I stopped by Wallingford Bookshop the other day, a superb independent bookshop which I recommend you visit if you’re ever in the area. I had a cup of tea and a chat with Alison, the delightful owner, and thought how bloody great bookshops are.
This, in turn, made me feel nostalgic for my days as a bookseller, where I got to spend all day in a bookshop. As my job. Not that there weren’t stresses and drawbacks, of course (and I was only an employee, of course, not the owner; I had very little responsibility). But I can say now, having done several jobs over the past few years – waitress (complete with medieval wench outfit), office temp (awful), teacher (brilliant) – my years working at Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford remain my happiest employment memory. When it came to writing The View on the Way Down, it seemed only natural that the main character should work in a bookshop.
For me, it was meant to be a temporary arrangement, a Sunday job whilst I was in sixth form, but then I stayed after I left school and worked there on and off for the next four years. I loved wearing my special Blackwell’s badge. I loved being surrounded by books all day, and talking to customers who loved books themselves. I found completing stock-checks strangely soothing (I may be rose-tinting here). I even grew to look upon Booksolve, the temperamental database system, as a dear, eccentric, blue-screened friend.
I started out, feeling pretty important, in General, the big front desk by the main entrance. (‘We’re on the FRONT LINE!’ I told my parents after my first day. ‘We deal with enquiries! And we handle Modern Fiction! NOT TO MENTION SCI-FI!’) I also spent several months in the Children’s Department, which was full of pretty colours and made me feel nurtured, then History and Classics, a more rarefied environment. I spent a brief but memorable period, too, in Customer Services, cultivating a chirpy and efficient persona, and only occasionally panicking. (‘You want to send how many books to Australia? CODE RED, EVERYONE.’)
But it was the day I was moved to the Business and Economics Department that I felt my Blackwell’s career was really taking off. Business and Economics may sound an unpromising department for an aspiring fiction writer, but I couldn’t have been happier. You see, I’d finally made it into the Norrington Room. This is where the serious stuff happens. For those of you who haven’t visited the shop, the Norrington Room is the vast basement area, holding over three miles of shelving. It’s a stunning, if occasionally daunting, prospect. I recall a customer approaching me during my first week down there with a look of scarcely suppressed panic in her eyes. ‘Where are the stairs?’ she said. ‘Where are the stairs?’ I think she was afraid she would die down there.
Business and Economics was in some ways a challenge, as the titles were far beyond my realm of experience. Still, I remember the moment I realised I’d made it: in answer to a mild customer enquiry, I leapt from my chair with an ecstatic cry of, ‘Yes, I know exactly where The Handbook of Humorous Training Games is!’ My colleague, I remember, smiled gently at me behind the customer’s back and then made the ‘loser’ signal with his hand.
Business and Economics covers some fairly arid territory, but you work with what you’ve got. My colleague and I developed exuberant dance moves for publishers’ hold music when ringing up to place orders. We became obsessed with the duo Atrill & McLaney (esteemed authors of seminal text Accounting and Finance for Non-Specialists, in case you’re not in the know), and created an elaborate illustrated saga in which they were a dynamic crime-fighting team. (When I finally left for good, I found that my leaving card was mysteriously signed by Atrill; ‘but McLaney sends his apologies’.) We enjoyed a particular camaraderie with the customers, including one man who used to come in every week to recommend new Game Theory titles for us. I thought for ages he was a publisher’s rep, but he turned out to be acting purely out of love of Game Theory. It was the year Joseph Stiglitz’s book Making Globalisation Work came out (what do you mean, you don’t remember?). We were swamped with copies, and competed for how many each of us could sell. That book began to haunt my dreams. We made some beautiful displays, which we rearranged daily (‘Are we selling the book?’ we would ask each other with faux-anxiety).
Elijah Wood and John Hurt popped in one day to film part of The Oxford Murders in the shop. I was paralysed with awkwardness when Elijah Wood came up to our desk to ask about photography books, and practically bellowed at him, ‘DO YOU LIKE OUR SHOP?’ (He said he did, by the way. Not that he had much choice.)
I wonder if there will be a time in the future when I find myself working in a bookshop again. I hope so. But it’s not the best time to be a bookseller. As we all know, bookshops are under threat; some brilliant ones have already closed, and will be hugely missed. It’s up to all of us to remember why it’s so wonderful to wander into a bookshop – why it feels so good to be in there – and make sure we keep visiting.