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15052.  Fri Feb 04, 2005 6:01 pm Reply with quote

Icarus, belated thanks for your Oxford hotel tips. A visit is long overdue!

15501.  Sat Feb 19, 2005 2:25 pm Reply with quote

Diary of a stockmistress
(Filed: 13/02/2005)

Claudia FitzHerbert's weekly dispatch from a small Oxford bookshop

`I'm going away. I'm looking for something to read."

"So am I."

The customer frowned. My job was to find, not look.

"Where are you going?" I asked.

"That's not the point."

"I agree."

The customer looked up, sharply.

"You don't-?"

"Read away? Not much. Not unless I'm caught short."

In fact, I have a system, wrapped in a rhyme, of which more later. For now it was enough simply to confess to a predilection for the familiar. Some people, when they are away from home, like to read books that they hope will further their understanding of the place they've gone to. Others read to escape the place they have escaped to, which they know they can't possibly understand because it's a foreign country where they don't speak English very well.

In Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, the American writer Anne Fadiman describes another group of readers altogether. This lot read places as the first lot read books. They get a high not from reading about where they are but from being where they've read about, and then from reading about it all over again. Fadiman refers to these people as "hard-core devotees of … You-Are-There Reading". I call them Fadimans. Biographers are Fadimans, very often. Travelling in the footsteps of footsteps. Novelists are more often escapologists. Slackers and bores are to be found in all three camps.

My staff are mixed. So, I suspect, are my customers. This one, like me, was an escapologist. And she wasn't any old escapologist, I could tell. She was canonical.

We smiled at one another, warmly. Home-readers, on the whole, get on. It's as though we know that one day we will meet in some horrible jungle and save one another's lives by being in a position to swap one upright 19th-century spinster for another.

We moved on to a discussion of how many for how long. I confessed how often I'd been overweight at airports, on account of not knowing which books not to bring. She confessed to a holiday average of taking 10 books for five days, and reading one. We'd both read the same interview with Tom Stoppard a hundred years ago in which he'd described his prize possession – a suitcase specially designed for carrying books, which turned into a bookcase when you opened it up.

So far so close. Then we parted. I said that for years I'd castigated myself for having eyes too big for my brain but that now I just accepted the pile of books as part and parcel of holiday clobber. Much better to have a suitcase full of books you didn't read than to spend a holiday wishing for books you hadn't brought.

I was speaking more as a shrink than a saleswoman but the customer wasn't convinced. She was sick of her sickness, she said, and had determined to knock it on the head. "I'm only going to take one book. A novel," she added, with a starved look.

A pause, followed by a question. Had I read Pinkerton's Sister? I hadn't but I agreed it was probably just the thing if you were slimming. Peter Rushforth's first novel in 25 years is a 500-pager about a turn-of-the-last-century New Yorker who grows old (and maybe mad?) clawing her way through the Victorians. "They're all in there," I said, "the Brontλs, Eliot, Alcott, Austen. It might turn out to be a sort of 10 for one."

The customer picked up the book.

"It's awfully big," she said then, in a feeble voice. I began to lose patience. I had a cold coming on, an aeroplane to catch and my own shopping to do. And this woman, having first outed herself as a fellow-sicko in the stockpiling stakes, was now looking agonised about a single purchase.

"Wait for the paperback, why don't you?" I said, snatching it back. In trying to sell the book I'd talked myself into wanting it. And as usual I only had one copy.

"Oh dear," said the woman, flustered, feeling she'd failed. I wanted her out.

Treat yourself, I croaked. Go with the flow. Don't stick at two. Two won't do.Something old/ Something new/ Something made up/ Something true./ One that's here/ One that's there/ One that could be anywhere.

She fled the shop, empty-handed. There are certain sensibilities on which my ditties work at once, like poison.

I still think we'd be fine in the jungle.

15623.  Wed Feb 23, 2005 4:21 pm Reply with quote

Diary of a stockmistress
(Filed: 20/02/2005)

The open-to-buy system – which allows me to purchase only as much as I've sold – continues its pincer-like attack on the health and happiness of staff and stock. The QI bookshop's backlist, I used to think, was like a marriage that hadn't yet gone wrong. This rendered the process of reordering from paperback sales as smooth as silk.

Now financial constraints have turned it into a thicket of betrayal and deception. I have grown furtive at the keyboard, no longer able to look my staff in the eye as I plot what to drop. For it is not a question of discarding any old loser to make room for something new – it has to be something that has sold. And on a quiet day – of which there are a respectable many – the only titles to sell are likely to be staff favourites. They are especially likely to be the boys' favourites, for they – the boys – are especially good at selling. (And hopeless at everything else.) Sell well in the QI bookshop and the chances are you'll be for the chop.

