When I said last week that nothing dates faster than a political book that wasn’t strictly true. Nothing dates faster than a travel book. We end up throwing away about 99.5% of travel books for the simple reason that no one will buy them unless they’re up to date. And people tend to hold onto their travel books for a few years or sometimes many years before donating them.

This week I spent some time with BBHs (‘bloody big hardbacks’). We get a lot of these, the kinds of books that have glossy photos in them and relate to a TV series, for example Life in the Freezer/Life on Earth etc etc… BBHs which relate to art or photography or design are more interesting and often we can put them out for higher prices.

For some reason we had a large number of books on how to put out fires, leading to a discussion about where they should be shelved, a discussion that did not come to any particular conclusion. The ones on fire engines we decided could at a pinch go into our motor section. Maybe they need their own separate section. Appropriate for Christmas though, don’t you think? both literally and metaphorically. I stacked them near a fire extinguisher to make them feel at home.

Things that fell out of books this week:

  • An American  mother’s  account of her son’s second birthday:

Yet he is still so young. Flies, spiders and bees scare him. He still panics if he walks into a room and can’t find me.

This young man was two in 1996. Now he’s twenty two years old. I wonder what he’s up to? If there’s a moral here, it’s to make sure you shake your books before you donate them to a charity. Take it from me, your books hold your life in them. I wonder actually if this woman is a writer. The account has the kind of detail in it that suggests that she is. But at any rate her son should be reading this tender portrayal of himself helping his mother make his birthday cake, (lots of molasses!) not me.

  • The full text of the sermon preached by David Jenkins at his enthronement as Bishop of Durham September 21st 1984 fell out of a copy of the Oxford Book of Prayer.  There’s a strange connection here because he was the chaplain of Queen’s College, Oxford for 15 years, which is where I was brought up. He left in 1969 and my family arrived in 1968 so there is the faint chance that as a small child I was taken to evensong in chapel and heard his sermons.  In due course he became Bishop of Durham where my aunt and uncle lived. My uncle taught English at the university and  since my family background was conservative, with both a small and large C and Jenkins was the archetypal ‘turbulent priest’ (from the establishment’s point of view at any rate) I remember there being a fairly constant critical rumble about him.  But reading his sermon I was struck by how fearless his first paragraph was. 1984 was in the middle of the miner’s strike which hit the North East particularly badly and was a time of extreme social divisions in Britain. The subject of his sermon was this verse from Romans: ‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace by your faith in him, until by the power of his holy spirit, you overflow with hope. Romans 15. 13.’ Here is that opening paragraph.

“We could do with some help from this “God of hope” here in the North East. Unemployment is at 35 to 50%. They propose to dump radioactive waste on us as if we are the scrap-yard of Britain. The Miners’ Strike highlights how divided and distressed society is, to the point of violence. Christians seem absorbed in bad tempered arguments about belief, or marriage or politics. The organised churches find financial problems looming larger and larger. We all wonder if old men in the Kremlin or in the White House will over-reach themselves and actually use the nuclear weapons which are unthinkable but real. If you stop and think, hope does not come easily.”

I don’t know about you but that is an opening that would make me sit up and pay attention. Towards the end of the sermon he criticized both sides of the dispute, and suggested that Ian McGregor, Chairman of the National Coal Board should be removed. This apparently produced a ripple of applause; the first heard in Durham cathedral during a sermon.

No books donated this week.

Needless to say having donated 70 in the past month I had a trip to Foyles and began buying books like a drunken sailor, including these two extremely stylish books from the publisher Fitzcarraldo.


Fitzcarraldo Editions is a publisher I very much admire. Occasionally, I fantasize about the kind of writer I would like to be: cool, intellectual and so sophisticated as to be completely unreadable by anyone who hasn’t got a PhD in literary criticism or cultural studies. In this fantasy I imagine myself being published by Fitzcarraldo because I love the look (that cobalt blue) and feel of their books. However, as you, dear reader, know perfectly well from having read this blog, I am so laughably not that writer, it is a dead cert that I will never be published by them.

Another reason I am certain I will never  be published by them is because no one involved with Fitzcarraldo sweats. Not one. No sweaty hands there at all. How do I know this? Well, look at this very, very white papery cover of The Years by Annie Ernaux.

the years

Holding back the … but not with dirty hands.

