Monday, December 31, 2012

Annus Discendi

According to Microsoft, it's my "special day, so enjoy it. And don't forget to share what you're doing today with the friends in your life". At some point in the past, I must have lied to them about my date of birth - I was born in March. But like birthdays, today is a time of reflection and looking forward.

I can't say that I have particularly enjoyed 2012. Some years leave you with a store of fond memories - a montage of days out, meetings with friends and personal achievements - but  this one was largely defined by illness and uncertainty. The most positive thing I could say about 2012 is that it has been a year of learning.

However, the year wasn't without its positive moments. On the plus side, I worked here during the summer:

I also enjoyed a magical evening in Seville:

Wandering around an almost-deserted Alcázar Palace in the early evening, more than made up for the terrifying drive through the back streets of the city centre.

But apart from a few very enjoyable drinks with old friends, I did very little this year. I intend to make up for lost time in 2013.

One plan for next year that has been shelved is our decision to get a dog. The border terrier that stayed with us during the summer has come for Christmas, but after an emotional reunion, my oldest son has shown little interest in taking it out for walks - having a dog in winter is clearly less appealing. When, on Christmas Day, he solemnly annouced that he'd changed his mind about getting a dog, I felt a huge sense of relief - 2013 already looks good.

I'll finish this very brief post by saying a sincere thank you to anyone who has taken the time to read this blog. Whoever you are, wherever you are, I wish you health and happiness in 2013.

Friday, December 28, 2012

"Do you have that cookery book with the red cover?"

After six months on Twitter, I have realised that it probably isn't for me, or I'm not for it. But I love reading other people's tweets (especially when they're not telling you about their cat or the great review their latest novel has just had).

I particularly enjoyed this tweet from a few days ago, by bookseller @lucyfishwife:

A customer asked me where we kept kids' books for 20-yr-olds. I pointed at the Fiction section.

How I miss dealing with the general public.

It's now over five years since I last dealt with a customer face to face. Although I still sell books, I don't dare to call myself a bookseller any more because I think that unless you're prepared to meet your public, you're merely a supplier. Internet bookselling is like cybersex, stripped of the agonies and ecstacies of real human contact. I love it.

Real bookselling was a little like Russian Roulette - you never knew whether the person approaching your desk was going to ask a normal question like "Do you have a copy of X by Z?" or a completely daft one like "I live in Surrey but have a holiday home in Staffordshire. Do you have a book of walks that just covers Surrey and Staffordshire?" (a genuine question, by the way).

Reading @lucyfishewife's anecdote reminded me of some of the gems I've been asked over the years:

"Could you recommend a book for someone who only has three weeks to live?" (I suggested short stories)

"It says Biography and Memoirs. Why don't you have an autobiography section?"

"I want that new gardening book. The title? No, I can't remember. Author? Oh, it's a lady and it's green. Do you have it?"

"Where's your non-fiction section?" Asked by a middle-aged man with a fruity voice and dyed hair. I replied that it was the whole shop, apart for the fiction and children's sections, and that it was divided up into separate subjects. Minutes later, he came downstairs shouting "Your non-fiction section is impenetrable!"

"I want a novel with a moral dilemma." (Which is like saying "I'd like a motor car with an engine")

"Do you read?" I often replied, very politely, "Yes, I do. *Long pause* Do you?"

"Why have you moved your fiction section downstairs? Last year it was upstairs." When I replied that it had always been downstairs since we'd opened, two months ago, suggesting that they were confusing us with another shop, the customer shook their head, "No, it was definitely here and it was upstairs."

"Will I like this?" Asked by a heavily made-up woman in her late 60s, waving a copy of Foucault's Pendulum. I wanted to say "How the **** should I know?", but smiled sweetly and said "You'll love it", which turned out to be the right answer.

"Where's your section of coffee table books about Paraguay?" Try Paraguay.

"Do you have any books about sex with animals?" The same man asked this question on a weekly basis.

"Have you got that book about cholera?" I asked if he meant Marquez. He nodded, but then leaned forward and said, rather patronisingly, "Actually, it's pronounced Marqeth." His smug, punchable face was a picture when I patiently explained the difference between Castillian and Latin American Spanish.

"That book you recommended to me last week? It was crap." No, you were just too dim to appreciate it.

"If I ordered the book now, could you get it in time for Christmas Day?" Asked at 3.15pm on Christmas Eve.

