Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Cold Comfort Farms

Ten years ago, I was working on a farm in the middle of a cold Sussex winter, trying to push some huge metal wheelie bins up an ice-covered slope. After falling over several times, I gripped onto the bins as firmly as possible, only to discover that my hands had stuck to the freezing metal. It was not the best of times.

There were lighter moments. Occasionally, we'd stop for a cup of tea and see how long it took for the dregs of our cups to freeze once we'd tipped them on the ground. Meanwhile, in a nearby barn, some mice had taken the used teabags from our makeshift bin and turned them into a cosy little nest. 

I barely knew the people I worked with, but the grim, Siberian labour camp conditions created a sort of camaraderie.

When friends asked me what I was doing, I told them a half truth: I was setting up an online secondhand bookselling business, with a man called Pete. If they wanted to imagine a rarefied atmosphere of antiquarian books, that was fine with me. The reality was harder to explain and I'm not sure I even understood it myself.

It had all happened by chance. A few weeks earlier, I'd been approached by someone I vaguely knew who'd heard that I'd recently left an online bookselling job to set up my own business. Pete invited me to a local pub and, over a pint of Harvey's, produced a succession of Excel spreadsheets that showed how the two of us could make our fortune. My bookselling experience combined with his business acumen would be, he argued, be a winning combination. 

I wasn't convinced, but it was flattering to be asked and, after all, what did I have to lose? Pete proposed that we ran two separate, but linked, businesses, so I would still have the independence I needed, but with a guaranteed supply of books. I mulled it over that evening and said yes the following morning. 

The farm was 10 miles away, in the middle of the Sussex countryside and was owned by a gypsy family. For reasons I never fully understood, they all seemed to be called Billy and lived in a static home which was occasionally turned 90 degrees to the right or left, perhaps as a homage to their nomadic past.

Pete had sublet a barn from the family and had established a small business selling penny paperbacks, but had no idea what to do with all of the older, non-barcoded books. My role was to go through the stock, sort out the wheat from the chaff and find a way of selling the books online. I'd already done this in my previous job, so what could possibly go wrong? 

I soon had my answer. Several weeks of sifting through books ridden with mouse droppings in subzero temperatures took its toll and I developed pneumonia. I hadn't taken it that seriously until I saw the look on my doctor's face after she'd tested my lung capacity. It was time to stop. The rest of February was a write-off, spent mostly in bed.

By the beginning of March, I felt able to go back to work and found Pete in an ebullient mood. He had just bought a large van, which meant that we could move our stock around between different premises. All I had to do now was find a suitable location for my part of the business. 

How did one go about finding suitable properties to set up an internet bookselling business? I had no idea, but like any sensible person I tried Google and eventually found this.

After my spell in the icy gulag, the new site felt like paradise. The owner was a gentleman farmer whose wife ran a B&B for visitors to Glyndebourne and his other tenants included the official glovemaker to the Queen. Every time I opened the door, I felt of rush of pleasure as I looked at the view:

I could have quite happily spent my days sitting in this empty building, just looking at the view and listening to music. If only such jobs existed. Sadly there was rent to pay, so I had to start focusing on the nuts and bolts of the business. Literally:

It took two weeks to assemble the giant Meccano sets masquerading as shelving units, one nut and bolt at a time. It was indescribably tedious and if someone had told me that I'd have to disassemble it and reassemble it somewhere else, six months later, I might have felt like giving up.

Along with the shelving, there was the other minutiae to consider: postage, computers, printers, furniture, setting up a BT account, banking and stationery. Even something as simple as a packing slip required HTML skills that were way beyond my abilities, but somehow I had to learn. Gradually, it was beginning to take shape, but there was one thing missing: staff.

Fast forward to a month later and it was impossibly idyllic. I was working in a beautiful rural setting with two postgrads and a member of the cast of The Archers, which added to the bucolic atmosphere. We spent our days sorting through old books in a cosy little office, accompanied by the soothing strains of a French classical music station. What more could anyone want?

Sadly, it was too good to last. Our business generated a lot of waste and our landlord had made it very clear that he didn't want his B&B guests disturbed by the sight of wheelie bins, or woken up by any early morning waste collections. I couldn't argue with that. If I was in the land of Nod after a night's Gotterdammerunging, I wouldn't want a dawn chorus of "ATTENTION! THIS VEHICLE IS REVERSING!"