I hate constraints of any kind but I do glean faint consolation from the sheer anti-capitalist chutzpah of the software program. Not only do we not stock bestsellers on snotty principle, but as soon as we create one of our own we cease to stock it. Very amusing. Or not. The Hungry Pole fails to see the joke. His manner, when he finds me out, is as courtly as usual, but his eyes are dimly blazing. "I had someone wanting to buy The Street of Crocodiles. The computer tells me that we have none on hand and none on order. How can this be?"

My silence confirms what he already knows.

"I'll get it in again," I promise. "In a bit. But maybe in the meantime you could do your selling thing on some other books. Some of the… more English stock, perhaps?" I know and he knows and I know that he knows, etc that I am talking about the titles that are on the shelves because I love them and that don't sell because I can't do whatever it is that Tomasz does to the pale scholars who haunt the shop on his shifts and line up to buy Bruno Schulz and Ferdyduke.

"I could not possibly recommend a book I haven't read," replied Tomasz. "I would feel a fraud."

"Get reading, then," I start to say, then stop. We have tried infecting one another, without success. He took The Blue Flower to Poland for Christmas, and left it there. "I found it rather dry, actually," he said, dryly. I have been similarly defeated by the relentless lyricism of Alligator Alley.

But the paperback thicket is nothing compared with the hardback jungle. Deciding which titles to stock and for how long is all that I think about most of the time. From a bookseller's point of view – or at the least from the point of view of a small independent bookseller – the conventions of hardback publishing are antiquated and exasperating. Paperbacks are for reading, hardbacks for keeping.

How do you know if you like a book well enough to want to keep if you haven't read it? The answer is you don't. So you wait for the paperback. So no one buys the hardback. So the small independent booksellers – who can't get their books on sale or return but who are none the less brave enough to stock new titles by promising-sounding unknowns – are stuffed. We can, of course, play safe and wait for the paperback ourselves. But that involves passing up on the new and where's the fun, really, in that? And then there's the business of wanting a new hardback edition of the paperback you've devoured and thrown away. Chances are it won't exist. Or only – if your fancy runs to some Muriel Spark or Evelyn Waugh – in some grisly compilation.

There was a time when publishers of new books offset the costs of production by selling off the paperback rights to another publishing house. In these days of vertical publishing the other house is, nine times out of 10, not other at all. Still the hardback staggers on as a way of whacking up the value of a book.

As usual it's the poor who pay, for they are the ones forced to delay their reading fix for a year while the busy rich take their time shopping for hardbacks which they very often won't get round to reading. Of course publishers have to make money, but given how many hardbacks don't sell at all (and never even make it into paperback as a result) who is to say there isn't some profit to be made from changing the running order of soft and hard?

The QI bookshop is at 16 Turl St, Oxford.

15799.  Thu Mar 03, 2005 11:48 am Reply with quote

Diary of a stock mistress
(Filed: 27/02/2005)

Claudia FitzHerbert's weekly dispatch from a small Oxford bookshop.

I have stumbled, quite by accident, on the answer to the working parent's nightmare of school holidays: have a schoolchild on the payroll. It being half-term, my Saturday sixth-former – also known as Implacable – is available to work triple weekday shifts. The rota writes itself for once and I run away to London with my children to do some industrial espionage.

We go to Daunt's – ah, Daunt's, that light-filled cave on Marylebone High Street which began as a travel bookshop with a difference (Ibsen was shelved alongside the Blue Guide to Scandinavia) and has since expanded into a general bookshop of enormous, as well as cavernous, charm. Travel, as a genre, seems to lend itself to this sort of happy expansion. Daunt's is one example. Eland, a small publishing house that allegedly specialises in reprinting travel books, is another. The two Elands I've read recently are Tony Parker on the beautiful madness of lighthousekeeping and Andrew Graham-Yooll on the effects of Terror in Buenos Aires in the 1970s. Both were completely absorbing and show just how broad a list can be, when you adopt "spirit of place" as the presiding mantra. Daunt's – and Eland – have seen off whichever wag it was that said it was not travel that narrowed the mind, but travel writing.

The shop, when I return, is in better order than usual, thanks mainly to the ministrations of Implacable. Which puts her at something of an advantage when she holds aloft a semi-opaque piece of plastic tubing and says "What's this?" in a neutrally accusing sort of voice.

