Waste Lands are selling like hot cakes. There has been a BBC 4 documentary on T.S. Eliot and things that appear on TV have an immediate effect on our customers’ buying habits. I recognize it in myself. Having been tormented by having to study Eliot’s play, The Cocktail Party, for A Level – I mean for heaven’s sake what on earth is a 17 year old supposed to do with a nun being crucified on an anthill?  – I have spent years thinking that the only Eliot I’ll ever read for the rest of my life is his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. ‘There’s a whisper down the line at 11.39 when the night mail’s  ready to depart …’  being the  verse I recite when suffering from insomnia but having seen A.N. Wilson’s passionate and strange  documentary on Eliot I feel I have some context within which to read his more difficult stuff and so it appears do all our customers. On the other hand, it might have something to do with austerity, Brexit and Trump.

There is something called BSSL not under any circumstances to be confused with BDSM. BSSL is Bookseller’s Sod’s Law and it means that the book that a person comes in and asks for on one day and that you do not have appears immediately they have gone. As if a genie has pulled it out of a hat and laid it down nice and neatly in your eye line with a note stating, ‘Ha, ha lost sale.’ So obviously half way through my next day at the shop I find a book of Emerson’s essays. There it is in a box in the back. Ooof. I try and comfort myself with the thought it wasn’t there last week but the truth is it probably was and I didn’t look hard enough.

I contemplate the fiction shelves. Obviously this is influenced by the fact I write it. I have an ambiguous relationship, shall we say, with the bestsellers. I try not to feel bitter and twisted. Wouldn’t it be nice I sometimes think to have written a book that had sold so much that it came into charity shops frequently? As I place, for example A Perfect Spy on the shelf I imagine what it must be like to be John le Carré and open your royalty statements, as opposed to being me and opening mine.

Onward and upward. It is interesting noting trends and things, these being different in a second-hand bookshop to new bookshops. For example there was  a book  titled Golden Hill by Francis Spufford which was Waterstone’s Fiction Book of the Month last October. I was hand sold it by a very enthusiastic Waterstone’s bookseller. I’m slightly ashamed to admit that part of the reason I bought it was because I thought the name of the character played by the gruff-voiced child in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was Francis Spufford III and I love that film. It is my go-to film when I am feeling depressed. Perfect for when I have just received a royalty statement. It’s the camp silliness combined with the extraordinary Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell that always cheers me up. But in fact the name of the character the child played isn’t that, I discovered, it’s Henry Spofford III. So there we are.

I read the first paragraph of Golden Hill and then thought Oh, Henry/Francis you strange gruff-voiced child what are you doing to me? Just forget it. And obviously a great many other people did exactly the same (well, not the gruff-voiced child bit) because we had loads of it come in quickly and in very good condition. That’s quite unusual because it was recent. This made me curious and I picked the book up and tried again and did manage to finish it but it was a pastiche of an 18th century novel and hard work to get into. In my opinion Golden Hill is not the kind of book you would contemplate reading again or recommend to friends so it’s easy to give to a charity shop. Incidentally it won a huge number of prizes so other people obviously felt very differently to me. I’ve noticed that now, a year after being long listed for The Booker, A Little Life is just starting to come in. The great bestseller (in the world of newly published books) of this year has been Eleanor Oliphant is Unwell. We do not have that because everyone is reading it or has just read it and that probably won’t be in for a while but then, my oh my, it will come in and in and in…

I spy a novel with the beguiling title of Putney Bridge. Well, maybe beguiling is the wrong word but I was standing on that bridge just an hour ago waiting for my bus. This is close-ish to the shop and to where I live so I put it out on the table even though I think they could have tried harder with the title. I mean Putney Bridge?????? It’s not exactly The Elegance of the Hedgehog is it? Truth be told I’m not a fan of cutesy titles and every time I come across The Elegance of the Hedgehog I think I am never going to read you ever but then I’m not a fan of utterly prosaic ones like Putney Bridge either. I like to think the author has suffered a bit to come up with the title (because I do)  and didn’t just glance out of the tube window and sigh, ‘Oh, Putney Bridge, yeah, fine,’ before going back to their Sudoku. Then I remember didn’t Seamus Heaney title a poem The District Line? or was that Circle and District? or even District and Circle? If he can do it then why not?

