Sunday, 23 October 2011

Once was bookseller

The last in our current series of blogs by booksellers who work with children’s books, this time by our own Leila Rasheed. These blogs have been intended to give a glimpse of relationships between booksellers and children’s writers, something usually transacted behind the scenes. Leila has been both, as you’ll see in this fascinating account of life in a cross-Channel Waterstones. We hope you’ve enjoyed this ‘Month of Sundays’ and we plan to bring you more tales from behind the till next year. Meanwhile, we at An Awfully Big Blog Adventure would like to thank the contributors and also all those who opened out and enriched this discussion with their thought-provoking comments.

Round about the same time I decided to take my writing seriously I met a random Danish composer and we moved in together in Brussels. I found there was a Waterstone’s, applied for a job and went to Italy. I rang from a phone box in Italy to see if I’d got the job and apparently that swung it. I was now a bookseller. It was 2002.

Waterstone’s Brussels was a WH Smiths from 1921 until 1997. It was once managed by Marina Warner’s father. During the 2nd World War it was a Nazi officer’s mess. It is the bottom two floors of a typical central Brussels mansion, and the building has a faded, stately huge heaviness, like a woman who’s grown too thick around the waist for her crinoline. On the third floor, where the offices are, corridors and false walls maze like secrets in a heart. It smells of dust and creaky, twisted wood.

I loved working in that bookshop. Loved it. The staff (hello guys) were amazing: bookish, funny, intelligent, crazy (literally, not ‘wooo, I’m so crazy’), arty, cosmopolitan. I loved the books. I quickly got to be in charge of the children’s section, probably because no-one else wanted it. This was bliss. I loved tidying my section so it looked enticing, like rearranging the sweets in a shop window. I loved unpacking boxes of new stock. I loved selling books, I loved people buying books. I loved writing shelf-talkers (those little bits of card under a book that say how great it is) and seeing people read them and smile and pick up the book and buy it. I loved poring over the publishers’ catalogues, thinking, ‘That’ll sell here’ and buying it in and seeing it fly out. I loved seeing my profits go up, my section do well. I even loved stickering and de-stickering (de-stickering less so; it wrecks your nails). I did not love the waste; the piles of 3 for 2s shed like Imelda Marcos’ last week’s shoes.

Waterstones in Brussels and in Amsterdam, the chain’s only two branches abroad, sell the same books as you would find in a Waterstones in the UK. There is a huge audience for English language books in Brussels. Belgium is a country of two parallel languages: French and Dutch. English is a neutral space between these two language communities, whose inability to get on with each other, politically at least, has led to the country entering the record books as the country which has taken the longest time to form a government after an election. (It’s like some incredibly unstable chemical compound, as soon as a government comes into being it decays). Middle class Belgians, especially Flemish Belgians, almost without exception speak fluent English. Ex-pats working in Brussels will frequently speak and read English as well as their own native language/s, French and Dutch. University courses are taught in English. Many of the international schools there teach curriculums in English. It is the official language for many if not most businesses in Brussels. Aside from Waterstone’s, Brussels supports an independent English bookshop, Sterling , many, many independent bookshops specializing in (for example) art and travel that sell books in English as well as other languages, Passaporta, which is a multi-lingual bookshop and includes a residency for writers, and an independent English language children’s bookshop, Treasure Trove, which has been established over 20 years. There are of course local French bookshops and Dutch bookshops and the Dutch bookshops in particular will also stock some English language books.

In the Waterstone’s chain, some books were assigned ‘core’ status and had to be kept in stock. Beyond that we were fairly free (depending on space, not much of which was left after the core stock, a fair amount of which was dire TV tie-ins and so on, was on the shelves) to buy what stock we wanted. Our customers were typically Eurocrats, politicians, diplomats and business people, some English teachers and many students. Our strongest sections were therefore politics, business and economics, while core stock memoirs of C-list British slebs languished un-sold. Good books for bright children to learn English as a second language were in demand. There seemed to be very few around, and I would say this is a gap in the market waiting to be filled by any clever publisher out there. The Usborne First 1000 words in English was a strong seller when put face-out with a shelf-talker. Not on Waterstone’s core stock, but we could shift 5 or 6 a week on average, a lot for us. Overall, we sold books. We made a profit, unlike some other flagship branches. We were therefore allowed to behave in many ways like an independent bookshop but with Waterstone’s purchasing might behind us. Glory days, etc.

