It started with a kiss

You will find this hard to believe (everybody does), but since we placed a life-sized Captain Haddock mannequin in our shop window, the public attempt to kiss him. The window cleaner and I have repeatedly cleaned lipstick off the glass in front of Haddock’s face. Occasionally, people spit at him (Haddock, not the window cleaner). This level of public engagement surely bodes well for bookshops’ survival. Passers-by are stopping, and bothering.

Similarly, in the past, The Satanic Bible in the window has led to hate mail, demonstrating the continuing power of Beelzebub. An elaborate window celebrating sexual diversity was perhaps tactless in the lee of the Mother Church of England, and the howls of protest were as expected—but I am glad that the display featured in the book Cultural Criminology (Routledge, 2002) as something that “made the average Soho bookshop look boring”.

Any public engagement with a bookshop window is good. I was even pleased when Germaine Greer wrote a scrawled refusal to speak at my shop, on the grounds that we were “displaying her naked in the window” (she was starkers on the cover of a history of Oz magazine.)

We booksellers underestimate the boiling passions of our customers (see the surprise furore over Waterstones’ dropped apostrophe). Spike Milligan did not mind Mein Kampf being displayed face-out on a shelf, but angrily asked me to remove a revelatory biography of Peter Sellers from sale. Whether we feel like it or not, unlike other retailers, we sell ideas, and take a stand on ideas—if only by what we display.

I saw this demonstrated forcefully last December. We have a six-foot linen wall-hanging in our Religion section, bearing a quotation from Mother Teresa. Christopher Hitchens’ dim view of the “lying, thieving, Albanian dwarf” stirred one customer, a few days after the journalist died, to rip the banner down.

Public engagement is no incidental sales ploy. Booksellers have historically championed personal freedom. Heroic James Bainham, as he burned at the stake for stocking the Bible in English, said “I feel no pain, the Lord is by me”, and many other booksellers in European history were fined, imprisoned, tortured or executed for stocking the wrong books. Rather than bemoaning book price wars, or the rise of the Kindle, we should recall our mission in society.

That mission might simply be books-with-cake (Jaffé & Neale), or the literary canon (Toppings), childrens’ reading (Muswell Hill Children’s Bookshop), gay rights (Gay’s the Word, raided by the government in 1984, and attacked in 2011) or Islamic culture (Al Saqi Books, est 1978 and still going strong). Someone said: “stand for something, or you’ll fall for anything”. The bookshops which stand for something will last.