I wrote this, not because I wanted to write a blog about a bookshop, but because it occurred to me that if I didn’t jot down some of the things I think about bookshops I would regret it if ever we lose bookshops as we know them. Bookshops are changing, disappearing. Bookshops might one day not…be there. The word Bookshop might one day have the same arcane feel as Apothecary or Atlantis. These are just some of the things I thought last Sunday, in a quiet mood, on an autumn day, in a bookshop that has come to feel like home. I work in a bookshop. I have worked in this bookshop off-and-on, mostly off, for 5 years, dipping in and out as necessary in tandem with various writing and performing work, which obviously is the uncertain work of hopeful fools. I am a hopeful fool, and I love to do a lot of stuff. I also teach English, do a radio show, write sketches and plays, do comedy, bits of telly, host a raucous pub quiz, drink with friends, play with my dog, and plan to do stuff I’ll never do, like crafts and breathing, because I’m so busy doing all this other stuff. Some of it is for money, most of it is for fun. That is as it should be.
One and a half days a week I play at selling books with the same earnestness with which I played at being librarian behind my cabin bed when I was a kid, with a rubber stamp and rigid filing rules (all the books were filed under my name, which was written in the front, so essentially it didn’t matter what order they were shelved in – I wrote them all, in my eyes. For they were in my eyes, and that’s sometimes all that counts with books.) One of the luxuries that come from playing at selling books only one and a half days a week is that it doesn’t get old. I know; I’ve played at selling books five days a week in the past and it got to be a bore, like everything which steals the majority of your time (even being an astronaut must get dreary once you’re used to it). But this, this is fun. Even the trivial corporate stuff like…Sales. The stationery like…paperclips. The haribo, the customers, the shouts of the public wafting in on the dregs of a McDonald’s fart, the mad people requesting books about Satan and their Nan (Napoleon) and bus journeys to the North Pole – all paraphernalia essential to the role, to the play, props in the dress-up. Like glasses mean you’re clever, or heels mean you have a vagina. All this stuff means you work in a bookshop. I stay for the words (ok – and the money – a girl’s got to drink). I stay for the words. For the idea of words. (A girl’s got to think.)
For all these things…
There are words in all those books, you know. Sleeping words, which spring awake when you open the pages. Thousands of words in thousands of books, which means millions of words, which is officially a lot. So I stay for those words. For all the ideas I will never grasp, and questions I’ll never think to ask. For all the hard work that other people have put into stuff. For the comfort in knowing that better people have done all this for us, that worse people have done more than you and you could do it too if you pulled your bloody finger out. For the comfort of knowing some things (like love) last, and some things (like slavery, and the Spice Girls) pass. For all the wonderful things I will never find time to do, for all the things it will never occur to me to think about, like fishing and flying and finding mushrooms in your garden and furniture and philosophy and frogs and fucking up and being found and fog and freedom and finance. And Fleetwood Mac. And that’s just the Fs (and one Ph). It is all in there. (And what isn’t can be ordered, if you have the ISBN – and do bring the ISBN because we don’t want to do too much work, because we booksellers have very important things to do – like read Danielle Steele passages in a Polish accent to each other while wearing a hat made from elastic bands).
I feel like a tiny bug that crawled into the centre of a rosebud, being in my bookshop. I walk barefoot. I drink tea. I see friends’ books appear on tables and smile and think I really should try and write one myself one day, because anyone can write a book. Even Danny Dyer. Even the anonymous bastard that writes for Katy Price. Books are easy. Right?
Yes. I work in a bookshop. I have set hours shackled to my hangover days & get paid a couple of notches above minimum wage, yet feel rich and free.
One of the best things about a bookshop is the people which flit in and out. It may seem like browsing is one of the dullest things ever to witness, but it isn’t. I don’t mean the “coming in from the rain” browsing, or the “I’ve forgotten if du Maurier’s under D or M” *abashed literate chuckle* browsing, or the blank-brained browsing of people who dare to ask where Non-Fiction is (“Which particular ‘bit’ of Non-Fiction, you cretin?”, we never say, but want to). But true browsing, when you catch that rare moment of someone’s blankness – not in a stupid way – but a ‘being open to anything’ way. Clean white page people. Grazing the shelves with the thing children feel in the guppy-mouthed moments that come just a split second before wonder. The wonder bit before wonder – so small it’s almost nothing, but so great the possibility of it washing over you. True browsers go with it and almost don’t see the books anymore. Rubbish browsers read blurbs and think it’s just a book with one story. And put the books back in the wrong sodding place. True browsing, with the mind, can achieve an almost transcendental quality. True browsers can levitate around a bookshop and exit without even realising they’ve been in. True browsers can traverse time and space and science and regret. True browsers can forget. Browsing is almost Buddhist. Where does the browser’s mind go? If they’re doing it right they don’t know. It’s almost more apt that these buggers almost never buy anything, because they couldn’t choose from it all, because they almost weren’t there.
And all these people, these browsers, filter in from the street. The High Street. The main tributary of our lives. The Victorian buildings raped forever by fleeting corporate facades. Old pictures of the High Street leave us yearning for what it all once looked like, but you take a picture of the high street now and what now is ugly will one day be beautiful. Will be the amber-sheathed nostalgia, sepia-glazed, black and white sanctity that we wish it was now. Photos in the future will have colours and clarity we can’t yet imagine, and then too will acquire the poignant haze of age. All old things look beautiful. It is our gift in exchange for dying.