To begin with, there was a form I had to fill in stating what I had spent on stock. But that vanished, and then there was no budget. Managers came and went like stressed moths. Now and then a bigger manager came from London and zoomed up the stairs to the office and zoomed down the stairs again and out to the pub. There was a mysterious thing called CPD that was meant to happen. I wrote my novel on the staff computer on Sunday afternoons. There was a revolution against uniforms.
The international schools came and swooped upon us and spent hundreds of euros. We did events. A customer asked Jackie Kay to direct her to the gardening section.
Once there was a thunderstorm and the roof came down in the children’s section and drowned several Enid Blytons. We mopped and dried out stock on the radiators. I collected things people lost in the children’s section. I considered making a little museum.

We had Johnny Depp in there once, filming up the road. I served his bodyguard, a tall, sad-eyed man in a ten gallon stetson. Michael Jackson visited before I arrived, the shop was closed for him and he bought children’s books. We had theft. I never noticed, I’m a bit rubbish that way. People would walk in and walk out again with overcoats full of hundreds of euros worth of dictionaries and Tintin books which they sold on the black market. We had two armed robberies. I wasn’t there at the time. We got a security guard.

We were sandwiched between a gun shop and a porn shop, behind us junkies slept in doorways, on the other side of the street was the red light district. A footstep behind us was Rue des Cendres, where the Duchess of Richmond’s ball before Waterloo was held. The rain ran down the arch of the disused cinema opposite and dripped like saliva from an open mouth. It’s the most beautiful city I’ve ever lived in. Last time I was there a man tried to slash my face with a knife as I walked down the street. We sold crackers at Christmas and Cadburys’ Crème Eggs at Easter. We were an ex-pat institution. Why do I say were? It’s still there. It sells coffee now. We angled for a coffee shop for ages and now there is one. You could go there and get a coffee next time you're in Brussels.

If I could do anything in the world, I would go back to bookselling as a career (alongside writing). I think I was a good bookseller and I know I enjoyed it. But I don’t think it would be practical in the long term. Why? Well, there has been some good news for bricks and mortar bookselling, there’s no doubt about that. Children’s publishers are springing up everywhere. That has to translate into sales. Waterstone’s has a new beginning. I have been following the James Daunt news on the Bookseller and am very excited at the changes. Scrapping the 3/2 is good. It’s good for customers who now have real choice rather than the illusion of choice. It’s good for staff who are trusted to do their jobs and know their books. It’s good because it gives value to something other than price, and this is what bricks and mortar bookselling has to be about, because it simply cannot compete with big online booksellers for price or convenience.

And there’s the rub. The bricks and mortar bookshop faces huge, specific and fundamental challenges – online bookselling, e-books, rise of the self-publisher - and all against a backdrop of worsening economic conditions. So much so that I cannot imagine career bookselling will last into a new generation in any other than a very boutique form. I hope that I’ll be proved wrong. I hope commenters can persuade me that I'm pessimistic. But in Birmingham we do not have one single independent general bookseller. Do you know how many people there are in Birmingham? One heck of a lot, that’s how many. You’d think they could support one single sole little independent bookseller. But the last, Bonds books in leafy Harborne, shut a couple of years ago. Over in equally leafy and more intellectual Moseley/ Kings Heath, we’ve got an Oxfam books that is usually jammed. That’s doing well – the second hand bookseller with the cheap charity rates to help it make a profit. The organic yummy mummy cafes have Usborne stands in them.

Books are selling but bookshops are closing. People will browse and pick up a second hand book but they’ll do their serious book shopping online. I cannot help thinking that much as I love real proper bookshops, all things pass. Like cassette tapes or VHS, or the steam engine, or the Bronze age.