Back home I have a bit of a rifle through The Waste Land and realize that this is obviously the go to poem for book titles: The Grass is Singing (Doris Lessing), The Violet Hour (Kate Roiphe and a great many others), A Handful of Dust (Evelyn Waugh), Sweet Thames Run Softly (Robert Gibbings). Better than Putney Bridge. To be frank I find it a bit baffling but having struggled through it (rats, fog, bad sex, oh God, bad teeth) I come to the notes. I have to say I do love notes on poetry. I remember reading or trying to read Tom Paulin’s poem, The Invasion Handbook, and coming to the end of that and thinking, ‘Tom couldn’t you have thrown this poor reader a bit of a bone?’. But actually if I cast my mind back to the glory days of Late Night Review, Paulin was always uncompromisingly stroppy; never a bone thrower and it was one of the things that made him so watchable. I read the notes and come across this, ‘Anyone who is acquainted with these works (The Golden Bough) will immediately recognize in the poem certain references to vegetation ceremonies.’ And for some reason somewhat obscure to me start howling with laughter. I think it’s the use of the word immediately. And then it dawns on me. Maybe our customers are all writers looking for titles or maybe they have just received a royalty statement and like me are in desperate need of being cheered up. Unfortunately I don’t think the vegetation ceremonies of The Golden Bough/Waste Land are going to do it, do you?

On the other hand Marilyn just might. Here she is in all her fabulous glory … Someone went a bit overboard with the Grecian 2000 I can’t help thinking and I wonder if those dancers got bonuses for being hit so frequently on the head by her fan.

Incidentally, when I reach the back of this copy of The Waste Land a card falls out. It says:

Dear Maurice – Eureka! Elusive Eliot has come to hand! Pleasant reading Maurice. Love Felicity

Eureka! I tell you Felicity, Eliot is not elusive in our shop at the moment. I wonder what Maurice made of the fog, the rats, the bad sex and bad teeth.

Shantih shantih shantih*, as Eliot would undoubtedly have said.

Leave me comments, lots and lots of them.

*The last words of The Waste Land which mean The Peace which passeth understanding.


I work in a charity second hand bookshop once a week. This was my day. The man who is always outside the council buildings when I walk past and is a shouter, shouts at me as I make my way to the bookshop. That’s OK. It wasn’t the first time he did it, but now I’m used to him and don’t take it personally. It amused me when he used to shout ‘COFFEE F*****G COFFEE,’ at me because I was holding a Caffé Nero take-away cup. Well, yes, mate.

Everything proceeds as normal for the first couple of hours. I throw away old travel guides, I groan at the sight of any Bill Bryson book. It has nothing to do with the contents, it’s just we get so many of them. I clean donated books with baby wipes and pat them dry before putting them out in the shop. Then just when I am looking with pride at the large space I have created, a woman comes in with about twenty large orange Sainsburys bags of hardback and coffee table books. Oh, my knees! We lug them all in and this coincides with another delivery which I can’t help with because I’m doing this one. I then carry all the Sainsburys bags to the back where I have made the large space which is now instantly filled. I have a bleak Sisyphean moment. Now I’ve become so hot my shoes have started to squeak. Each time I put a foot down it sounds as if I’m squeezing the life out of a mouse. ‘Eeep, eeep,’ my feet go. Frankly, it’s embarrassing. The only way to stop it, is to sort of creep about like Mrs Overall or cool off my feet. I take my shoes off, open the back door and stand there waving my feet about watched by a load of council employees, who are on a smoking break. They alternate between looking at their phones, smoking and sneaking glances at me. I imagine that I look like a sweaty elephant doing barre exercises since I am doing weird swinging, pointy things with my feet to air them. Did they do that in Fantasia, I wonder?

