13.05.11 | Martin Latham
I returned from a week on the Isle of Mull laden with books from publishers such as Clan of Doune, Stenlake of Ayrshire, and Tobermory's own Brown & Whittaker. I have the definitive work on the granite quarries of Mull, and Old Mull, a collection of blurred photographs of places I have never seen. Why do we buy books on holiday which we would never purchase online? We want a souvenir of restful times but souvenirs, unless you are under 10, are utter tat.
There is the overpriced fudge made in Wellingborough with Ben Nevis on the box, the Skye jumper which, you ruefully discover on the ferry home, is made in China. Or there is the duck, badly carved from driftwood by the investment-banker-turned-islander. Even snowglobes these days have shoddy backdrop paintings and hardly any snow in: is that stuff really so expensive? Local books, however odd, are a pleasing keepsake, and one which makes you feel less of a transitory grockle. No Pythonesque tripper with knotted handkerchief on head would buy Old Mull.
Back in Canterbury I observe this psychology as we sell the most outre Kentiana to romantic visitors. The arcane Kingdom and People of Kent: AD 400–1066 (15 quid), has sold 187 copies. The absurd Canterbury Cathedral in Old Photographs flies out. Every time I sell one I am tempted to say: "Excuse me, but all the views in this book are unchanged, so why buy it?" And I wonder if all the people who buy the large, eye-catching Heyday of East Kent are aware that it is a celebration of East Kent Buses, complete with chassis numbers? Surely the steady sales of The Cement Railways of Sheppey must include the sort of tongue-in-cheek buyers who have kept The Road-Kill Cookbook going?
Local books are a goldmine, Amazon-proof and e-reader-unfriendly. That feeling of handing over Scottish money in Mrs McTavish's bothy-cum-shop, eyes watering from peat smoke, for a copy of Eigg Through the Ages is all part of the holiday. And although in Canterbury we have neither tillpoint hops nor booksellers in shepherds' smocks, the excitement of our tourist customers is palpable.
Quite apart from the enchanted holidaymaker, there is the resident who seeks to validate his local identity by furnishing his home with regional books. As "Passport to Pimlico" and "The Titfield Thunderbolt" demonstrated, we resent standardisation and centralisation. (The Aberdeen Press took localism to the edge with its Titanic headline: "Local Man Lost At Sea".) Loyal residents of Canterbury, like those of Neasden or anywhere, will snap up any book with their locale's name in the title as a matter of local pride.
Local books, which have a longer and more lucrative shelf life than some of the landfill in the "chart", merit more imaginative publishing, and better merchandising by booksellers.