Still, if a dedicated independent bookseller can stay afloat anywhere, it should be able to do so in Moseley/Kings Heath. Does anyone out there want to open one? And give me a job?

leila rasheed once was bookseller; now is book writer.


Luisa Plaja said...

I loved reading this beautifully written and thought-provoking post. Thank you, Leila. I only wish I could have visited you at Waterstone's Brussels, as I used to visit the city a lot. I will just have to go to your boutique bookshop in the future...?

Farah Mendlesohn said...

Very depressed re your comments re Brum. I grew up there. As a kid my pocket money went to Paperbacks Plus in Kings Heath/Moseley. As a teen it was spent in Andromeda the Science Fiction bookshop near central library.

Emma Barnes said...

A very evocative post, which made me want to pack my suitcase straight away (book-buying finishing up with some moules et frites, not to mention those Belgian beers - who could beat it?)

The decline in bookshops has been rapid and alarming. But trends don't always continue: and people do need to be able to look at the books and search out new authors and titles. Maybe there will be a place for the genuinely informed and passionate bookseller.

Keren David said...

I really enjoyed reading this, Leila. I was a regular customer at Waterstones in Amsterdam when we lived there - a little slice of home. But the books were very expensive!

Linda Strachan said...

Fascinating post, Leila. Uplifting and depressing!
We all seem to be waiting to discover what shape bookselling and book buying is going to take.
I often wonder if there is too much hype, though. In the sixties the common perception was that by now we would all be wearing shiny silver skintight suits and eating food in the shape of little pills!
But we are human beings, we like the feel of natural things and the experience of browsing in a bookshop is one I would hate to lose. Despite a rush toward new technology I cannot imagine that people will want to find themselves in a world with no bookshops to browse in and no enthusiastic, well informed booksellers to suggest a new book or a new author.
There is of course the financial consideration, very much at the forefront at the moment. Booksellers have to be able to survive so perhaps a new innovative model is needed. Something that works for booksellers, buyers and authors but also draws in the book buying public.

Leila Rasheed said...

I agree, there is nothing like browsing in a real bookshop, and to some extent I think it will remain. I just think the economics of it will mean that books will have to be sold alongside other 'luxuries', as you see them doubling up with cafes, for example. And the technological developments - well, I was thinking just the other day that in fact new technology has always put people out of work, from the spinning jenny onwards!
Having said that, I was in Warwick the other day and I found they have an independent general bookseller: Warwick Books. It's only 30 mins on the train from Birmingham, and when I visited they seemed very busy (though who knows if it was all people browsing who would them purchase on Amazon). The link's here: . It still does NOT make up for Brum not having its own general independent bookseller though. Shocking.
Farah, I think Andromeda has gone too, but Nostalgia and Comics on Smallbrook Queensway fights on, if that was another of your sci-fi haunts! There is also a specialist sci-fi bookseller on Digbeth, if I remember rightly.

Susan Price said...

Wonderful post, Leila - loved the description of the old building as having outgrown its crinoline. Not only beautifully written, but informed, thoughtful, passionate -
I'm trying to picture a 'random Danish composer'!

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

Lovely interesting post.
Just so we don't get too depressed about closing independent bookshops, I have to mention the wonderful Wenlock Books in Much Wenlock, Shropshire who will put on the kettle for its customers at any time of day. And the gorgeous BookaBooks in Oswestry, Shropshire with it own coffee shop and irresistibl home-made cakes.
So what did happen to the random Dane?

Leila Rasheed said...

Reader, I married him! :)

Katherine Roberts said...

Am horrified to hear that there is no independent in Birmingham! We also have a large population, yet are without a Waterstones since it closed last year, and our fantastic independent is about to change hands/close as well (not sure which yet). That leaves Smiths, which doesn't sell many books, and charity shops galore, which are apparently struggling to restock...

I wonder what the bookshop of the future will look like? Maybe there will still be shelf-talkers and knowledgeable staff and author events, but no actual books - just a coffee shop and a warm fire with sofas etc, where people can browse through millions of e-books, and then go to the tills and download the titles of their choice? The challenge will be for the shop offering something more than amazon, and that will be the staff like you, Leila... so maybe not that much will change. There just won't be warehouses and all the returns... which will be better for everyone, surely?

michelle lovric said...