When I’m cooler I go back into the shop and a man approaches. There is something about him akin to clinging ivy. ‘Ralph Waldo Emerson,’ he murmurs. ‘Have you heard of him?’ ‘Yes,’ I say which is true but any follow up question is going to be tricky. ‘Where should I look?’ Off the top of my head I say, ‘ Essays, or philosophy or even classics.’ God knows how I even know that. I look. He looks. No luck. He comes up to me, ‘You have heard of him?’ ‘Yes,’ I say rather more snappily than I intend. ‘But he doesn’t come in often.’ His eyes widen, ‘He comes in?’ ‘No, no his books don’t come in. He’s dead,’ I say startling another customer. ‘Dead,’ I reiterate. That much I do know.

book haul

I roam through the shop considering what I might buy. After the earlier delivery I’m feeling rather Ice Cold in Alex-ish so Death in the Bar by Ngaio Marsh catches my eye, along with Grace Paley’s Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. I love the title although I have to say it sums up my idea of absolute hell. I am hardly Ms Flexibility. I contemplate my ideal novel title. It would be something like. Absolutely Nothing Changes  Ever and  the subtitle would be Ha, Ha You’re So Wrong, I’m not Bored. Maybe I should write that one.  It might be a surprise bestseller. An antidote to Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway. My response to that book was always, ‘No thanks, I’ll pass.’ Then I see The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. Excellent because I am currently reading the Iliad and have just finished Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls and The Song of Achilles focuses on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. The Guardian review on the back describes it as ‘An exciting, sexy, violent Superman version of The Iliad.’ That will do. Then there is The Collected Poems of Stevie Smith with her own highly idiosyncratic illustrations and Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta, a lesbian love story from Nigeria with a lovely Gay’s the Word book mark.

I find an American copy of my father’s book on Disraeli in the biography section and take it out. I have to force myself not to buy it. I’ve got about three different copies already although not a St Martin’s Press one. Dear old Dad, I think, patting it and putting it back on the shelf.

A man comes in who wants to donate books to us. He is downsizing and says he no longer wants to have piles of books on the floor. ‘Oh!’ I say. He lives three floors up, it’s all too much. ‘Getting rid of the books,’ he says and then he pauses and puts his hand on his heart and says, ‘The pain.’  I stand next to him nodding my head. I want to hug him and tell him everything will be alright but that would be highly inappropriate and you know what, sometimes everything isn’t alright and maybe this is one of those moments.

Then home. The bus is chaotic. Two baby buggies, too many people. It’s like a lunatic asylum and I’m one of the inmates.  Frail people get on at the hospital bus stop and the whole of the bus has to re-order itself, so that people who must sit down can do so and that babies and mothers are OK. I like this chaotic human shift and shuffle because more so than on the tube the frail and vulnerable are noticed and accommodated. Back home I look up Ralph Waldo Emerson. Oh, I think, that’s who you are. Then I look up elephants doing ballet and discover they are actually hippos. I watch a clip of Fantasia for longer than is strictly advisable. At least I wasn’t wearing a tutu. I continue to fret about not buying Dad’s book. It was in good condition, nice jacket. Oh well,  it’ll probably be there next week along with the shouting man, the creeping ivy and of course the piles of books.


What do you use as a bookmark? Having worked in a second hand bookshop for a few years let me tell you that you do not generally use these below.


My favourite bookmark is the woman with the big hair. It’s for  Sparkle Hayter’s books featuring Robin Hudson. She is, if you read her website, ‘The funniest thing to have come out of Canada since the moose.’

