The Joy of A Bookshop

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There are current and heated debates about paperbacks versus eBooks in every crevice of the book-loving community, and for good reason. Some fear the closure of many and, possibly in the future, all bookshops, but I believe and hope that this will not be the case. I posted a while about about library finds and old books and the pleasure of finding a unique or out of print book. I want to delve into what it is about bookshops that give people so much joy. I promise to balance this by looking at eBook purchases and the benefits of this in another post.Bookshop-Window

In my years of living in London I spent many hours in Waterstones and Borders (admittedly now closed in the UK) scanning bookshelves and sinking into a seat with a stack of books to skim before buying. The feeling of being surrounded by books gives me a sense of calm and brings with it a dose of quiet anticipation, a hope that I will stumble across something brilliant. Recommendations are wonderful, and I often go in search of specific books, but I love finding something fresh and unexpected, picking up a book by a new author who I have not previously heard of, and sinking into an unexpectedly good story.

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The look and feel of a book cover appeals to me aesthetically, it says something about the nature of the book and the author; it provides just enough of a taster to know what to expect of the book in terms of genre and style. I really appreciate striking and unusual cover design and, as much as you can see the thumbnail image online, it is never quite the same experience as holding the paper between your fingers.bookshop

I love the scent of the paper and the physical turning of the pages, the ability to flick back and forth. I like to see books on a coffee table and the spines of the jackets on bookshelves. I enjoy the colours and the graphics. It is a pleasure that I miss when reading an eBook (and I do also read many eBooks).

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Physical books, for me, hold a nostalgic quality and stimulate my senses in a way that eBooks don’t. I often buy hard copies of books that I have read and particularly enjoyed on kindle, just to be able to keep a physical copy. I like to keep classics and travel books in paperback or hardback. I will never tired of the experience of bookshops and I hope that eBooks and paperbacks will continue to live in relative harmony and without the need for a fight.

I’ll leave you with a look at more bookshops and reading spaces and this short video:

Photo credits:

foxedbooks.com, aprettybook.com, bookmania.me, global.oup.com, artstheanswer.blogspot.co.uk

An interview with author Peggy Riley

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In the wake of a suspicious fire, Amaranth gathers her children and flees from the cult where her children were born and raised. Now she is on the run with no one but her barely-teenage daughters, Amity and Sorrow, neither of whom have ever seen the outside world, to help her. After four days of driving without sleep, Amaranth crashes the car, leaving the family stranded at a gas station, unsure of what to do next. Rescue comes in the unlikely form of a downtrodden farmer, a man who offers sanctuary when the women need it most.

I am currently reading this and I highly recommend Peggy’s novel for it’s rich language and high tension. It is an intriguing story which is beautifully written, never missing a single detail.

Your book, Amity and Sorrow, will be released on 28 March. How does it feel to let your first story go out into the world and what are your hopes for the reader?

I’ve been lucky in that Tinder Press has been sending galleys out for quite a while now, and Little, Brown offered 100 copies of the book on Goodreads.  So, I’ve had plenty of feedback from readers, but I suppose they are the kinds of readers who are used to reading and feeding back.  It feels exciting – and scary – to think of the book sitting in shops, spine to spine with all the other books.  I would be very pleased if people saw it, picked it up and thought – hmm, that sounds good – and then took a chance on it.

 Can you tell us about your planning stages of writing and how you put the ideas into a clear succession? 

I don’t know if there is a clear succession!  I start with place first, where the story will take place.  Then I look at the arc of the book, to get a sense of “how long” the story will be, over how many days or months or years.  Then I see what characters emerge from the place and the story and I spend a lot of time writing from their points of view to find out which ones I will follow most closely.  You have to have the right character for the job!  Chapters come from the characters’ choices, of what they need to accomplish to get them to the end of the story – which often turns out not to be the end of the story that will work for the character.  I try to keep it all as open as possible, to see what comes.  And then I rewrite, over and over.  I’m a big rewriter.