Beautiful post, Leila. I bet your customers loved you!

I am with you, Leila and Linda, about taking bookshops deeper into the realm of pleasure, and offering an experience that cannot be replaced online or in a hypermarketing situation.

As a packager, I used to try to design book concepts that it would be hard to rip off, mostly by introducing novelties that only the obsessional paper engineer or researcher would invest the requisite hours in perfecting. For booksellers, there has to be an experience that cannot be reproduced - one that would be valued by a wider public.

Coffee and books work. Books and chocolates may also work. Books and flowers would be nice. I daresay interesting clothes and books, candles and books, cookware and cookbooks would also work. And then it would be wonderful for the book to be the cheaper option, the little extra treat you tuck into the bag holding the more expensive book.

An Italian publisher told me recently that he was very impressed with an English bookseller's take on the advantage of a wonderful independent bookshop as opposed to a chain or an internet sales point. This bookseller told him that his business rested on four pillars - a lovely environment, good staff, customer loyalty and one other (wish I could remember). But the chain/internet sale point offered just one advantage: price.

Quipped the bookseller, 'I stand more steadily on my four legs than THEY ever will on one'.

Penny Dolan said...

I have really enjoyed this series and found this an excellent and lovely post, Leila, with a nicely romantic story attached too!

Have just had a possibly related side effect of all these bookshop changes. I am trying to organise books for an occasional author event.

When I finally go through to my local chain to ask "Do you do books sale or return for book events?" neither of the two assistants knew if they did and had never heard of such a thing before. (In the past the shop had done this.) I need to speak to the managers.

I also approached an independent bookseller who said he was sorry but could not (afford to?)help. The other, in the same small market town, also used to help with books stock but he has closed already. Sad times.

Tomorrow I may call the publishers.

Linda B-A said...

How nostalgic your post makes me feel about all the bookshops I have known and loved. But how awful that you can now talk about bookshops and nostalgia in the same breath. What a terrible and wonderful monster the internet is: I can scarcely imagine life without it but (she said talking on a blog with virtual fellow lovers of children's books ) if we want to do something about life in 3-D we're going to have to start voting with our feet rather than with our (mouse) fingers.

Jan said...

What a lovely blog. And I have to say that in tiny Abingdon (pop. 35,000)we have TWO independent bookshops, with devoted followings. We know which side our bread is buttered (our paper is printed?) and it isn't by Mr Amazon. So we have author events galore right on our doorstep, reading groups, children's art events and much more. It's not just a shop any more - it's a community ...

Leslie Wilson said...

Lovely post, Leila! I do remember, when Waterstones opened in Reading, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. A cathedral of books in an old nonconformist chapel. Nowadays, I frequent our independent, as I can get books ordered and arriving within 24-48 hours or so. And Waterstones is not what it was, it has been taken over by the big-name promo. But I do hope that James Daunt can maybe restore it to what it was..

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

If James Daunt can turn Waterstones into a slightly bigger version of Daunts then we are in for a wonderful time! Daunts certainly believes in creating a community.
Wonderful post Leila... not many of us experience bookshops from both perspectives and it was beautifully written.

Abi Burlingham said...

How lovely to hear of your experiences Leila. I was captivated. But how sad too that we are now in this position. I try to take my children to libraries and bookshops whenever I can, just so that they have the wonderful experiences and memories that I had as a child, and still enjoy now as an adult.

Caroline Lawrence said...

I remember when I was in Brussels at your shop about seven or eight years ago? Not sure what I was doing exactly but I remember clear as crystal your telling me that you longed to be a writer, too.

Now you are! And a brilliant one! So more power to your pen, and may you achieve your heart's desire!

Karen said...

A beautifully written, evocative and well-informed post, Leila. It's sad that there's no independent book shops in Birmingham. I hope someone opens one and gives you a job - but only part-time so you still have time to write.