"This" is a game called Snatch, an anarchic word game that cocks a boisterous snook at Scrabble and all the killer conventions of sitting patiently and waiting your turn. Why is Snatch under the counter? Because I am thinking of stocking it. But Implacable has found me out before I have my presentation ready. Nothing is decided, yet.

"I don't think we should," she says, when I put it to her that we might.

I ask why not, wondering if she is a victim of a common Oxford diet of too much, too young on the word-game front.

"It's not a book," she answers simply.

"I'll take the post," I say, and slip upstairs. I am ashamed of having flirted with anything Other, however suitable and circular the Other happened to be.

There are a couple of book parcels for a boss, John One. In general, the self-publishers send their books to me, while the big houses train their sights on him. It's a pecking-order thing that I sometimes subvert by opening all the book-shaped post and claiming for the shop anything that isn't a proof and has the right air of faintly egghead readability. But not today. I find John One in the office, humming to himself. The word is that he's been humming for days. Something to do with a Valentine's card, is the whisper. Sleep with me, is the hiss.

The humming stopped when he opened the first of the parcels. Sleep with Me, said the schlocky-looking novel that fell to the ground. What a horrid trick, we all agreed. A Bloomsbury gimmick. The second was just as bad: also from Bloomsbury, it was a novel about "grief and sex", with a bar of milk chocolate with a matching floral dustjacket part of the parcel. I've never been quite sure what people mean when they talk about chocolate-box fiction. Now perhaps I don't need to. Is this perhaps the latest example of the label that begins as an insult being claimed as a badge?

Later, I ask Implacable if she is quite sure that we should stick to books, given that publishers don't. She is.

What to do when friends visit the shop for the first time and fail to see the point? They behave, these friends, as though they have come to the shop purely to see me, to fish me out from behind the till and join me for a meal or a drink in the club upstairs. It is in vain that I beg them to stop, wait, take a look. They don't know what to say or where to start. They are quietly appalled to discover that this bookshop I've been banging on about for months is merely a kiosk. "Is this… the full extent of it?" is what comes out most often, after a pause.

"Concentrate," I answer back. "There's plenty here you won't have read. Tread the circle, read the shelves." I am reminded of an uncle frowning at shuffling ranks of youthful diffidents at a cousin's 21st. Dance, you buggers, dance. Dance or go away. It works no better for me than it did for him. To browse is to dance, discuss. (Neither can be forced.)

15811.  Thu Mar 03, 2005 6:01 pm Reply with quote

Tell that to Clint Eastwood...

16540.  Thu Mar 24, 2005 7:10 am Reply with quote

Diary of a stock mistress
(Filed: 13/03/2005)

Claudia FitzHerbert's weekly dispatch from a small Oxford bookshop

Punters who come straight to the point are nearly always trouble. "Collapse," said a man with a face full of pain. "Jared Diamond. How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive." The customer was quite plainly a short-of-timer, but he spoke slowly, as though to a halfwit. Then he began to spell it out. In general I've nothing against the spellers-out. Often it is more an act of courtesy than not. But to spell out the word "collapse" is a tiny bit on the aggressive side.

I produced the book. He wanted two. I explained that I only ever had one, but that I could probably get another in by the next day.

"Well, can you or can't you?" said Spellcheck, shaking his head. His tone was that of someone who has, luckily for you, reserves of moral superiority that prevent him from giving vent to an entirely reasonable rage. I called up Title Search and typed an E. Spellcheck, craning his neck to look around the screen specially erected to protect me from him, went mad, as I knew he would.

"Collapse," he said, waving the book in the air. "Col – lapse. C.O."

"I know that," I said, typing a C and an O to follow the E. "But the funny thing is…"

"There's nothing funny about it." Spellcheck's hands were fists now, and his face was upside down inside my space. "I haven't got all day. Collapse. With a C. You have to start with a C."

I nodded and typed another C to follow the O. I wasn't trying to torture him, or not really, but the funny thing about Collapse, which Spellcheck didn't want to know and which I wouldn't have tried to tell him if he'd only done the decent thing and kept his distance from my computer screen, was that Collapse appears on the bookselling database under another (and presumably previous) title: Ecocide.

The change is not without interest for those already interested in Diamond's book, which despite its subject matter - case histories of social and environmental collapse with examples ranging from ancient Iceland to modern Rwanda - ends on a controversially upbeat note, with "reasons for hope". In the book Diamond describes how he set out expecting to tell a story of man's abuse of the natural environment, and discovered a more complex story in which men don't always behave so stupidly after all. In QI Bookshop terms, the treatise began as an "Informed Rant" and became a "Modest Proposal".