You have said that, ‘There is only one way to write a book – your way.’ Can you tell us how your writing process differs from the books of advice that writers keep stacked away on their shelves? 

I mean that advice is great, but it doesn’t do the writing.  All these writing books – and I have a shelf of them, too – are great reminders of the complexity of the process, of how many balls we’re keeping in the air at different stages in the writing.  They remind us that writing is a craft, that there are specific tools for specific jobs.  They offer comfort at dark moments.  But, ultimately, it’s just you and your own blank page.  The choices you make, the impulses of your imagination, the itches your writing wants to scratch – that we have to find and discover for ourselves and to find our own methods, rather than making someone else’s try to fit.

Your writing covers themes of religion. Do you have any religious or spiritual influences which have fed into your writing? 

I was not raised to be religious and I’m still not.  But I am a spiritual querent, a seeker.  I’m interested in how and why we believe, and my writing often goes in that direction.  I’m interested in great believers and handmade faiths, in our impulse to change the world and build new Edens.  I’m interested in how our own humanness gets in the way of our higher ideals.

You were a writer-in-residence at a young offender prison. It must have been an interesting time for you as a writer, can you tell us a little about your experiences with this and what you learned? What were the challenges and the high points?

It was the very best job and I am grateful to have had the support of the Arts Council, Writers in Prison, and the Prison Service over four years.  Prisons are hard, grim places, but every morning, stepping through the main gate, I just got this overwhelming wash of love and compassion.  I can’t explain it – that isn’t the kind of person I am.  I just felt overwhelmed by the enormity of the task inside, for the offenders and for the officers, to find new ways of working together and to change.  The purpose of prison now is to rehabilitate and to cut down reoffending.  I learned a few tactics for working with challenging behavior and within the strict structure of a big system like a prison.  I learned that a lot of people don’t want to write or to read, that you can only offer what you do and see who responds.  I learned to carry a sound system up and down the stairs on old Victorian wings, so that I could work with the men in their own environment on days when they were in lock down.

I was let into their lives, their hearts and minds.  I was able to assist their attempts to communicate and to be honest with themselves.  I witnessed the birth of a lot of very tender, very heartfelt poetry and lyrics, and learning that they could communicate in that way was very empowering for the men – and for me.  Mostly, I learned how human we all are, how very fragile, how very hurt we are.  Any one of us could make a series of disastrous and dangerous mistakes and end up in prison.

You are also a playwright. How do you find that writing scripts differs from writing novels and short stories

I received some great training as a playwright and I probably still plan all my writing as a playwright, whether I’m writing drama or not. The forms have quite a lot in common, actually.  There isn’t much “telling” in a play and relationships are revealed through dialogue and conflict, as we seek to do in fiction.  All characters have their own stories, their own sense of themselves, so that at any moment any character could rush downstage and say, “Everyone here is a liar.  Listen to me.”

There are some drawbacks to fiction.  Fiction narrows story through point of view, usually conveying story through a character’s eyes or mind.  Fiction isn’t as democratic as a play.  You can choose, as an audient, where to look on stage, no matter what the director lights.  As a reader, you can only look where the writer lets you.  You can’t look inside the book or behind the book unless the writer lets you.

A novel affords a writer (and reader) the luxury of time and possibility.  A novel can go anywhere at any moment, whereas drama is often limited by its own physical environment, its rules and expectations, its budgetary constraints in terms of how many characters you can have, how many locations.  Of course, there are always exceptions.  Epic plays and theatre marathons seek to create the immersion that readers experience, but these often feel “narrated”; it is much harder to slip under the skin of a character you watch rather than read.  And as novels are longer, they have the space and time to allow stories and characters to go deeper, to allow their changes to occur more subtly.