And it’s not shiny, it’s paper. White paper. There could be no more traumatizing book cover for a sweaty handed person than that. Why? because that cover is going to be a complete mess in a nano second if you have got any kind of moisture on your hands. In fact since buying it I have not dared open it. Perhaps before reading it I will have to buy a pair of those gloves that police officers put on when examining the scene of the crime. Either that or make it a nice festive Christmas covering.  It’s not a book cover which will survive being read in the bath (the moisture! the moisture!) or thrown in a bag and taken on the bus, not my bag anyway. You couldn’t read it in a cafe or after you’d read a newspaper… Enough already, I’ll save my deeper thoughts on white covers and why publishers should never ever use them until next week.

Emerson continues to haunt me. Practically the first book I saw in Foyles was The Illustrated Emerson: Essays and Poems which I bought immediately. Pam, who is kind enough to read and comment on this blog told me about a book called Mr Emerson’s Wife by Amy Belding Brown which I might read. It’s historical fiction from the point of view of his wife, Lidian, and she also sent me this quote.


“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”


Something we could all do with being reminded of from time to time. Thank you Pam.


My favourite book came into the shop this week in a hard back version I’d never seen before. It’s called Firmin and is by Sam Savage and is about a rat, which lives in a second hand bookshop, and learns to read. Read this book and you will never feel the same way about a rat again. How I love it. Here’s the book produced by Weidenfeld and Nicholson with a lovely fake nibble along the top of it.

Firmin cover

‘A rat of deep humanity and intelligence’ says Philip Pullman.

What a creative piece of publishing! So obviously I cleaned it up and bought it.

Books may be stored in all kinds of places before they are donated to us and those places can be dirty and damp and vermin infested. So sometimes books do come in which have been chewed. Mice, rats…? Who knows? Children’s books may well have been chewed by babies who are teething. Whatever has chewed them, they get thrown out immediately, as do books which are covered in mould. Some of those you can feel tickling your lungs in a way you know is not to be recommended.

I experienced something of this recently when going through my father’s papers with my sisters prior to sending them off to a library. They’d been stored in a garage and mice had got in to one box and some of my father’s correspondence had clearly been turned into mouse bedding. So it goes. We just have to hope that anything of interest was in the top half of each page since the mice attacked from the bottom up. The papers are somewhere safe now where no mouse can reach them or read them.

This week it is the question of sticky labels I am pondering. To try and remove or not. You know the ones those round labels saying three for two or Richard and Judy’s Book Club or long listed/short listed for the Booker/Costa/Orange etc. Or as read on BBC Radio 4. If they’re relatively new they can be peeled off quite easily and don’t leave a residue. However if the book is older and has a more papery cover or it’s sat in the sun for a while,  then getting the label off without tearing the cover can be tricky, and sometimes you don’t know how tricky until you start doing it. Then you’re scraping label glue off with your finger nails for the next ten minutes and you end up with a book looking scruffier than if you’d just left the label there in the first place.

No saints and butterflies falling out of books this week. Instead, the card of a man who is a partner at a large city law firm, a bookmark of a Parisian seafood restaurant called La Marée, several sheets of toilet paper (unused) and an old Waterstone’s bookmark with a quote from H.G. Wells.

Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.


I took nineteen more of my books to the shop bringing it up to a grand total of 60 in three weeks. Not bad. I’m feeling rather pleased with myself and sense my shelves are breathing more easily but then my partner says, ‘It’s a drop in the ocean, isn’t it?’ And I look and think maybe I should adopt a more brutal approach. Maybe I should attack my white-spined Picadors. My Coastings and my Songlines, my States of Desire and my Beloveds. Maybe it’s time for them to go as well. I’m gradually getting into the swing of things. Marie Kondo would be pleased with me, I think.


Since receiving my royalty statement I have been re-reading The Writer’s Book of Hope by Ralph Keyes. It’s really good. I came across this bit which I liked.

book of hope

“When your Daemon is in charge do not try to think consciously. Drift, wait and obey.”