All this and more – such as the fact that the book was in stock with the wholesalers, and could arrive the next day – I would have shared with Spellcheck, if he'd only had the wit, and grace, to wait.

To Balliol for lunch, where I burble on about the bookshop to a bright-eyed, bearded philosopher in a filthy jumper who has clearly not stepped inside a retail outlet for years. (He is lyrical with indignation about Blackwell's slowness in transporting books the 100 or so metres from shop to porter's lodge.) It is good, as a shopkeeper, to meet this sort once in a while. It is too easy to slip into smug thoughts about coming across all sorts, when in fact I only ever come across one sort, which is the sort to enter shops. The philosopher – in between slugging down generous measures of cough-medicine-flavoured wine – simultaneously prophesies the end of the book as a material object and promises me some college custom. I wonder if he'll come through in time.

My host, a medievalist, is more sanguine about the future of the book than he is about the university. There is a revolution brewing in Oxford, which threatens academics with all sorts of unasked-for freedoms (freedom from choosing undergraduates, for example, and from teaching them, from talking to them, from drinking with them and so on). Some dons - the better, more Socratic kind (some say lazier) – are up in arms. These dons are bored and depressed by the majority of graduate students, ploughing as they do their lonely, unreadable, specialised furrows, whereas they relish a bit of argy-bargy with cocky youngsters once a week. "They tend to be better value, somehow," explains my Balliol friend, with a sigh.

In the bookshop, in my role as starvation-wage employer, I take a rather different view. I always prefer the ground-down postgraduates to the flaky unders - who sign up for shifts and then fail to show. The graduates are hungrier and sadder; less hopeful and more reliable. I find, when I ask around, that it is the same story in the coffee house behind the shop, and the club upstairs. Funny to think that we are the dullards really, beneath our shiny workplace clothes. The dusty dons, it turns out, are the ones with the dash.

16541.  Thu Mar 24, 2005 7:11 am Reply with quote

Diary of a stock mistress
(Filed: 13/03/2005)

Claudia FitzHerbert's weekly dispatch from a small Oxford bookshop.

A woman comes into the shop clutching not one but three plastic bags full of books from the shameless neighbouring chains. She is a striking figure - 50 at least, with uneven patches of dyed orange hair and huge bare legs ending in lime-coloured flip-flops. In general, I am excited by middle-aged women with splashy rugs who sport bare legs in the snow and seem not to give a damn. But this one, when she comes close, has a light in her eye that makes me think, "More mad than bad", and want to look away.

"Do you have any new books?"

"I have nothing else," I reply, sweet as pie, my shoulders drooping with boredom. Why are even the mad ones so catatonically thick?

"In that case you perhaps have a copy of this." She reaches down to the shantytown of carrier bags at her feet and fishes out a copy of Michael Chabon's The Final Solution. But the equilibrium of the other bags is fatally disturbed by her action, and multiple copies of the same book tumble on to the floor.

I have heard writers, greedy for readers, speak bitterly of the Book-Hoarding Ghouls who haunt literary festivals with stockpiles of unread first editions and then queue up to have them signed. Females of the species are rare, but not unheard of.

But it transpires the Flip-flop is a reader, not a dealer.

"What do you know about this book?" she asks, and once again

I am unsettled by something in her look.

Only what I've read. The Final Solution (a recent choice of the Telegraph book club) is a novella in which the author dares to imagine an unnamed Sherlock Holmes living out an uneasy old age in the shadow of the Second World War.

"As if Holmes would forsake cocaine and opium for bee-keeping," snarls Flip-flop, coming into focus at last. "These are for the bonfire. Do you have any more?"

I hesitate, uncertain of the form. It will happen again, I'm sure, but this is my first encounter, in the shop, with a bona fide book-burner. Where are the Johns when I need them? Where, more to the point, is my one copy of The Final Solution, which lives on the shelf called "Puzzles", and isn't there?

"I've got it," says a voice, light with mischief and indeterminate of sex, speaking from the depths of the leather armchair that sits beneath a window behind the till. A few months back, when no one was concentrating, I stole two chairs from my boss, John I, in the club upstairs. Then my other boss, John II, turned up and took one back. The remaining chair bridges a gap in the shelves between "The Careers Service" and "Secret Lives", and is silently fought over by customers and assorted hangers-on. It is the tree to which catches are dragged, and slowly eaten; the plateau from which the occasional dramas of hand-selling - where the exasperated bookseller presses a personal recommendation on the ditherer - can be observed.

The Voice is one of several regular occupants of the Chair, putting in at least a couple of hours a week. I don't mind it at all, quite like it in fact, particularly not knowing whether it's a boy or girl. But if I'm in a state about something - or someone - then I lash out, the way one does.

