Today is my last day in the bookshop and it’s as if a twitter alert has gone out calling all men with enormous beards and woolly hats to the shop. One of them is muttering under his breath, as if he’s on the phone, or talking to a policeman parked outside. Or maybe to lots of tiny policemen in his beard. It takes me a while to realise he is simply mumbling into his beard and he is not talking to me at all. Another man with a beard is talking to me albeit rather quietly. I’m walking backwards and forwards and become confused between the two. I apologise to the beard mumbler because I think he’s talking to me and alarm him by saying, ‘I’m sorry I didn’t quite catch…?’ Then later I have to apologise to the man who is talking to me because I confuse him with the other one and ignore him completely. Today it’s clear my most important task is going to be differentiating between the people who are talking to themselves and the people who are talking to me. Whatever happens I mustn’t start talking to myself or I will really be in trouble.
Almost all the books are gone from the back. There’s the odd Lee Child in Polish (I think) or it could be Hungarian. One of our regulars is buying some of our bookcases from our storage area. He is charming, can maintain eye contact and is carrying screwdrivers, so he’s OK by me. He takes apart one of the bookcases and deftly puts it in his car. He is going to come back for the other one later in the week. As he is leaving we shake hands. It feels faintly masonic. ‘I’m sure I will see you…’ He implies I am bound to turn up in another bookshop soon. Somewhere he frequents. He’s almost certainly right. Now we have nowhere to put our kettle I am gasping for a cup of tea; the kettle was sitting on a small wooden ledge which jutted out from half way down the side of the bookcase he has just dismantled. I create a pile of empty cardboard boxes and plastic crates and balance the kettle precariously on top, pointing its steaming nostril away from a sign that has just been revealed on the wall which states: 230 volts dangerous.
This gets me thinking nostalgically about the other bookshops I have worked for and their various Dickensian staff rooms. The one in central London was infested with mice. If you left a plastic bag on the floor with food in it, when you came to pick it up, a mouse would spring out at you; and I can tell you jumping mice are not good for the heart. I do not view myself as a hysterical sort of person but I did not like that at all. It gave me a sort of edgy feeling and a cautious approach to plastic bags in general. None of that arty-farty, airy-fairy American Beauty nonsense for me. This was also the shop where raw sewage seeped in the back door one day. I view it as one of the great fortunes of my life that I wasn’t working on that particular occasion. I just came in on Monday morning to the shop smelling faintly like a hospital. Then I suddenly remember the bookshop in Ealing which blew up or rather I should say was blown up by the Real IRA in 2001. That was odd.
A man rushes into the shop wild-eyed and shouts, ‘Are all your books really one pound?’ and then rushes out again. A tremor runs through the customers in the shop. I feel it too. I have been wandering around thinking, ‘What shall I buy? What shall I buy? Last chance. Last chance. Oh God, oh God.’ My internal landscape can best be imagined as Edvard Munch’s The Scream. I have now got a bad dose of beard envy. I want one to mutter and mumble into. I am just about to start moaning under my breath when a regular customer distracts me from my agony by pointing to two books by Pushkin in Russian and says, ‘No one’s going to buy those, you know?’ ‘But they’re only a pound each,’ I say and wonder if he’s holding out to get them for nothing. This is a customer who has told me how very discerning he is in his book buying. This is the customer who I told firmly should not buy another copy of The Story of Zoya and Shura by L. Kosmodemyanskaya, a Soviet classic. I tease him gently and discover too late that he is not a man who can be teased in any way at all about his book buying habits, so I apologise profusely.
The manager comes in. It is very nice to see her. I tell her half the bookcases from the back have been picked up. ‘I hope he took the bookcase that doesn’t support the kettle first ,’ she says. ‘Well, actually,’ I say, bending down and picking up a tiny piece of paper from the floor near her foot. She goes in the back, looks at my Tower of Babel with the kettle teetering on top and sighs, ‘I don’t know what health and safety are going to say about that.’ Health and safety? I think. This is a bookshop.
Have you ever worked in a bookshop? What were/are your experiences like?