As time went on, my answers became more confident. When the customer who wanted coffee table books on Paraguay huffed and puffed about our glaring omission, I could confidently point out that this was the first time in ten years that anyone had asked me for a book about Paraguay. I also knew how cheeky I could be without provoking a complaint, perfecting a subtle insoucience that Jeeves would have been proud of.

But in the end, you get battle fatigue. A man I worked with who was 17 years older than me had become an embittered Basil Fawlty figure, picking unnecessary fights with perfectly harmless customers because he was at the end of his tether. When I saw how he treated a poor woman who'd innocently asked for a self-help book by Betty Shine, I made a mental note to get out of bookselling before I became like him.

We lost touch, but two years ago I bumped into my ex-colleague at a historic building, where he was a voluntary guide. He seemed happier than he'd ever been in the bookshop. I knew how he felt.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Don We Now Our Gay Apparel (Fa la la la la, la la la la)

Yesterday evening, my wife and I set off for a Christmas party in Lewes, with a hastily-bought bottle of Pinotage that promised "smoky, bramble flavours with a hint of tropical fruit". Thankfully it didn't have a comedy label like 'Mad Goat', but I still wished that I'd gone to Waitrose.

After walking for five minutes along a succession of dark, damp, slug-infested alleys, I asked my wife how much further the house was. She looked confused: "I don't know. You're the one with the address." At that point, I realised that neither of us knew where we were going.

A man walked past and looked at the bottle of wine. I felt embarrassed, as if he could tell that we were lost. My wife looked ahead and started walking purposefully: "I'm pretty sure it's just up here. It's either 50 or 15. We'll know by the noise."

Sady, there was no noise. We walked past a succession of eerily quite homes, occasionally catching glimpses of flickering television screens or people sitting around tables, but unless it was a very sedate party, we were in the wrong street. We turned round and started to walk home, when my wife suddenly said "Ah!"

Walking in the opposite direction were a couple that she recognised, also clutching a bottle of wine. "Is this it?" she asked. They nodded. The door opened and we entered a silent house.

It turned out that the party was a victim of the norovirus, with eleven couples cancelling, leaving a small rump of guests. At first, this seemed like a great misfortune, but I ended up having a much better evening than usual.

Parties can often be rather painful affairs unless you know most of the people there. You walk into a room full of unfamiliar faces, where everyone else seems to know each other. They don't, but that's always how it looks. Terrified of being the person who isn't talking to anyone, you spin out the process of hanging up your coat and handing over the bottle of wine, quickly scanning for any possible openings.

I always manage to find someone to talk to and they often seem as relieved as I am when I introduce myself. Then, for the next half hour, we go through the motions of asking each other what we do, which part of London we're from and why we're glad we moved to Lewes. So far so good.

Unfortunately, after getting off to a flying start, the conversation enters the danger zone, where paranoid thoughts start to flash through your head: "Am I monopolising this person? Are they getting bored. Am I getting bored? Would it be rude to go off to get a drink..." This is the aspect of parties that I always hate. Sometimes I wish that someone would just ring a bell and we'd all have to shuffle round, a bit like speed dating.

But on the other hand, it can be good to be stuck with someone for long enough to exhaust the polite platitudes and start to get a glimpse of the real person. Last week, I met an odd-looking man who was dressed like an overgrown boy scout, with a face that resembled a Spitting Image puppet and a voice like a 1970s station announcer at Clapham Junction. He didn't seem to have any sense of humour and I thought "Oh God, this is going to be hard work."

Then, during the next half hour, he managed to destroy all of my first impressions by turning out to be one of the most interesting people I've met, with an extraordinary past. He had a sense of humour too. As if I needed any further evidence of how wrong I'd been, after half an hour, a beautiful woman at the other end of the room came up and told him that it was time to go.

In fairness, most of the women seemed quite beautiful that evening, whereas the poor men were represented by a sea of bespectacled, balding heads. I wish that we could 'scrub up' like the ladies, but the combination of a hot, humid room and 'Just for Men' would have made it look more like Death in Venice.

Last night's party was more of a gathering, but I enjoyed it a lot more. Without the noise and crush of a crowded room, the conversation seemed to flow more freely. I met some lovely people and lost track of the time, which is always a good sign.

We left at 10.30 - earlier than I would have liked - but when we turned into our road, I could see my mother anxiously twitching the curtains, as if I was still her teenage son. Some things never change.

Christmas Day will be a fairly sedate affair. My wife and I are both only children and don't have many living relatives. Unfortunately, that hasn't stopped my wife from behaving as if she's preparing for a royal wedding.

 I'm keeping my head down. In two days it will all be over.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Les Rosbifs

Ah, the south of France...