The Voice is cool with this, verging on the cheeky. If I say, "Are you going to buy that book you're reading?" the Voice says, "I'm thinking about it." And if I say, "You're not thinking; you're reading," the Voice says, "Thinking is reading." Once I tried to open things out a bit and asked, "Are you a student?" "Do I look like a student?" the Voice asked back. It was an awkward moment, for of course I couldn't look because of not having worked out, in the beginning, if the Voice was a boy or a girl. I dimly recall the Voice laughing, at this point, at my discomfiture.

But I have a strong sense, on this occasion, that the Voice is on my side.

And so it proves. Flip-flop does not give up at once. She tries first to engage the Voice in conversation, and then to distract it with another book. The Voice smiles politely and refuses to play. At last Flip-flop surrenders, her neck flicking slightly down as she looks at her watch. Her retreat is dignified, her defeat indisputable. There is no scrabbling pledge to "come back later". The door swings, and she is gone.

The Voice closes the book a few seconds later.

"What did you think?" I ask.

"I agreed with her, really."

The QI bookshop is at 16 Turl Street, Oxford

Samuel Thomas
16550.  Thu Mar 24, 2005 8:54 am Reply with quote

It is delightful to know that there are still people around who will hapily sit there and read a not terribly good book to prevent it being destroyed on principal. I remember many moons ago my school librarian was about to through out a brand new book, but I saved it as I find the thought of destroying books dreadful. I still have, some where, an unread book on scientology. Better it languishes in a box than is destroyed. It is odd that my faviroute committee I sit on is one regarded as being dull by most, the University of London Libraries Committee, which reminds me, any one know some one who may want 4 km of books? They are languishing in Egham and the space is needed, but the head of Senate House library, as I am, is entirely opposed to destroying them.

16552.  Thu Mar 24, 2005 9:05 am Reply with quote

I hate to see books destroyed as well. Actually, I hate to see books given away. That's why I've still got a Children's Oxford Colour Encyclopaedia on my bookshelf.

I'm a bit of a hoarder really.

16555.  Thu Mar 24, 2005 9:10 am Reply with quote

You and me both, Natalie. When I emigrated to the US, I had to bring myself to get rid of some of my books. I gave away 36 boxes full to local charity shops, but I still brought over 2500 with me. We are now in the process of building an addition to our house so that I can actually unpack them!

Samuel Thomas
16557.  Thu Mar 24, 2005 9:14 am Reply with quote

But I take it you can't find space for a spare four thousand meters (writes it out in full for added emphasis) of books...

16564.  Thu Mar 24, 2005 11:20 am Reply with quote

Not unless you can buy us a larger plot of land, Samuel!

Samuel Thomas
16570.  Thu Mar 24, 2005 12:19 pm Reply with quote

I'd love to, but if I had the money I'd probably by a house and cover every wall in bookshelves. I can dream...

16604.  Fri Mar 25, 2005 5:12 am Reply with quote

I've just asked, and apparently we do not have room for 4km of books. Sad.

My bookshelf is a work of art. The Favoured Books are on the top shelf (think Stephen Fry, biographies of Oscar Wilde, Diana Wynne Jones etc). Below that is The Shelf That Never Moves Except When People Steal Things From It, which is the home to my extensive collection of Discworld Books. Below that is Sligjhtly Less Favoured (But Still Pretty Good) Books (The Phantom Tollbooth and other remnants of childhood favourites) and then at the bottom Books For Possible Promotion. I then attempt to work my way through the Promotion shelf and promote some books, however, if they prove unsatisfactory then they are relegated to The Box in my mother's bedroom, a dreadful punishment.

Samuel Thomas
16614.  Fri Mar 25, 2005 7:24 am Reply with quote

The perils of my book collection:

In london I keep the 200 to 300 volumes I could not bare to be parted from, everything from the complete works of Oscar Wilde to Jared Diamond's Muray Glen-Mann's the Quark and the Jaguar, plus my accademic books, which I could bare to be parted from, but ought not to be. Along with those are the books I have bought over the last 6 months, a further 30 or so. The bulk of my remaining books are in the loft of my parents garage, a further several hundred volumes. This then leaves my encyclopedia, in my parents front bedroom, the 1978 Britanica, all 30 volumes. Fortunately, the room just off my bedroom in the family home in France is empty, so I shall be able to set up my personal library there, with my books, a winged armchair, a desk and some decent wine. That will be my personal safe haven, but will I ever make it as far as my bedroom...


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