So far, I'd managed to use Pete's van to take our unwanted books away, but that took two hours out of my day. Also, Pete's bargain van was rather erratic and, without any warning, things would suddenly stop working. On one occasion, I was driving to a warehouse in Birmingham and discovered that the windscreen wipers weren't functioning. I pulled over and texted Pete:

"Got to turn back. The wipers aren't working." 

Pete quickly replied: "Is it raining?" I replied that it wasn't, but it might start raining at some point in the journey, in which case I'd be in a bit of a pickle. I think Pete thought that I was being an old fuss-pot.

The business model was simple enough. We received bulk deliveries of old, pre-ISBN books and sorted through them, identifying any titles that might be worth selling. It doesn't take long to learn which books have no value at all in the secondhand market - things like everyday bibles, old textbooks and Victorian poetry anthologies, or titles like Little Women, Reach For the Sky and anything by Walter Scott. 

Sadly, these books are sent off to be pulped as nobody wants them, particularly the charities who have just sold them to us as a waste product. If the books have nice covers, they may have a future lining the shelves of some faux olde worlde pub, but most will end up in places as unlikely as road surfacing material. In a normal one tonne delivery, anything up to 90% of the books end up being thrown away.

I resisted leaving my rural idyll for as long as possible, but I had to face facts: the business was generating too much waste for our genteel setting. I had to find a new home for the books. After a few fruitless weeks of searching online, I found this:

It was as grim as it looks in the photo, but it was big and cheap - perfect for a growing business. We could have as many wheelie bins as we liked and receive deliveries from articulated lorries. However, expecting my staff to work in a large barn, particularly as the weather got colder, was asking too much. How could I provide them with a decent office space?

Fortunately, I had a brainwave:

I won't claim that my garden shed idea matched the splendour of our previous office, but once I'd installed decent lighting, a couple of heaters and painted the inside a bright colour, it was tolerable. Perhaps we might have been contented there, but unfortunately things took a turn for the worse.

Impressed by the size of the barn, Pete decided that he'd like to set up a little sideline there and employed the first four Polish men who responded to his Gumtree advert. They were perfectly pleasant individuals, but had a penchant for drinking vodka in the morning. Once Pawel and his chums had reached a suitable state of inebriation, they would amuse themselves by performing stunts with a forklift truck (those things can move a lot faster than you might imagine). Occasionally, the forklift would almost crash into our office, veering off seconds before impact. 

To add insult to injury, they played Heart FM and, on one occasion, I had to listen to Adele  accompanied by the cry of a bull being sodomised by one of its stablemates in an adjacent barn. It was at moments like this, I wondered where I had gone wrong.

But in spite of my reservations, the business worked. The sales slowly but steadily grew as we added books to our inventory and received orders from all over the world. Having a global marketplace meant that even the most obscure book stood a reasonable chance of finding a buyer. In a bookshop, I strongly doubt that our 1920s book about UHT milk production would have sold, but online we found someone in Uruguay who couldn't wait to read it.

After a year, I thought I'd developed a pretty good business model. The overheads were low and the turnover was growing month by month. But I hadn't foreseen that there would be a number of obstacles to our progress. Here are five of the worst:

1. Animals

Being a townie, I was under the naive impression that we were the sole occupants of our barn, but I soon learned otherwise. From a robin's point of view, our bookshelves were just a suitable place to build a nest.

When the eggs hatched, we had to tread very carefully, hoping that we wouldn't frighten the mother away from feeding her birds. This meant that if any poor soul ordered a book near the nest, I had to cancel the order. Of course, I couldn't tell them why, so I had to invent a vaguely plausible excuse and hope that our rating wouldn't suffer.

After a few weeks, the birds flew away, leaving several pecked, soiled books as a souvenir of their visit.

The poor Poles who worked in the open barn also had to contend with birds defecating on their computer monitors and keyboards, which must have added insult to injury. 

