The alchemical bookshop

My wife just bought an ironing board for £70. The previous one, I confessed after she subjected me to a frankly Stasi-level interrogation, had indeed broken because of me letting it slide down the cellar stairs on its own after use, repeatedly. This broken veteran of a board had only cost £20. What did we get for £70? A ratchet that remembered your ideal ironing height, and wheels on the front bracket, enabling me in future years, upon putting the device away, to feel like one of those crucifixion re-enacters with a wheelie-crucifix.

Happily bookselling is an island of sanity in a world of such extreme consumerism. My wife also bought a banana tree recently, a metal thing on which to hang bananas. I just hope she doesn’t spot the tomato huller in Lakeland. Or read this.

This worthwhileness of bookselling is why I still love every day even after 36 years of shopfloor service in indies and in Waterstones. There were times when some thought bookshops doomed, and under HMV Waterstones lost its way, but booksellers survived those years, like Catholic recusants in the Reformation holding secret masses behind false walls in country houses. One dodge I am proud of was, just after each successive regional manager got the sack, to unscrew and skip one of the giant steel banner boards in the windows, with their bland ‘three for two’ rubrics, and pretend to the new RM—rolling my eyes at what a wanker his predecessor was—that the sackee had instructed the sacrilege. Soon I had my deep, arty, window displays back. HMV sold us off—it had always said we were “too in love with the product”, but we stayed in love, and our customers flooded back under James Daunt’s reign.

Those customers teach me about books all the time. Today, as one of them bought Solaris by Stanislav Lem and I airily said it was meant to be wonderful, she said “oh yes, I’m getting this for a friend, I read it years ago but do you agree that Fiasco by him is much better?”. I did not have the guts to confess I only knew Solaris from the Clooney movie, not even the Tarkovsky original, but I quickly bought Fiasco after she left, and am now an apostle of the Polish sci-fi writer who has sold 30 million books and was admired by H G Wells and Philip K Dick.

Customers are ahead of publishers in their eclecticism. They have a mycelial network, made up of word of mouth, social media, and the collective unconscious. Nobody in the book game predicted the shift from angels to vampires, from Buddhism to colouring books, from American to Chinese Sci-Fi (happening now, that one). As I get older—65 now— I find I love listening more. Like this morning, to my first customer, a woman buying Rebecca. She said as she tapped her card (“par magie” as my French customers say). “I’ve read it lots of times but I’m giving it to someone.” Self: “Sorry, d’you really mean lots of times?” Reader: “Yes, about five or six times.” Self: “Do you re-read other books?” Reader: “Oh no, just Rebecca.” This confirmed my theory that there are certain shot-in-the-arm books—such as I Capture the Castle, the Earthsea Trilogy, The Silver Sword—which are not taught on university courses but are known to booksellers. They are books that, as Macbeth wistfully says of sleep, “knit up the raveled sleave of care”. This young customer went on to explain that she had just read and loved Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, but with a should-read feeling throughout, “which also made me read it in a different way”. After she left a new word occurred to me: Rebecca has curlupability. 

Such books are discovered as whispers on the mycelial network, or found by browsing in a bookshop. When customers stop at the bookshop threshold, inhale and breathe out slowly, it’s not just the book smell they are enjoying, it’s a psychological threshold they are marking. They are about to enjoy serendipity, unmoored drifting. Virginia Woolf likened it to losing the carapace of self. As Malcolm Gladwell says, he has to “dick around” on the web but for him, regular bookshop browsing matches better the “randomised thinking” of the morphing brain. One night, after I had been around an 1875 sailing ship in Chatham which had steam engines, but went faster by wind, I had a dream in which my bookshop was like the ship, and browsers loved the wind in its sails. Serendipity is the wind that drives bookshops. Search algorithms, designed by a few kids in California, are reductive, past-based, and no way to break what Blake called “the mind-forg’d manacles”. I think that good bookshops will offer you the Booker shortlist, but serve as well someone in the mould of Umberto Eco, who preferred Spiderman to Tolkien, or Dylan Thomas, who loved Westerns.

Sitting in bed writing this late at night all is quiet. I am excited that tomorrow I will unlock the doors again, and meet customers who, particularly in these times, are gratefully enjoying what they, like me, took for granted earlier in 2020.

Paulo Coelho came to my shop once, to promote The Alchemist. He began his talk by telling everyone about the over-elaborate directions I had sent him, which ended with our three back doors, their various doorbells and two mobile numbers to call or text. After standing out in the snowy night for a while, puzzling over the final stage of entry instructions, he tried the door handle. It opened. He was in a warm bookshop. Tomorrow or the next day, you too can “do a Coelho”. We’re open.

Martin Latham is the manager of Waterstones Canterbury. The Bookseller’s Tale was published on 3rd September by Particular Books (9780241408810).