The sophistication. The culture. The cuisine...

Imagine that it's the early 1980s and you are a bona fide member of the chattering classes. In the days before you had children, you wouldn't have thought twice about blowing a month's wages on a few nights at the Hotel de Ville, but times have changed. Jane is no longer working and the mortgage on your five-bedroom house in an 'up and coming' part of Balham has made a dent on your disposable income, so sacrifices have to be made.

Once, camping would have been an anathema to both of you, but now that Christopher and Emily are at kindergarten, you wonder if it wouldn't be rather fun to have an al fresco holiday. Not camping of course, but Le Camping.

One day in late July, you load up the Volvo (making sure that there's enough room to to bring back a few bottles of plonk for Tim and Amanda) and begin the long trek to the spiritual home of the cognoscenti: Provence.

The journey ends 36 hours later, just as the light is failing, in an idyllic rural setting where the air smells of pine needles and olive groves. It has been a long drive, but you are now certain that it was worth it. Exhausted but happy, you unload the basics and enjoy the sleep of the just.

The next morning you wake up and realise that you have neighbours. Like you, they are English, but...

In their Hillman Hunter, your neighbours have followed a similar trajectory, stopping en route to enjoy the delights of Paris:

But you sense that their tastes are different to yours and after hearing the same Kagagoogoo song for the seventh time, you decide to ask Yves about moving to a quieter part of the site. He'll understand - "Ah, oui, les rosbifs. Mon dieu!"

In the meantime, Dot, Ray, Kevin and Gary are having the time of their lives, although the boys have an unfortunate habit of clutching their genitals whenever a photo is taken:

Dot didn't want to come here. She would have rather gone to the usual place in Sandy Bay, but Ray had some funny ideas about the south of France and now that she's here, Dot reluctantly concedes that she's having 'a bit of a laugh'.

Although holidaying with three males is no picnic. The mess in the morning...

I'd love to know the real narrative behind these photos. They appeared at work last week and my first impression was one of disappointment - just a collection of blurry, Kodak Instamatic snaps. But then curiosity took over. Where did these people come from and what were their real names? What made them choose the south of France? Are they all still alive now?

Before long I was making up my own narrative, imagining them leaving somewhere a bit grim, like Luton, vicariously enjoying their excitement at seeing the blue skies of Provence for the first time. But that's probably all nonsense.

In the digital age, albums will no longer fall into the hands of strangers. Photos will either disappear into the ether or exist in the purgatory of cyberspace, forgotten and unvisited.

I think it's time to have a proper album again.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Thursday Matinée

I woke up in the middle of the night with crippling stomach cramps, so today has been a bit of a write-off. But on the plus side, I've been able to lie in bed and watch this:

The film isn't quite as absurd as the trailer suggests and gives a fascinating glimpse of a rarely-seen side of Britain during the 1950s. But the main attraction is a cast that includes Sean Connery, Patrick McGoohan, Stanley Baker, Sid James, David McCallum and the unbiquitous Alfie Bass.

If you like seeing goods vehicle drivers flagrantly disregarding the Highway Code, I can thoroughly recommend Hell Drivers.

I also watched a film that I loved as a child. Sadly, on second viewing, it turned out to be even more ridiculous than I'd anticipated:

If you haven't seen it, I'll save you the effort. The film begins with the revelation that the world is going to end. In spite of this rather depressing news, everyone continues going to work and behaving quite normally, apart from a small group of people who decide to build a 'rocketship' that will act as a modern Noah's Ark, taking a selection of animals (probably not wasps) and 40 young white people (probably WASPS) to an approaching planet that might be able to support life.

The world blows up, consumed by a star. Fortunately, the spaceship has escaped in the nick of time and managed to make a successful landing on the new planet. When the hatch is opened for the first time, the crew are greeted by a well-manicured lawn and a poorly-executed watercolour landscape. In the distance, there is a strange alien monolith, but nobody sees remotely surprised or interested. The end.

However, I don't waste all of my time watching films like When Worlds Collide. This 2011 film, which I have also seen recently, is excellent:

Beautifully filmed and acted, with a surprisingly effective score by Philip Glass, Elena deservedly won the Special Jury Prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a new film as much.

I hope that my stomach behaves itself in time for Saturday, as we're going to what my wife ominously described as a 'killing party'. I was very relieved when I realised that she meant a 'Killing' party, where all of the guests had to bugger off before BBC 4 screens the final two episodes of the Danish thriller series.

How very Lewes.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

The Last Noel

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.