  • Boarding passes – are by far the most common.
  • Photos as well. I always find that sad. Here am I staring at a photo of someone that means nothing to me. Often the temptation is to see if the person in the photo matches the book in some way but that way madness lies.
  • Postcards.
  • Bookmarks are occasionally used, giving a rather mournful history of the British booktrade: Ottakar’s anyone? Or Books etc? Or Borders? Or Dillons? I had a fondness for Borders in Oxford Street. Occasionally a bookshop I worked for back then: a cheerful yellow owl waves a wing at me from Bookcase or a Silver Moon glints at me. Since the bookshop is in West London, Daunt’s is a favourite as well. Daunt’s are impeccably rigorous about never letting a book go out of their shop without a bookmark in it.
  • Once a crude cartoon of a hairy cock and balls fell out, that came in with a whole load of Spanish books. I imagined a bored air steward (or stewardess?) from Almodovar’s I’m so Excited sketching it to pass the time.
  • Then there’s money – an old one pound note, uncashed premium bonds and even the odd cheque.
  • Bills – the other day the bar bill  from a cruise – oof, those antiquities must have been pretty blurred.
  • My most worrying one was a Happy Easter card figuring a weirdly feminized rabbit with rather a smug smile and worryingly long eyelashes; it had a purple bow round its neck. The book was Mother Angelica’s Answers not Promises and on the card were the written the words, ‘to help you to become holy.’ You may not be altogether surprised to learn that the book was in the same pristine condition it must have been in when it first came fresh from the presses.
  • The dust of crumbling pressed leaves or flowers fall out of gardening books, especially the old ones.
  • Nothing falls out of cookery books because the pages are usually stuck together with cooking splatter/old tomato sauce and when they are like that unfortunately we have to throw them away.
  • One of my all time favourites was a brochure for the 8th Puffin Exhibition. It’s not dated but it’s signed by Barbara Willard a writer I read as a child. As a proud member of the Puffin club I too waved flags and said Hooray!
  • Old bus tickets. Once a very old one for the number 14 bus route, one I happen to use quite often.


So, a little advice when you take your books to a charity shop. Give them a quick thumb through and a shake, or a stranger will be looking at your photos, with a degree of regret, or puzzling over your bar bill on that cruise, or wondering who bought you that religious book. Or staring at a very old note and wondering who’s going to take that to the Bank of England.

What do I use? Receipts often, old envelopes, bank statements, little pieces of torn off newspaper, the odd Caffè Nero loyalty card, the stubs of theatre tickets. I don’t think I’ve ever used money, although the new fivers look hard wearing enough. Very rarely, I might actually use a bookmark. I’ve got a few to choose from.

Let’s end with a poem from a Blackwell’s Bookshop bookmark, originally designed in 1939. Blackwell’s incidentally was the first bookshop I ever used so you’ll have to excuse this nauseatingly sentimental poem!

There, in the Broad, within whose booky house

Half England’s scholars nibble books or browse.

Where’er they wander blessed fortune theirs:

Books to the ceiling, other books upstairs;

Books, doubtless, in the cellar, and behind

Romantic bays, where iron ladders wind.



I know, I know but you can’t say I didn’t warn you. Now then how about you? Confess all. What do you use?

And for some fantastically weird things found in library books take a look here:



The Stage Year Book 1928

From The Stage Year Book 1928. But Clarkson, darling, that wig is an absolute fright!

The trouble with bookshops is simple. I have a tendency to buy books in them. About a year ago I wrote a few posts on the demise of the bookshop I volunteered at. If you’re interested you’ll find them in the menu above in Tales from the Booktrade. That bookshop has now re-opened on a different site and so although being absolutely delighted, my troubles have returned not ‘single spies but in batallions’.

I’m sure that you will not be at all surprised to learn that the site where the old bookshop was is now being turned into ‘luxury’ flats. Why are they always ‘luxury’ these flats? Bog standard is my guess with ceilings you might brush your head against if you stand on tip toe. Anyway, whatever they are they’ll need bloody good double glazing to deal with the heavy traffic thundering past their windows.


Variety – Very Much Alive!

The new shop is huge and so big that we feel like buffaloes roaming the plains. The volunteers who knew the old shop have rueful conversations. It was a tiny squashed death trap but we were all very fond  of its idiosyncracies and quite fond of the idiosyncracies of our customers. This shop looks like a proper bookshop which is a bit unnerving.  Will we end up having proper customers?


Men were deceivers ever! You’re not deceiving me, dear, not with feet that big.

The first week I exert self control and do not buy anything but I note in passing that there are copies of The Night Watch and Ring Roads by Patrick Modiano (winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature) and also a copy of Hotel Florida by Amanda Vail.  If they are there next time I think I might buy them.

