fun' award for 2004. (I'm not making this up!) So yes, it was an enjoyable job compared to some I've had.

Lucy - Good, I'm glad that was the right answer. Music's always been my thing - much more than books.

Foxesatdawn said...

I was one of the few people without a degree who managed to get a job at Waterstone's in the early 90s. As far as I could tell, this was for two reasons: it was the City branch, which prided itself on low-brow celebrity book signings (Showaddywaddy, Muhammad Ali and Desert Orchid (yes, the actual horse) being just three examples), and so wasn't too fussed about literary credentials; and the Assistant Manager thought I had nice legs, although he was at pains to point out that they weren't the best legs of all the candidates.

Rog said...

" I realised that there weren't going to be many fist fights for a proof copy of the latest Umberto Eco."

Wonderful stuff.

Go team!

Steerforth said...

Foxes - I'm shocked that you brazenly displayed your legs during a professional job interview! You've never mentioned this before. Is there anything else I should know?

Rog - At my last job, I suffered the indignity of a 'high five' on more than one occasion, plus a "Go team!". Luckily, I managed to put a stop to it.

Martin said...

I interviewed at least four Waterstone's employees who were seeking alternative employment, over the years. We did appointed one. Poor woman, I'm afraid an academic library wasn't really the step-up she had envisaged. She lasted just a few months.

luis said...

The video clip you mention is from the TV show "Black Books". Bernard Black is to used bookselling what Basil Fawlty is to hotels.

I'd assumed that everyone in Britain had seen "Black Books".

Desperate Reader said...

I worked in Oddbins at the same time you were working in bookshops and could have been reading about my ex colleagues up to and including the bondage outfit and small sticker reading wine is poo that a previous manager had stuck on the cover of the Oxford companion to wine. There may have been a fraction more drinking involved. Amazingly the company made money (though not much of it) until an attempt to run it on more business like lines bought it to its knees.

Steerforth said...

Martin - I'm not surprised. I never understood people who thought that there was only a thin line between bookselling and library work.

Luis - Amazingly, although 'Black Books' is a wonderful series, I suspect that most people in Britain haven't seen it.

Desperate Reader - Yes, it's funny how the people who are brought in to make a company more business-like often end up killing it. In the case of Oddbins and Waterstone's, I think that the senior management thought that it was somehow possible to keep the quirkiness and eccentricity that the public love, whilst introducing more central controls.

But once you started telling the managers that they have to do X, Y and Z, they stop caring and the business dies.

Anonymous said...

Dillons in Watford sounds very similar to early Waterstones days, except we had to wear a stripy shirt, which most of us made look as 'casual' as possible.
We hated the customer, I remember them sometimes trying to interrupt phone conversations too whereby we would wave them downstairs.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

A wonderfully affectionate and poignant posting Steerforth.

In similar vein, here is an Onion clip bewailing what hoarding loons will do when there are no longer any newspapers.

keshling said...

Great post!I've always found booksellers, in whichever shop I go to, to be uniquely interesting and interested people, always very enthusiastic and unfailingly helpful. Now you're saying that some of them hate their customers! I'm saddened at the duplicity of them, and the acting talent.
We had Borders here before it disappeared. What a fab store.

K xx

Steerforth said...

Keshling - I don't think most booksellers hate their customers. If you're getting good service, I'm sure it's probably sincere. I was just writing about the slackers who viewed bookselling as a stopgap and had no invested interest in the success of the shop.

MizzKay said...

A great insight into the bookselling trade.
Sad to say I jumped ship after 3 new owners in 4 years with each one managing to destroy a bit more of the business during their term of ownership. Changing our motley bunch of successful managers (not a sane one amongst them) for young suits, improving it to the point of making the company extinct. Corporate image has a lot to answer for.