On the way to work I’m greeted by a flattened wreath and bundles of Christmas trees all grouped together on the corner of the street. Pine needles are all over the pavements along with puddles of urine. The little dogs (they are mainly little round where I live) are back from their holidays. The bus is rammed to the rafters and it’s not helped by the fact that some bus stops have been closed and so there are larger groups of people at some of the stops than usual.

In Caffé Nero I drink my coffee and read the paper. A couple of headlines stand out. One on obese hedgehogs in need of home improvements and another saying that if you have too much stomach fat your brain will shrink. Oh dear! I wonder how much my brain will shrink when I lob the apricot croissant that I have just bought down my throat at about 1 o’clock. Caffé Nero is eerily empty. Maybe everyone has decided to save the pounds they spend on coffee in January.

All decorations are cleared from the shop and we have a tonne of deliveries.

I eye the over one hundred books on Elvis we still have. We’ve had them for rather a long time now. No one can bring themselves to throw them away. It could be said that we are caught in a trap. There must be someone out there, mustn’t there, who longs for these books? Over one hundred books on the King. Come on …

A book comes in called Mortification. The subtitle is: Writers’ stories of their public shame. Obviously I have to have it. It is followed by Michel de Montaigne’s essays. Someone has stuck a dinosaur sticker on his left ear so it looks like a rather unusual earring. It’s fab. I decide to buy this as well and I do not remove the dinosaur. I think Montaigne would approve.


In case you think I’m making this stuff up.

Customers come in with tales of woe. A mother came for Christmas she caught a cold and now she has heart failure. January is always filled with death and disease. Business isn’t exactly clipping along. I could do with a little less conversation of the gloomy kind.

At the very end of the day a shifty looking man asks how much our audio cassettes are. We have a huge box of them. There is a group discussion and we arrive at the price of £1. When I tell him he says, ‘More like 50p,’ in a sort of sneering snarl and I want to hit him between his mean little eyes. It is amazing how often people come into the shop and try and bargain down our prices. Their thinking, I imagine, is that you got this stuff for nothing so you can sell it to me for less. I hate them. My colleagues are better at dealing with this than I am. I tend to shame people by repeating the phrase, ‘We are a charity…’ about 100 times followed by, ‘We have a duty both to the charity and to the people who donate to us to get a good price for the items/books they give us. We have to respect the effort they made to bring the books to us.’ Because it is an effort. And they could take them elsewhere. There are about three other charity shops along our street. But it’s never a good idea to  get into a face-off and in my heart of hearts I don’t believe in shaming people, however much I might dislike what they are doing. And to be honest if you’re bargaining over prices in a charity shop you are probably beyond shame anyway, so there we are. As I leave, I see the man scavenging over our donated books which have not yet been priced up. He is also looking at the Elvis books. My suspicious mind does not think he will be making an offer on them any time soon. Oh well, the next shift can have the pleasure of dealing with him and his blue suede shoes. No, he didn’t have any but I couldn’t resist…

On the bus home I glance at Mortification and can’t help noticing that out of 72 contributors only 15 are women. The editor in the introduction says that he asked for contributions from an equal mix of  men and women.  I wonder if women are affected more by shame, feel it more deeply and therefore found it too painful to contribute and then I feel really, really angry.


So here is my story of writerly mortification.

The first book of mine that was published was part of a large  promotion of nine debut crime writers. Four of us were from the UK, five  from abroad. The ones from abroad had all been published, I think, the year before in their respective countries. One from Italy, one from Alaska, and three from America. They all had some kind of publishing history and I’ve no idea how much they were paid for their books. The group nature of the way that we were published was unusual and it meant that  we ended up spending quite a lot of time together, wine was drunk etc. It emerged that one of our UK number, X, had been paid an advance roughly four times the rest of us. He was also the one most worried that he might have been paid the least, so he had gone round asking us all what our advances were. The reason he had been paid four times the rest of us was unclear – it always is – none of us had been published before. But it might have had something to do with the fact that he had worked for a well known media outlet and publishers are complete tarts for journalists or anyone involved with the media because they think they have useful contacts that they will exploit on their own behalf. In my opinion his editor or someone at the publishers should have told him to keep his mouth shut about what he had been paid but they hadn’t and he was a loose canon. It was just one of those WTF moments in a writer’s life that you have to suck up but I was younger then and naive about the publishing business and the whole thing made me feel sick, very upset and well, mortified. You see, I didn’t think his book was four times better than mine.

Later, I ended up doing an event with this same writer. It was a crime panel in Newcastle and the title of the panel was ironically Making Crime Pay. On the panel was the crime writer Sheila Quigley, who had had a very well publicized advance for a two book deal of £300,000 which was roughly 38 times what I had been paid. She had a fantastic back story was a very nice woman and I didn’t begrudge her a penny of it.  But it was also clear that she had made a spectacularly better job of making crime pay than me or indeed X.  It was also obvious that everyone had come to see Sheila, (her books are set in the North East) all the questions were for her and afterwards a long queue formed for her to sign her book.  I remember simply not knowing what to do with myself. I started sort of spinning on the spot, maybe in the hope that I would turn myself into enough of a blur so that I would be rendered invisible or perhaps that I might turn into Wonder Woman and fly off somewhere. Does Wonder Woman fly? Or maybe I was looking for the exit. I remember desperately searching for wine and not finding any. I remember feeling as if I had lock jaw. I remember X who had a certain boyish demeanor being surrounded by a group of youngish women. One of the organisers very sweetly came up and asked me to sign a copy of my book. It was the only one I signed. Eventually they took us all out for a meal. My last contact with X was watching him insist that a taxi he was taking somewhere quite far out of town would definitely be paid for by the organisers.

Well, there we are, that wasn’t so bad was it? Give me another twenty years and I might even manage to make that funny.


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.


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?