Sunday, October 19, 2014

Locked in a Bookshop

A few days ago there was a minor Twitter frenzy, when a poor Texan tourist found himself locked in the Trafalgar branch of Waterstones, after it had closed for the day.

He tweeted: "Hi @waterstones I've been locked inside of your Trafalgar Square bookstore for 2 hours now. Please let me out."

Waterstones replied "Thanks for the tweets today! We'll be back at 9am tomorrow to answer your queries :) Happy reading!"

Fortunately, thanks to the power of social media, he was released within a few hours. If it had been 25 years ago, when I worked at Waterstone's, the poor man would have probably still been there the following morning.

It was a good story, but less unusual than people might think. I've locked people in a bookshop several times and I know that some of my former colleagues have too. It's more easily done than you might think.

On each occasion, we walked around the shop floor shouting that we were closing, then started turning the lights off, beginning at the top floor. This was usually a foolproof way of forcing people downstairs, like moths to the flame, until the only source of light would be the street lighting outside.

But sadly some people failed to take the hint.

One poor man was deaf and didn't hear the annoucement, but I still wonder why the darkness didn't make any impression on him. Another man was foreign and, perhaps, came from a country where unlit, empty shops were the norm.

(Thinking about it now, it was always men who got stuck in the shop)

Another time, some members of the criminal classes deliberately hid in the shop and went to a great deal of effort to open our safe, even making a hole in the wall behind it. They failed. If they'd succeeded, they would have found less than £1000 in cash.

Once we'd twigged that shouting and darkness weren't sufficient clues, we became more vigilant and no further incidents followed.

But to return to the locked Texan, during the Twitter storm, several people remarked how they'd love to be in an empty bookshop at night and I remembered the times when I took advantage of having the key to the shop.

Sometimes it was just enough to be able to browse without being disturbed by anyone. But I also remember dancing on the shop floor at midnight with some friends, playing my favourite tapes on the PA system at full volume and, on one occasion, walking around in my boxer shorts, just because I could.

In another branch, the manager and her staff would often go to the pub until closing time, then return to the shop for a pyjama party, during which more alcohol was consumed until everyone finally collapsed from exhaustion.

I've also heard that a few customer sofas have been the scene of some decidedly non-literary encounters between members of staff.

Of course, none of this could happen today. These days, shops have digital CCTV and sophisticated alarm systems, so dancing in the dark, noctural nudism, midnight couplings and sleepover sessions are no longer an option. Even entering the shop outside trading hours would probably count as gross misconduct. How sad.

On the plus side, if you want to get locked in a bookshop, you can now feel reasonably confident that you won't stumble on any safecrackers, copulating booksellers or midnight bacchanales, so it's probably a good time to try. Just head for an upopular section like poetry or transport and keep your head down.

Good luck.

P.S - Please check the opening hours. An absence of customers and staff is no longer an indication that the shop is actually closed.


Rog said...

So why didn't the sophisticated alarm systems pick up our Texan?
Only a cynical old sod like me would wonder if a cheap and effective little PR stunt would get everybody talking Waterstones (including leading bloggers!)

Steerforth said...

Rog - You could be right, although I suspect not as Waterstones made their talented PR team redundant, earlier in the year. Judging by the exclamation marks and smiley face in their automated Twitter reply, they're now relying on school leavers.

Poetry24 said...

I've locked students in the library of the university where I once worked. Despite the ringing of very loud warning bells, ten and five minutes to closing time, they still managed to get stuck in the dark. But with nearly 1 million titles spread over five floors, perhaps it wasn't so surprising. Easy for someone to become disorientated, students especially.

zmkc said...

I think it's unlikely to be a PR stunt as it would be counter-productive - I've just paid for a night in London just near Waterstone's in Piccadilly. I went in to the shop in the morning, having just paid my bill at the place I was staying. In retrospect and the light of your post, I realise their sofas looked v comfortable, they have a bathroom of sorts, and there would be no bill in the morning. I can't be the only person who is now planning a few more, surprisingly inexpensive trips to London in the near future, (and I won't even have to pack any reading matter for the trip).

Roger C said...

You're right, Steerforth - the thrill of the music of your choice thundering over the sound system in a closed and locked bookshop is matchless. I recall Ian Dury and Sweet Gene Vincent in Ottakar's, Loughborough. It never sounded better.
As for your adventures in underwear, I confess to a certain disappointment there. I always had you as a thong man. I hope at least that the pattern of the boxer shorts blended with your cravat (you wouldn't have removed that under any circumstances, surely?}.