The following week they are still there and I also see a biography of Bukowski by Neeli Cherkovski and also  The Stage Year Book 1928. This is a spectacularly camp offering as the gratuitous photos peppered through this post indicate and I can’t resist it. I justify this purchase on the basis that my most recent book is partly set in the world of the London theatre in the 1930s. It’s a ridiculous reason, I know, but what can I say? Show me an advertisement for a pantomime dame in 1928 and I’m yours. Or rather, you’re mine.


“Bon-Accord” I want to live there! But maybe not with G. S.Melvin he looks a bit high maintenance.

See what I mean about single spies and batallions? This isn’t going to end well, is it?

Are you able to set foot in a bookshop and not buy a book?  If anyone uses an expression like self-control or will power in any of the comments, or even a simple ‘yes’ this blog will self destruct in 5 seconds.


I was working for the publisher Gerald Duckworth in the 1990s packing up books in their warehouse. I had dropped out of law, having spent two very unhappy years as an articled clerk in a city firm and started working for Duckworth when the company moved from the Old Piano Factory in Camden Town to Hoxton Square. They did their own distribution at that time and so  they needed people to shift the books. My sister was an editor and director of the company and I was hired as casual labour along with the brother-in-law of the sales director, a resting actor. I had not expected to have a job there for more than a week or so but then hard on the heels of the move Duckworth bought up Bristol Classical Press and more stock started arriving. In the end I worked there for about six years between 1990 and 1996. This wasn’t unusual at Duckworth which had a habit of retaining its staff for extremely long periods of time. The obvious reason being that it was an exceptionally nice place to work.

Colin Haycraft - Maverick Publisher.

Colin Haycraft – Maverick Publisher.

It was not an easy time. The company, to coin a phrase from Sean O’Casey, was, through much of the period I worked there, in a ‘terrible state o’ chassis’ (at boardroom level, anyway) as Colin Haycraft, the owner of the company struggled to hold on to the company he had owned since 1968.

Despite the ‘noise of distant thunder’ I loved my job. Duckworth’s list was hilariously eclectic, ranging from The History of the Vlachs ( I don’t think I ever did quite grasp who they were) to The History of the British Pig (excellent photos and illustrations). Along with these there was an illustrious philosophy and classics list, which included books by A.C. Grayling and Michael Dummett. There was also of course fiction represented by Beryl Bainbridge and Alice Thomas Ellis. The Birthday Boys was published when I was there and it was probably the most copies of a single title that I ever packed up and sent out.

At that point Hoxton was not the hipster paradise it has become; it was grim and rough. Duckworth’s offices are now occupied by the art gallery The White Cube but before Duckworth moved in the building had been a sweatshop and the places where the plugs for the sewing machines had been were visible in the floor. The famous gay club The London Apprentice was on the corner of the square and it was boarded up with the kind of metal shutters that made you think it was derelict. This was because it was the frequent focus of homophobic attacks. A sign of how things have changed in the area is that now the places getting attacked are those selling expensive cereals!

I loved the job not just because of the entertaining list but also because I was much more suited to working for a small independent publisher than working in the law. My confidence had taken a bashing in the city but at Duckworth I began to relax and feel capable, liked and valued. Having felt depressed and directionless I found the physical work was good for me. I felt proud to be working there. There was something else as well that I did not talk about much. I dreamed of  being a writer. At least now I was working with books albeit manhandling them rather than writing them. It seemed like a small step in the right direction.

An old fashioned but rather effective cover!

Colin Haycraft was the first to publish Oliver Sacks’ book, Awakenings (1973) after the book had been turned down by Faber and Faber. At that time Sacks was not the illustrious world famous author he later became. He had published one book in America on Migraine.  In an affectionate essay he wrote after Colin died contained in the book Colin Haycraft 1929-1994 Maverick Publisher, Sacks described him as his ‘midwife and unmuddler’. As sweet a description of being edited as you’re ever likely to come across.

‘If it had not been for him Awakenings I think would not have been finished, much less published.’

‘But it was not just unmuddling that I demanded of Colin at this time, it was emotional support when I was blocked or when my mood or confidence sagged, as they did almost to the point of collapse.’