By and large, plays run under two hours with an interval.  A play is usually 85 – 120 pages.  When I wrote my first draft of Amity & Sorrow, I didn’t know if I had 300 pages in me.  I’d never had the luxury of so much paper, so many words.  Lastly, it’s very hard to put a bed onstage; being flat, it’s hard for an audience, and I seem to like writing scenes in bedrooms.  (You can stand the bed up on its end, of course, and staple the pillows down, but gimmicks are rather distracting for an audience.  They might spend all their time worrying about the pillows or looking for the wires and miss a character’s crisis.  Gimmicks are fun, though.)

 What have you taken away with you from your days as a festival producer and as a bookseller?

As a producer, I often included talks and readings in my programming.  I am aware that people want to connect with writers and with the books they love.  Writing and reading are solitary activities and festivals allow us to interact communally and spontaneously.  As a bookseller, I arranged many signings and readings in my family’s shop.  I’ve seen huge queues and great excitement for visiting writers.  I’ve stood in an empty shop with a stack of books and a disappointed writer, when no one came.  Being a bookseller reminds me how many books there are in the world and how many writers, hoping to be read.  And I’ll never forget the thrill of finding the perfect book to hand sell, being able to pop it into a customer’s hand and say, “You’ll love this.  Trust me.”  But woe betide you if they don’t – they’ll never trust you again.

 What do you enjoy most outside your writing time? 

Taking a chair and a bottle of wine down to the beach with husband to watch the sun go down.  I also quite like pulling weeds.

 And, lastly, you are currently working on editing your next novel, can you tells us about the book? 

Of course!  It’s set in the women’s internment camp on the Isle of Man during WW2.  I was commissioned to write a play there about eight years ago now, and the story stayed with me.  The play I wrote was site-specific and promenade, moving through the village with a series of scenes before real locations.  As a novel, I’m focusing on fewer characters and the story has become deeper and richer, much, much darker.

What do you enjoy reading and why?

I have my old favourites, of course, and I love to find new writers.  I’m looking to get lost in a book, same as everyone.  I find it hard to read while I’m writing, so I’m hoping to have a bit sprint of reading in the summer, once my own book is done.

Peggy Hi Res Color-6Peggy Riley is a writer and playwright. She won a Highly Commended prize in the 2011 Bridport Prize and was published in their anthology. Her short fiction has been broadcast on BBC Radio and published in Mslexia Magazine and as an app on Ether Books. Her plays have been commissioned and produced off-West End, regionally, and on tour. She has been a festival producer, a bookseller, and writer-in-residence at a young offender prison. Peggy also runs workshops for writers and readings with authors. Originally from LA, Peggy now lives in Kent.

 

The Fine Art of Bookselling

Christina James is a crime thriller writer of the literary variety. Her novel In the Family was published in November 2012 and her next DI Yates novel is due to be released in June 2013. She has written a guest blog post today on her experiences as a bookseller. Thank you, Christina.

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You might think that bookselling is like any other retail activity and, up to a point, you would be correct.  Bookselling consists of acquiring the right ‘product’, setting it out in an attractive manner and making sure that people who are interested in it are able to find and purchase it – and that throughout the process they are treated with unfailing helpfulness and courtesy from the moment that they walk into the shop.  You could say the same of selling cheese or hats or computer games.

Booksellers, however, have always known themselves to be special.  There are numerous reasons for this, some of them valid.  Booksellers are part of that small, select band – its other members include jewellers, posh dress-shop proprietors and some other sellers of luxury products – commonly classified by marketing gurus as ‘high-end retailers’.  It is not unknown for some booksellers to consider themselves a cut above even these illustrious peer-group members, on the grounds that what they sell feeds the mind.  Therefore, the argument runs, their customer service aspirations are of a different order from those of a jeweller who seeks to make a couple happy by conjuring up the perfect engagement ring or the chocolatier who provides the crowning accompaniment to a romantic date.