Steerforth said...

Martin - I'm still baffled by the fact that people don't move when the lights go off. Presumably they can no longer see the book they're reading, so why can't they reach the obvious conclusion?

Zoe - The Piccadilly branch also provides breakfast on the 5th floor, if you get out before the staff arrive. I wasn't impressed with the rather grim loos though, so I'd bring some wet wipes to freshen up with.

Roger - I'm sure you'll appreciate how hard it is to find a matching cravat and thong, whereas paisley boxers and cravats are two a penny.

Lucy R. Fisher said...

You've just invented a cutting-edge type of hotel. Or immersive theatre experience.

Steerforth said...

Lucy - Given that the Piccadilly branch makes a loss (or did when I was at W, seven years ago), a hotel sideline might be their path to profitability. I bet literary slumber parties would be a huge success.

Brian Busby said...

I write without read face that I myself was once locked in a used bookshop. The story is rather bland. I'd been looking at books in the cellar for so long that the old gent running the place forgot about me. I emerged to find he had nipped out for lunch (there was a note taped to the window). I simply unlocked the door, pulled it shut, and was pleased to see that it locked behind me.

Thus I was saved the uncomfortable, yet frequent experience of spending an inordinate amount of time in a shop only to leave empty-handed. I always feel bad in these cases.

This all took place a decade ago when visiting Bath.

The Waterstones episode raises a question: How is it possible to get locked in a chain store? It's simply not possible to have this happen in Canada. The stores I managed - both Chapters - were each equipped with push bar fire doors. The front doors had substantial locks, but could be opened from the inside without a key. Not that I ever tried, but i'm pretty certain that even the loading bay door could've been raised after-hours. Something to do with different fire regulations, I suppose.

Steerforth said...

Brian - There must have been push bar fire doors, I'm sure, as they're compulsory here as well. I wonder why he didn't look for them.

Stefanie said...

It's always been my dream to be locked in a bookshop overnight and if it has a cafe in it, even better! They are too good in the US about getting people out. But now I know if I ever make it to a Waterstones in the UK I might be able to fulfill my wish!

Annabel said...

Have you seen - W Piccadilly is now hosting a sleepover this Friday!

Nota Bene said...

I'd have just read a book...and if I remember rightly there's a very nice cafe/bar there to so he wouldn't have been too short of tasty rations for the night either!

Steerforth said...

Stefanie - It sounds as if you won't be alone. There is something magical about a bookshop at night. Our midnight Harry Potter launches were always good fun.

Annabel -Good for them - a very canny move on their part.

Nota Bene - Those cafes are lethal. I had a Costa Coffee in my shop and at the end of the day, they gave us all of their unsold pastries. My trousers soon became a very tight fit.

George said...

A couple of years ago, I was browsing in a bookstore at Reagan National Airport when I heard the grating go down behind me. I cleared my throat, and the clerk apologized and let me go. I must say the holdings were not what one dreams of being locked up with, though I suppose it would have got me through to the morning.

The Denver coffee house The Muddy Waters of the Platte long ago had a used bookstore attached, which as far as I could tell opened around 10 at night, or maybe it was 1 in the morning. The coffee house became Paris on the Platte, the bookstore seems to be long gone.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Ha ha! priceless posting! Re the Texan, he sounded like he was too absorbed in his device WiFi to notice real life anyway.

Anonymous said...

A midnight pajama party in a locked bookshop!!! This is just the sort of thing I think bookstores should start doing to win back customers from Amazon.

I would pay five dollars to attend a midnight party in a bookstore, maybe even ten or twenty if it included some extras like a cool t-shirt or an author visit.

I mentioned this to my local bookseller when Murakami's last book came out. Have a midnight release party, there are lots of Murakami fans out there who would come in costume. She liked the idea but didn't do it.

el chupacabra said...

A literal dream come true- and he calls for help.

I weep for the species.

Vintage Reading said...

I'd pay to be locked in a bookstore. Prefer Blackwell's to Waterstones but I'm not fussy.

Sue in Suffolk said...

I've just discovered your blog via a link from somewhere (?) I definitely need to read the blog of anyone who fills some posts with pictures of book covers!
Love books!
We used to go round the library telling people we were closing, still took an age to get them out.