Then in the final month of working on the book Sacks’ mother died and

‘Colin became a mother for me as well as a midwife.’

Colin may have mothered him but at a certain point like all good mothers he put his foot down. This was after Sacks, back in America, sent him so many footnotes that they came to three times the length of the original book. Colin told him he could keep 12 and then allowed him to keep 82 including one of his own which was a pun on godness, goodness and guinness! Colin also refused to let him see the page proofs because Sacks had made so many changes to the galleys he knew what would happen if he did.

Colin went  on to publish two more of Sacks’ books: A Leg to Stand On (1984) and The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat (1985). I didn’t know much about Sacks but I went to the film of Awakenings when it came out in 1990 and found it very moving. The hardback of Awakenings was out of print by then and the paperback rights had been sold so unfortunately Duckworth didn’t benefit from the publicity generated by the film. I have a hazy memory of sending out the odd hardback copy of ‘Leg’ at the time but no recollection of ‘Hat.’

One day Colin came down into the warehouse with a pile of notebooks and an address label.  ‘New York,’ he said and went to make himself some coffee. They were Oliver Sacks’ notebooks and they were to be sent back to him in America. I presume now that Colin was doing some ‘housekeeping’ as it was never quite clear whether the company was going to survive or not. I opened the notebooks and flicked through them. An overwhelming desire to steal them came over me. I can’t remember anything that I read there. I seem to remember that the notebooks related to ‘Hat’ but I could be wrong. The handwriting was hard to decipher, the content chaotic and poetic; everything I imagined writers’ notebooks ought to be like. It crossed my mind that Sacks would never notice if one went missing. Or two? Who knew how long Colin had held onto these anyway? I wrestled with my conscience. Then I wrapped them all up securely and sent them off first class airmail.

That moment of wanting to steal them has remained with me. Looking back I think it was an exact reflection of how strongly I wanted to be a writer. Somewhere in these notebooks I imagined was the key to how it was done. If I had one of them then maybe just maybe some of that magic would rub off on me and like a benign genie from Aladdin’s lamp Oliver Sacks would appear and reassure me that I had what it took to be what I so desperately wanted to be.

If only life were like that. In the end I had my own rather simple awakening – that working with books is not the same as writing them. I did eventually become a published writer about ten years later. My first crime novel, Bloodless Shadow, was published in 2003 and six other books have followed. But sometimes I look back with a pang of regret to the moment I had Oliver Sacks’ notebooks in my hands. We all know how easily things can get lost in the post.


There’s the sliver of a new moon hanging in the sky as I wait for the bus to take me to the shop wake. Sorry, closing down party. It’s bitterly cold and there’s that dirty red smudge on the edge of the horizon you get when the sun’s  just gone down in a heavily polluted city. In my mind I’m playing a film of a fantasy party. I know I am too old to have this kind of thing running in my head but what can I do? There it is. There’s music I like, people I like. It’s all warm and friendly and I am pleasantly pissed and people are dancing. Actually it’s a scene from Strictly Ballroom. The truth is parties have never really been my kind of thing. In thirty minutes, I think, I am going to be looking down at a cheese ball and a twiglet.

In thirty minutes I am in fact looking down at other delicacies. I wonder what will happen to my digestive system if I eat one mini sausage roll, one samosa, one pringle, one mini blueberry muffin and a chocolate chip cookie and then swill it all down with a plastic cup of warm, sweet, white wine. Conversation isn’t exactly bounding along. Oh well, here goes. A man I don’t know hands me a samosa. They are warm, he says. I know they can’t be unless someone has sat on them or tucked them under their armpit. I bite into it and it’s cold, cold, cold. Colder than my warm sweet white wine. I eat it and then surreptitiously wipe my hand on my trousers. In silence he hands me a napkin. I struggle to make conversation with him. I ask. He replies. I ask. He… Oh for God’s sake. He is not a man who will ever ask me a single question. Ever. If I go on strike we’ll just be standing here in silence.  I feel resentful. I hear my partner’s voice (in my head), ‘Move.’ Ah yes, of course, I can move. But there’s not much space. I have to stop myself turning my back on everyone and seeking solace by looking at the bookshelves. I think we would all be a lot happier if we could do that. Instead we are forced to look at each other which is traumatic. Gathered together we’re quite an odd lot. And I include myself in that description.

