Friday, April 06, 2012

Homage to the Sales Rep, Part Two - From Our Northern Correspondent

Many thanks to those who tweeted links to my last post. I had no idea that a rambling tribute to the humble sales rep would provoke such a response. One comment, posted by a former colleague of mine, was so long that Blogger had a brainstorm and rejected it. Fortunately, he saved the text and emailed it to me.

I have reproduced it here, without permission, because it's far too good to languish in the obscurity of my email inbox.

Born 17 years before me, Mr X experienced the golden age of the book trade, when booksellers only had their wits and a micofiche to rely on. In those days, there was no '3 for 2' nonsense (a book cost what it said on the cover, so you could like it or lump it) and sales were achieved through good bookselling alone. How things have changed.

I'm not sure if Mr X wishes me to reveal his identity, but I have provided two visual clues for those in the know:

"What a wonderful post, Steerforth – and how brilliantly you capture the dogged spirit, essential kindness and serial eccentricity of reps. Your piece set me thinking of my own start in bookselling an age ago in the ‘60s.

I had washed up in Oxford after a failure to return the foetid hug of library school in the hot Summer of Love. Well, what would you have done in Aberystwyth in 1967? Bibliography and Classification at Llanbadarn Fawr or the beach, the Beatles and boy oh boy at Borth?

Clue No.1

My brother lived in Oxford and I had run there, away from my parents’ searing disapproval of my throwing away a decent living. They had seen a good career for me among the card files and date stamps of the West Riding County Library at Wakefield. Naturally I finished up in Blackwell’s.

Time passed and I found myself running the General Books Department in what was then undoubtedly one of the world’s greatest bookshops. Almost immediately, General became regarded as a dark ravine of insistent vulgarity, overshadowed by the high mountains of fine academic provision which surrounded it. I was unbelievably crass and ignorant when I began. I knew I wanted things to change. After all, not long before, we had been told to sell the 6 subscribed copies of Portnoy’s Complaint from behind the counter.

Around the same time, a huge debate among my seniors resulted in a decision that 36 copies of the first complete paperback edition of Lord of the Rings would suffice to meet the demand from town and gown. Things could only get better.

And this is where the reps came in. Only they weren’t called that. They were never called that. They were “travellers”. The qualifying “gentleman” was invisible but implied. It was indeed exclusively a masculine world. They tended to be tall, well-made men, red faced and often with moustaches which betrayed their forces backgrounds. They almost certainly, you felt, had had a good war. They were kindly and tolerant. They weren’t in any hurry. They knew what they knew.

Clue No.2

Goodness knows, by contrast, what they made of me – but they steered me and persuaded me and educated me so subtly that I often believed I was the absolute dog’s until I thought back over how I’d got from A to B.

They all stayed in the Eastgate Hotel on the High. Soon after 9 in the morning and lugging unfeasibly huge cases of samples, they would come plodding through Turl Street and into the Broad to begin the day’s subbing among the myriad BHB departments.

Most often, they represented individual publishing houses which in today’s world are mere imprints swallowed into the maw of this conglomerate or that. So Methuen was in the charge of T. Houston Fraser, a man of huge majesty and massive dignity; almost Beach the Butler come to life. Pitman was sold by Stanley Branwhite, who, I now see, displayed unmistakeable overtones of Ray Winstone. When he was President of the BPRA and presiding over the dinners which were commonplace then, Stanley would rise at regular intervals to “take wine” with each of his many cronies scattered across the room.

Reg Fisk travelled for Collins and I never met anyone more determined to repeat every word of every AI (Advance Information) in his possession (or die trying). As I later discovered, it was a Collins trait. Pat Seyd of Harrap had been in the navy on the Arctic convoys. He unfailingly wore a pinstripe and bowler hat combination in winter and a straw boater and white suit in summer. Stanley Nebel represented Macmillan and more than once brought with him a “learner” – an improbably gangly young American called Nigel Newton.