A Tom Hoyle…
So I work with books. Sometimes I slope off to tidy corners of the shop that have been forgotten about – cupboards and corridors, the disused disabled toilet, the poetry section. Last Sunday I holed up in the rafters and tidied the EPOS room. I have never known what EPOS stands for, or what is supposed to go on in there, and it’s a fucking mess, yet it’s gloriously quiet. It has a forgotten air. It’s like it’s been sealed for years and you’ve just accidentally broken in while looking for somewhere to snog a colleague. I nosed around while I tidied. Unearthed some old paperwork. Found a few old books which maybe made it up there while someone skived off for a cozy winter read. There was an ancient envelope addressed to a Tom Hoyle and I wondered if it was the Tom that used to work there about a decade ago, whom I’d heard was lovely, and had died sadly very young. I thought I should ask a friend who had worked with him because the act of someone talking about him would bring him alive again for a moment. I sent a text, asking. I imagined what he might have been like, and who had remembered to think about him that day.
On into old old company stuff, old logos and fonts, paper ghosts. And then I looked through all the CDs we don’t use anymore because we have a USB port box thing which receives pre-determined pumped-in head-office sanctioned-stuff (are all the staff in all the land on the same loop at the same time, like droids plugged into the mainframe? Do we hum the next tune preemptively, together? Is this unity in Paolo Nutini, or is it numbness?) All the pretty music we used to play, CDs our friends made, music which accompanied our days together, our choices mood-marked by sharpie-scribble (Lottie’s Summery Musicals! Don’t destroy, Claire! Anita’s Latino Extravaganza! Neil’s Last Compilation Ever!), music by people long dead – scratched Vivaldi, smeared Johnny Cash, a Johnny Matthis Christmas Collection which has been repeatedly smashed into something sharp and then bent for good measure. We’ve all moved on and it’s all still there. (You left it behind when you left, guys – I came back – I don’t mind going backwards – I just found an actual Opal Fruit down the back of the safe – don’t you want it?)
But these CDs are defunct. They will be thrown soon into black bags when we need the shelf for something dull like folders. No one will be arsed to put them all back in their relevant cases & do a charity shop run. Our songs will be crushed at the tip. We slowly erase our own mutual proof.
Dust. Old dust that never gets washed away no matter how much we clean, old skin, our skin, could be my Dad’s skin, he was here once – Norman Wisdom signed a book for him for me, he probably fell over and laughed and left a bit of laughter spittle too, Norman Wisdom’s skin, all mingled, still here while everything slowly changes. We trail dust in our wakes, leaving pieces of ourselves behind. Every seven years we have sloughed and morphed and regenerated cells so often we have left behind enough for a whole human.
Anyway. It was not that Tom, it was another Tom who as far as I know has not died, and is still shuffling around this mortal coil somewhere, probably in worn Converse, pushing glasses up his nose and talking about War & Peace (this is the Tom I have created). But it didn’t matter that it wasn’t the right Tom, if ever a Tom can be the right one to be dead, because the chance it could have been him had made me ‘be still’ and think all of this and then I went out and got pissed and forgot it all until the next time it was important to remember. That we are all going to die, and we must do some good stuff and try to be happy in the meantime.
Fuck the books…
Sales dwindle, and we now stock toys. We have a lucrative line in RP, which I think means Related Products. Which aren’t books. Apparently drumstick pencils, aggressive talking hamsters, and Marmite branded coasters are related to books. And really it is all just us (ok – bosses, the money, The Man) trying to figure out how to survive. Apparently books don’t sell that well anymore. People want stuff. Some people don’t read but we still want their custom. We want them to buy our stuff, even if it isn’t books. We don’t even care if they can read. We have aggressive talking hamsters. That repeat stuff you speak into their arses, but in a gangster style, cricetine Krays for kids for Christmas – perfect. We should get the hamsters to chorus on loop around the sound systems throughout all branches “Fuck the books. Buy our stuff, or we’ll cut you a permanent barcode.”
I work in a bookshop, which, despite everything, still has books.
We sell Sony e-readers too though. They are the terminator versions of these weak and papery fools we call books, except you can’t drop one in the bath, dry it on the rad and read on to the end – it’ll be fucked.
People come in and expect us to be able to show them how they work. We stand in silence, looking like morons, and give them a leaflet. They ask if Sony e-readers are better than Kindles. We die inside a bit and say we don’t know. We mutter something about Amazon under our breaths. They cast us hateful glances as they go out, as if we’ve stood between them and progress, as if we’ve cancered culture, as if we’ve flobbed in their face. They haven’t even seen the books. We stroke the books in consolatory sadness, and go and make more tea. If books could drink tea, we’d make them a cup, and spike it with a nip of something nice.
I feel a sad privilege working in a bookshop while everything’s so uncertain. I feel like one of the last men standing on the frontline. The sound of bullets piercing a sunset. Tiny parts of the business change, and big parts, and bulletins pierce through the ways we have been used to, and we clear shelves of books to make way for Hairy Bikers Merchandise. And sometimes it’s more than we can bear. We don’t want to fucking sell bottle openers as a token branded gesture to two fat dudes cooking ale pies in a field. We don’t want to do that. And sometimes it doesn’t matter, because the certainty of change in itself is soothing, because it reminds us that we all will be dust, business, books, us, and this certainty is our only protection against it all. It is a folded terror, with comfort the wax-seal at both ends. And with any luck we might even outlast the two fat dudes in the field. Their diet is fucking awful.