Finally someone from head office gives a rather emotional speech. The shop has raised a startling amount of money since it first opened. I feel proud to have been a part of it. I actually have warm and sad feelings. There is sporadic applause for different reasons. Then the speeches are over and I do move. Another man asks me what’s in the samosas. ‘No idea,’ I say. ‘You don’t know?’ he says, as if this is the most extraordinary thing he’s ever heard. I want to be rude. ‘You eat it and tell me,’ I say, a shade aggressively.

Shortly afterwards I kiss the people I know goodbye and leave.

On the bus on the way home I am beginning to experience what happens when you eat a mini sausage roll, one samosa, one pringle, one mini blueberry muffin and a chocolate chip cookie and swill it down with a plastic cup of warm sweet white wine. For a moment I become paranoid that everyone on the top of the bus is a young man in a hoodie with evil intentions. I imagine them all turning towards me with blood dripping from their vampiric fangs and bursting into a rather cramped version of Thriller. Then it dawns on me I’ve got indigestion and they’re just trying to keep their heads warm. Good idea, I think, and decide to join them by pulling up the hood of my parka. I pick up a paper and leaf through it. A headline catches my attention:


A neighbour said: ‘He was the nicest, most friendly guy you would ever meet… It really was a gift to get to meet a man who was so knowledgeable, intelligent and friendly.’ 

A London Fire Brigade source confirmed the flat was filled with ‘huge amounts of books and paper.’

I spend the rest of the journey contemplating the contents of the home I am returning to.


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?


I’ve worked in a second-hand bookshop run by a charity for the last two and a half years and it’s closing down at the end of the month. I’m not going to go into the reasons why, nor am I going to name it, for reasons you can probably imagine. The shop has been in the dirty, litter-strewn, ugly end of a busy metropolitan street for over fifteen years. We’re the only decent bookshop in the area. Once we’re gone, other than the book sections of other charity shops, it’s W.H. Smiths in the shopping center. Tuesday was my penultimate day working there.

‘What I say is, a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore it knows it’s not fooling a soul.’


Our customers are devastated. Everyone I serve says how upset they are and how much they love the shop. Couldn’t something be done? I’m very upset too and I tell them I am. The manager is off sick. Sick at heart most likely.

Today I even feel affection for my most annoying customer. He is a small wiry man who charges into the shop shrieks Marrrrrrriiiiiiiia at the top of his voice, looks at me, giggles and then goes and slams books around in the art section. When he comes to the counter he says, ‘Maybe I will buy all the books in the shop.’ And I reply, ‘Oh yes?’ Over the years I have tried to handle my raging irritation at this man in a variety of ways and using the various different sections in the shop:

  • Psychology/Self-help – He is suffering from a combination of Tourette’s and mania and I should be sympathetic.  This does not work.
  • Film and Media – I seize him by the lapels and press him against the art section, hopefully a few heavy books will fall on his head and miss mine. Then in my best John Wayne’s sister’s voice I say ‘Do I look like Julie Andrews?’ and then I throw him out of the shop western style and he rolls around under the horses hooves. Horses? Too much Zane Grey as a child. This does work.

‘It is clear that the books owned the shop rather than the other way about. Everywhere they had run wild and taken possession of their habitat, breeding and multiplying, and clearly lacking any strong hand to keep them down.’


There are lots of our regular book dealers in the shop. One makes me laugh by saying, ‘I’m devastated you’re closing but I love the fact your books are one pound.’ Another, in a fedora, accosts me as I am coming out of the back where we store our books.  ‘You are bringing books out from the back,’  he says softly. ‘Yes,’ I reply looking down at the armful of books my knees are buckling under. ‘Can I go in there?’  There are about four other dealers in the shop. Their heads all swivel in my direction in an eerily synchronized, robotic way. ‘No’ I reply. And their heads all swivel back to the bookshelves. For the next thirty minutes Mr Fedora puts me under the sort of strict surveillance that Jack Bauer would approve of, following me as I traipse back and forth putting out new books. My hand has only just thrust, Maurice Bowra: A Celebration, into the Literary Criticism section before it is stealthily removed by the man in the hat with an accompanying, ‘Ahhhhh.’

