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

Library Finds and Old Books

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My Father arrived on a flight from the UK last week armed with a selection of books which were being sold from a library. Among them were The First English Dictionary 1604 by Robert Cawdrey, Plain Words: A Guide to the Use of English by Ernest Gowers (1948), and The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester. For those of you who appreciate the smell of old books, they oozed the vanilla scent that is produced by aging paper as the lignin breaks down. You can read about the Science of it here . The content was of particular interest to me as a writer. I love words: their origins, use and translations and I used to collect dictionaries and the odd thesaurus, along with books of literary quotes.

Amongst the books my Father brought with him were a few on different parts of the world and a History of England which was originally presented to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, in 1974. The inscription made the book all the more unique in the age of eBooks and I was reminded of the wonder of old books. We used to have a second hand bookshop at the end of our road when I was a child with the most unusual books and the same wonderful musty vanilla smell invading your senses as you opened the door. I love eBooks for the ease and speed of getting into a new book, especially as I live in a country where English is not the primary language and where the English books take up a small shelf space in the upper corners of a few bookshops. But I will never tire of the scent of old paper, of interesting inscriptions placed in the front of second hand books, of the notes scribbled in the margins and of wondering who the owner might have been, or whether there is a whole story behind a string of owners. Neither will I tire of the physical turning of the pages and the feeling of holding a book in my hands as I curl up with a coffee and a few hours of peace.

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.