I am a secret bookseller. There are good times and bad times, and times when I harbour murderous thoughts (mainly about Amazon it has to be said), but mostly there are good times. Being a bookseller can be a bit like being a detective, you need to observe people and trends; you need to be ahead of the game and anticipate what people will want to read, about six weeks before they know they want to read it. And you need to know what book it is people are requesting with often scant information (they can’t remember the author, the title, or sometimes even the genre!)
There was the woman who came in and asked for the book by “the man off the telly. You know, the tall one who was in Eastenders. With the black lady.” Turns out, she was looking for “Bradshaw’s Handbook” – a tour guide to Britain in the 1860s, which Michael Portillo had been using in his BBC2 programme, Great British Railway Journeys. Deciphering that made my day, and we haven’t been able to keep the book on the shelves since!
There are the bad times too. Walking into Sainsbury’s and seeing the new Nigella Lawson for £7 when we have to sell it at the retail price of £26. Or watching as a ‘customer’ actually uses their phone to record the ISBN of a book and then cheerfully tells me they’ll get it off Amazon because, “it’s much more convenient” (but you’re here in the shop already?!). Our shop also signed up for World Book Night to become a ‘book giver’. The first year, boxes of books arrived which we dutifully stacked around our tiny shop, but because of ‘data protection’ issues, we weren’t allowed to know who the intended recipients were, so we couldn’t even contact anyone to come and pick them up!
But all of the little frustrations are worth it for the pure joy of selling books to people, of selecting a title and knowing someone is going to love it. Of being able to open people’s eyes to new authors, new genres and new worlds. Of being involved in Indiebound Books, and World Book Day, and the local book festival, and Walker 2-for-1 offers. And most importantly, of knowing that in a small way you are doing your bit to keep books on the high street, and in people’s minds. So please think hard before logging on to Amazon – is there an independent bookshop you could visit instead?
My most memorable day: a teenager is frog-marched into the shop by her mother. She hates reading, but her mum insists she read a book over the Christmas holidays. We try everything, but nothing takes her fancy, until I fetch a copy of Markus Zusak’s “The Book Thief”. The girl’s eyes light up as she reads the back, this is a book she might enjoy she thinks. Two weeks later her mum comes in to thank us: her daughter has loved the book. I am a secret bookseller.