In addition to birds, we shared our barn with amphibians:

But the most bizarre moment was when we saw a mink casually walk past with a rat in its mouth. The moment it noticed us, the mink jumped and let go of the rat. Seeing an opportunity, the rat scuttled off into a narrow gap by the door and hid. When we returned after the weekend, we found the mink lying dead with its legs in the air. Next to it, was a huge pile of rat droppings.

Our uninvited guests may have thrown the occasional spanner in the works, but overall they provided many comedic moments and I grew to love the absurdity of it. I also cherished the moments when a robin would land a few feet away and patiently watch me unpack my deliveries. Perhaps he was hoping for a bookworm.

2. Couriers

I thought I'd set up a foolproof system. Rather than faffing around taking parcels to the nearest post office, I'd found a courier who would do all the hard work. All we had to do was put the UK orders in one mailsack and international orders in the other, then someone would come and collect them. It all worked very well until the day nobody turned up. 

After a number of unanswered phone calls, I discovered that the company had gone bust. They had several days' worth of our orders in their warehouse and for the next few weeks, I began each day issuing refunds and apologising to angry customers. Our rating dropped as a result and fewer orders came in, which was probably just as well, as there was nobody to collect them. 

I learned my lesson and signed up to one of the biggest couriers in the country. They went bust too.

3. Gravity

For no discernible reason, our Meccano shelving units would occasionally collapse under the strain of our growing inventory of books. The metal would buckle to the point where repairs were impossible. It was very annoying.

Gravity also nearly led to my premature demise when this teetering pile of boxes was delivered. 

It looks harmless enough here, but when this half tonne pallet was five feet above me on the back of a lorry, wobbling menacingly, I wasn't terribly happy about it. The delivery driver didn't inspire confidence when he said, "Looks as if it might fall off, mate. Can you stand underneath and try and keep it steady?" Like a fool, I complied because I wanted to show that I was also a proper man, just like him.

4. Suppliers

Like couriers, suppliers can suddenly go into receivership without any warning. Even if that doesn't happen, they may decide that my few hundred quid a month isn't enough of an incentive for them to bother separating their old books from the new, preferring to sell them to a waste paper merchant.

5. Partnership

Business partnerships are tricky at the best of times. Pete and I were like Del Boy and Rodney. Pete was a geezer and although I liked him personally, I didn't agree with the way he avoided paying people to extend his credit. Occasionally, his 'entrepreneurial' approach would land him in deep water and more than once his business teetered on the brink of disaster.

I was definitely a Rodney. I used to worry if I was a day late with my payments and liked to do everything by the book.

Eventually, Pete and I reached an amicable separation, but continued to help each other out and share premises.

Without Pete's quest for global domination, I no longer felt under pressure to expand and decided to continue as a one-man operation. The business was at a level where it ticked over nicely and I was contented sitting in my small office, listening to music, sorting through the random selection of books that passed through my hands.

The job was a strange mixture. One part of it involved sitting in a warm, cosy office, listening to Bach and looking at antiquarian books. The other involved mundane manual tasks, like trying to push heavy wheelie bins through the muddy surface of a farmyard. The physicality of the work could be particularly draining - if you've ever had to load and unload one and a half tonnes of boxed books, you'll know what I mean.

But although the chores could be repetitive, the books themselves were endlessly fascinating, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Although most of the stock was rubbish, literally, a delivery could yield all sorts of surprises, from a signed first edition by Siegfried Sassoon to a letter written by Paul Nash. 

If things had gone as planned, I'd probably still be in my cowshed now, assailed by weasels, toads and robins. However, a few years ago, my wife won funding from the local authority for our son to go to a school that specialised in teaching autistic children. As I was the only one who could take him there (and be on call to collect him if he had a wobble), my wife and I decided that we should swap roles. I tried to continue running my business on a part-time basis, but it didn't work and I very reluctantly said a final farewell to bookselling. 

Five years on, I am still at home, bored senseless and doing a terrible job at running the house, while my wife is developing a blossoming career as a freelance editor. Sometimes I fantasize about resurrecting Steerforth Books, even if it meant having to start from scratch again. But whenever nostalgia strikes, I remember the darker side of the job: the mud, the Heart FM, the near-death incidents, the rats and the back-breaking deliveries. 

And it still isn't enough to put me off.