Early in the editing of my second novel, Books, the decision was taken to change the profession of the lead character, a bolshy booknut. He’d started out – years before - as a Literary Editor on a regional broadsheet, and they were now extinct. So I gave him a bookshop to run instead.
The change wasn’t too much of an ask. For six years I’d worked part-time in a Waterstone’s superstore in Birmingham city centre; for three of those I was a manager. (The secret of my success? Five minutes before my biannual performance review, I’d skim the business books for a bit of chat. Both ‘first mover advantage’ and ‘retail is detail’ got me a promotion.)
Looking for material, I first reflected on the time I’d spent with temps. I’d managed the Ground Floor, you see, which was Front of Store, Fiction and Crime. And then, every year, a team of 20 plus Christmas staff. They’re a funny bunch, temps. I remembered one lasted half a day before quitting: ‘I only applied because I thought working in a bookshop would be peaceful’, she said. Another underwent a daily transformation: shuffling and uncommunicative in the morning and a riot of loquacious enthusiasm in the afternoon. His secret was out when a visiting gaffer mistakenly swigged from his ‘water’ bottle. Yet another, driven quite quite mad by the delights of ‘Johnny Cash Sings Christmas’ on a loop, kept slipping upstairs to change the shop tunes. Which would have been fine were it not for the effects of underground drum and bass on the spending habits of the book buying public.
Then I thought back to the early days of our online operation. For years this was a shadowy affair. Two middle-aged men sat upstairs in a darkened room on the otherwise deserted 7th floor. They had keys to the lift. They never spoke. There were rumours they ‘worked with computers’ but discussion of their role was discouraged by management. Turned out they were responsible for all of the new titles added to the company’s catalogue.
Equally, I could have had some fun with our response to the publishing revolution. I left in 2007, when Amazon was a minor commercial diversion, Kindle a non-flicker in some far-off techie’s eye. Even so, we’d already decided to stock e-readers. This was a decision that may have been commercially sound but had limitless comedic potential too, like a blind knife sharpener perhaps, or a monkey juggling anvils.
Then there were the snotty authors who, despite their superior intelligence and people skills, could never quite grasp the correlation between the way they spoke to hard-pressed shop floor staff and the subsequent prominence (or otherwise) of their titles; the way the store flooded after as little as half an inch of rain; the works drink that ended in a brawl...
But no. I worked in a superstore and the hero in my book runs an indie. Authors wouldn’t visit, there would be no temps or online team. Besides, the real stories concerned the customers. The woman who’d ring up and talk for half an hour with a parrot squawking away in the background; the ones who brought gifts – a bottle of rum and a packet of black beans. The Alan Bennett Man (walks in: ‘Have you got anything by Alan Bennett?’; ‘Yes, mate.’; walks out.)
And then, of course, there were the ones who made the cut...
Books by Charlie Hill is out now, published by Tindal Street.
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