So far, so bad.  I am a great fan of booksellers in general – I do believe that they are among the great unsung heroes of civilisation – and probably of 95% of booksellers in particular.  But it is true that there is an annoying minority of booksellers who ponce around giving themselves airs, thus ensuring that all but the most erudite and determined customer is either too scared to enter the shop in the first place or, faced with silence or a supercilious greeting, beats a hasty retreat.  It’s amazing how every fresh generation of booksellers seems to breed a few of these – and how, against all odds, on the whole they manage to survive.

Anyway, back to what booksellers do.  Acquiring the right product is not as easy as it sounds when there are more than a million items to choose from UK publishers alone.  No bookshop can stock more than a fraction of these.  An average bookshop may hold 25,000 titles, a large one twice this figure.  ‘So what,’ you might think, ‘I can’t get every brand of T-shirt in Debenhams or even every brand of deodorant in Boots.’  That’s true, but the difference is that a bookseller’s customers expect to be able to find every book that they want in their local bookshop.  Of course, it’s not possible for the bookseller to fulfil all their expectations, however obscure, but he or she does have to get to know the (constantly-changing) preferences of the local community well enough to be able to score a good hit-rate and also to have an efficient, speedy ordering service in place for the titles that, inevitably, aren’t in stock.

Making the product look attractive is what retailing is all about.  No room for special pleading there, perhaps; except that a bookshop contains hundreds of items that have been arranged according to a system (by category, alphabetical order, Dewey decimal, whatever) and the more successful the shop is in attracting customers, the more likely it is that these items will be lifted out for inspection and returned to the wrong place.  The staff of a sizeable bookshop spends a large percentage of its time just tidying up the shelves.  Then there is the risk of damage.  No bookseller wants to stop a customer from browsing – it is what gives bookshops their unique feel; what makes them, in jargon parlance, ‘destination stores’ – but at the same time repeated handling is bound to leave some of the stock grubby, dog-eared or broken-backed. (One of my pet hates is to see someone callously ‘back’ a paperback.  The screeching of gum and binding as this evil act is perpetrated and the resulting mutilation is as hard to bear as watching a butterfly being broken on a wheel.)  Finally, there is the problem of outright theft – again, the curse of all retailers, but particularly difficult to control when the items being pilfered will slip easily into a bag or pocket.  Security systems help, but they are not infallible.  Bookselling margins are already tiny before being further eroded by ‘shrinkage’.

Finally, there is the challenge of making sure that the customer finds the book that she or he wants, or is even surprised and delighted by being offered a book that pleases but of whose existence s/he has been previously unaware.  In order to achieve this, a bookseller needs not just to understand  the local market, as already mentioned, but to have an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of both backlist and forthcoming titles, along with a highly-developed power of recall.  This is much more difficult than it sounds and is where the bookselling profession really comes into its own.  Booksellers make serendipitous links between what the customer likes and what is on the shelves, dozens of times a day.  Unfortunately, you only get to hear about the times when they drop the occasional stitch.  For example, one of the national newspapers once ran a prominent story on how its reporter had gone into a well-known bookshop and asked for Amsterdam, the novel by Ian McEwan, only to be directed to the travel section.  The member of staff in question was a Saturday girl and, needless to say, she was mortified.

Apart from the three great planks upon which bookselling is constructed – getting the books, displaying them, connecting them with the right customers – there is a myriad of other tasks associated with running a good bookshop, from handling goods-in and returns to keeping the shop floor areas clean and hazard-free to managing complex staff rotas, meeting publishers’ representatives and organising events.

I think that I have just proved the case that good booksellers are special.  And the real crème de la crème of the bookselling industry reinforce their specialness by keeping this to themselves.  They take a modest delight in practising their skills in an understated way, knowing full well that the best way to win and keep customers is by understanding that ars est celare artem.

Christina James Gravatar (1)Christina James was born in Spalding and sets her novels in the evocative Fenland countryside of South Lincolnshire.  She works as a bookseller, researcher and teacher.  She has a lifelong fascination with crime fiction and its history.  She is also a well-established non-fiction writer, under a separate name. You can follow Christina on her blog at www.christinajamesblog.com and on twitter @CAJamesWriter.