Daemon is an interesting word. I wonder what Kipling meant by it? Of course I thought of Philip Pullman’s books because in those each human has a daemon in the shape of an animal. I have always loved that idea. So that’s what I’ve been doing. Drift, wait and obey. And I’ve been doing a lot of tidying and sorting. I have in fact been doing to my own books what I do in the shop. Taking them in hand and considering if they’re worth the shelf space. And I have been discovering things about myself I did not know. I seem to be a person who reads poetry because it turns out I have 76 poetry books. There’s been a cold, high moon these last few days.  Change is in the offing. If I were a dog I’d be sniffing the air and looking far into the middle distance. I can’t keep doing what I’ve been doing. Something is going to change. And part of that seems to be making a large pile of all my poetry books.

Another obvious change was that I have decided to donate some books to the shop. Usually the traffic is all the other way. There were 18 of them. There are others but 18 is the largest amount I can carry at a time. Unfortunately, I was early for work and settled into Caffé Nero with the companionship of a flat white and no newspaper to hand and without a notebook and a pen. What to do, what to do…? The bag of books was at my feet. The book on top was Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes.

Flauberts parrot

Well, yes, of course I did. I picked it up and started to browse through it and I discovered I had marked it up. Not only am I a reader of poetry, now I am apparently a marker-up of books. Or I was in 1985. There was a flurry of markings all the way through. I know you long for me to share some of them with you. Given my receipt of the royalty statement that I might possibly have mentioned earlier, this paragraph amused me.

“Let us have the modesty of wounded animals that withdraw into a corner and remain silent. The world is full of people who bellow against Providence. One must if only on the score of good manners, avoid behaving like them.”

And so did this one:

1880  “When will the book be finished? That’s the question. If it is to appear next winter, I haven’t a minute to lose between now and then. But there are times when I am so tired I feel I’m liquefying like an old Camembert.”

I have to say that is an exact description of how I feel when contemplating finishing off my current work in progress. Anyway I swiftly transferred the book out of the bag of donations to my shoulder bag. Time for a re-read I think.

Now then, back to the book trade. There was a dreadful doll which my colleague found in the children’s department. We have no idea how it got there. It was ghastly in a 70s horror book sort of way. Do you know the sort? It was stripped of clothes had one eye half closed and the other one was staring hard at us? Stephen King comes to mind. We both looked at it and my colleague went and placed it head down in the rubbish. As I walked backwards and forwards past its dreadful and pathetic plastic legs, it reminded me of the time we had a great many books on poltergeists come into the shop. I was basically being less than reverential about the contents and throwing some of the dodgier ones away. The books weren’t just about poltergeists; they were also about unexplained psychic and spiritual phenomena. And then the books started flying round the room. No, they didn’t, sorry that was a huge lie. I’m a fiction writer and I had a relapse. Actually, what happened was that a pile of books appeared to jump off the table. It was enough for me to stop saying what I was saying and consider if there was something present in that room that might possibly be a bit pissed off with me. And, put it this way, I certainly didn’t want it to get any crosser. So I extended a sort of aura of propitiation into the room and shut up. No, I don’t know what that means either but it seemed to do the trick and I recommend it if you find yourself in similar circumstances.


Things that fell out of books.

This week’s offerings from the books were as follows:

  • A stained white paper napkin with the following written on it in biro: ‘excoriating’ with the tail of the ‘g’ running all the way back beneath the word in a flourish and then underneath that ‘keep eyes open Keith?’ Had Keith fallen asleep? Was Keith a spy? I imagine a group meal gone badly wrong.
  • An old bookmark with the words Give Book Tokens. What a Good Idea! I know it’s old because the value of book tokens listed is in shillings: 3/6, 5/-, 7/6 etc
  • A Take Away menu for the Pin Petch Thai Restaurant in Islington and Earl’s Court
  • A nice leather book mark of the porch in Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire.
  • A Masonic prayer, well I think it’s Masonic: it talks about ancient spiritual fires and the rose of love … it’s actually rather lovely.
  • A Catholic prayer card with a picture of San Filippo Neri – he is the patron saint of Rome. He was always happy apparently and known as the Saint of Joy. He obviously never received a royalty statement. On the back of it is a prayer by John Newman in Italian. I am placing this somewhere prominent in my eye-line just beyond the top of my computer to aid against liquefaction

So that’s me this week, a dissolving Camembert drifting, waiting and obeying. But if the daemon expects me to read all this poetry I might have to put my foot down unless s/he starts hurling the books round the room and then I will undoubtedly obey.


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:



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?