‘Standing there, staring at the long shelves crammed with books, I felt myself relax and was suddenly at peace.’


It begins to rain heavily and some of our customers, who have bought books and not wanted bags, come back into the shop to ask for them and for shelter and to repeat how devastated they are. Soon the shop is rammed with damp, devastated people standing shoulder to shoulder staring at the bookshelves. I give up trying to put out new books because I can’t physically get to the shelves anymore. A man comes to the till with a huge pile of books and says, ‘If I take all these home I will get into trouble.’ So we begin to discuss possibilities. I look at him. He’s wearing a jacket and a raincoat over the top. I say,’ You can stuff a couple of paperbacks into your jacket pockets and one of the smaller ones into your inside pocket. If you have a car you can hide the books near the car go and get your car keys and then put the books into the boot and bring them in one by one. A bag will rustle.’ He looks at me slightly strangely and suddenly I realize that the whole shop is listening to our conversation and I feel like Fagin teaching Oliver Twist to dip handkerchiefs. ‘I don’t have a car,’ he says. ‘Well then, yes, you are in trouble.’ As I bag the books up for him he says, ‘I’m devastated that you’re closing.’

‘Books are everywhere; and always the same sense of adventure fills us. Second-hand books are wild books; homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.’


I am now beginning to feel shell-shocked by our customers’ devastation and on the edge of behaving, if not badly, erratically, so I go out the back to make myself a cup of tea. There is half a pint of rancid milk and a thousand dirty cups festering in the sink. It has reached Withnail and I levels of rottenness. The volunteers are depressed and feel let down. They love the shop. It’s a shelter for them too. The sink is a symbol of distress. In a fury I squirt too much fairy liquid into the sink and the bubbles fly up in the air and burst on my nose. I scrub away savagely until it all looks better.

Our final customer of the day buys thirty-six books. He has been making piles of books and knocking them over for about an hour. At the till he says, ‘I’ve had a terrible year,’ ‘Oh dear,’ I reply. ‘It’s awful,’ he says, ‘people have been getting married.’ I become slightly confused, ‘Really?’ It’s been so bad that I have to check the house insurance.’ ‘Oh?’ ‘In case the house falls down.’ I feel torn because he is obviously off his medication. I wonder if I should suggest that he leaves some of the books. ‘Are you sure?’ I begin waving my hand over the huge pile on the till. ‘Oh, they’re not all for me. I’m going to give them to other suitable people.’ ‘OK, then, but will you be able to carry them all?’ ‘My strength is as the strength of ten because…’ ‘Right,’ I say and start bagging the books.

‘We were the only customers downstairs in the shop and there were no windows and only two dim bulbs, without shades. There was a pleasant soporific smell, as though the books had stolen most of the air.


We have to close early because there are no volunteers for the afternoon shift. I think that’s terrible and feel infuriated. A volunteer phones up and in a worn out voice says she doesn’t think she can… ‘Can I stop you there,’ I say with all the tact of Godzilla. ‘The shop’s closing this afternoon we’re doing the cashing up. ‘Oh,’ she says. I slam down the receiver.

In the back, when we are getting our coats, a ladder falls on my colleagues head. ‘This place is turning into a death trap,’ I say. ‘Everything is falling apart.’

On the way home, I wonder what will happen to some of our more vulnerable and eccentric customers. Where will they go to get out of the rain? They can’t go into Boots and stare at bottles of shampoo for an hour, can they? And anyway Boots doesn’t have a chair to sit on. Our bookshop is not simply a place where people buy books. For some people it is a refuge. It is a place where maybe they have the one conversation they are going to have all day. What’s going to happen to them?

Do you have a favourite bookshop? What does it mean to you?