Bob Kemp carried Weidenfeld. He’d fought the Mau Mau in Kenya, so staring down Geoffrey Boycott and shutting him up in the Saraceno in Magdalen Street was a cakewalk by comparisons. Bob was a Mancunian but nobody’s perfect. John Oliver of Hamish Hamilton once asked me if he was boring me (he was). I blush with shame to think of it. Patrick Stephens, who represented his eponymous list, wore the air of an avuncular don indulging a promising student.

Alas, alas – they all (apart of course from Nigel) lie in Mellstock Churchyard now.

I am so glad that you mentioned John, the unspeakably difficult Random House rep. God forgive me for banning him from the Ottakar’s High Wycombe store in the 1990s. He had taken to wandering the back offices at will and in an inspired period had begun unpacking designated returns and putting them back on the shop selves, replacing them with other books (sometimes not his own) which he didn’t think we should be selling. I might have remembered that he was also the man who delivered a six-foot cardboard standing figure of a star author to a central London bookshop by taking it on a bus and paying its fare.

It does seem that the old race of independent ‘ornery reps who often hated their bosses but loved their customers has gone. The last vestige I remember was the fabulous gritty Yorkshireman “Dump Bin Dave,” who came in with the Arrow side of Random House to Ottakar’s in Northallerton.

Dave made all his appointments 12 months ahead and, as his nickname suggests, was fond of bulk sales. His inevitable sign-off after a subbing session was in the form of an “Ah just can’t wait…” statement, reminding me of the sheer irresistibility of his lead title. Some of these tended to be less convincing than others. I managed to restrain complete hysterics when he inflicted “Ah just can’t wait ta gerrome and start that new Oomberto Eco bewk.” This sounds snobbish as I tell it. It isn’t at all. But it was funny.

Dave is happily working on Leeds Market now. They don’t make them like that anymore."

Many thanks to Mr X for unintentionally writing this guest post. Here's a photo he might recognise:


magiciansgirl said...

His name is Roger Tuba?

Steerforth said...

Possibly, or it could be Roger St Navajo.

lucy joy said...

Absolutely brilliant, so funny. I'm left hoping there will be a part three. I hope to 'take wine' tonight, and I shall think of this post as I do.

Anne said...

Fascinating and very entertaining post, thank you Mr Anthracite.

John Peacock said...

I've not been back to Oxford for many years - it was the local Big Town when I was growing up - so I don't know whether this is still true, but the thing about Blackwells when I was young was that it wasn't so much a bookshop as an archipelago of shops - going up Broad Street, you'd encounter the children's bookshop (next door to Howes, which was full of balsa-wood aeroplanes), then the Paperback shop, then further up on the left the Art bookshop, then Blackwell's proper (I suppose - containing everything not actually in the other shops) then beyond Broad Street on the lane that leads down past New College, there was the Music shop. There may well have been others - a Map shop perhaps. It was only after several years of casual browsing in a number of these that I found the reference book section - down a flight of steps, through a door that opened into what I remember to be an enormous cavern of books, which I hadn't even suspected was there. For some reason, the memory makes me think of an unusually literate Smaug.

I don't know about now, but thirty years ago, Oxford was still a very odd place.

Canadian Chickadee said...

Great post! As they say -- "You should write a book!"

Rog said...

The two of you need to collaborate on a sit-com based on this. It has winner stamped all over it. Ah just can't wait!

Lucille said...

Roger Cole? Reps were an invisible but potent force when I was a humble children 's book editor back in the 80s. I am glad to have the back story from you in these fascinating ruminations.

Steerforth said...

Sorry, it's James Coke ;)

George H. said...

Fascinating and artfully presented. Truly there is an extended version of this to come.

The Big M said...

Great stuff! Loved hearing about these great old characters.
Where are these types of characters now?
Is it me just being nostalgic, or does the world seem a much more grey and uniform place now?