A BOOKSHOP CLOSES

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.’

NEIL GAIMAN – AMERICAN GODS.

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.’

AGATHA CHRISTIE – THE CLOCKS

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.’

HELENE HANFF – Q’s LEGACY

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.’

VIRGINIA WOOLF – STREET HAUNTING

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.

IAN MCEWAN – SWEET TOOTH

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?

GOING ON HOLIDAY BY MISTAKE

Taormina, Sicily: Etna early in the morning.

Taormina, Sicily: Etna early in the morning.

I don’t really like holidays. To misquote from the film Withnail and I if I am on holiday I usually feel it is a mistake and I agree wholeheartedly with Henry David Thoreau who said:

“Beware all enterprises that require new clothes.”

Some people book holidays and then look forward to them. When I book a holiday it looms over me like a dark tower filled with bats. But recently I’ve come to the conclusion that instead of dwelling too much on the catastrophes that I am absolutely certain  will occur when I leave home, I should adopt another policy which, for want of a better expression, I will term embracing disruption. And I thought I’d blog a bit here about habit and disruption, as it relates to my writing life.

So, first of all, habit. God knows how many hours it has taken me to develop a writing habit. What I do know is that one of the most difficult writing years of my life was when I took a year off and stupidly told everyone I was going to write a novel. It was awful. Everyone kept asking me how it was going and as far as I could tell it wasn’t going very well at all. I hadn’t done this before and I struggled. But at the end of the year I had a first draft. I thought it was terrible but  at least I had written something and I had established some sort of writing habit. That novel was never published but I did complete and polish it. It was a step in the right direction. I was no longer a person who wanted to write a novel. I was a person who had written one. In terms of my own identity as a writer that made a huge difference to my confidence levels.

The Greek Theatre in Taormina, Sicily.

The Greek Theatre in Taormina, Sicily.

Now I know that if I have a pen in my hand and a blank sheet of paper I will generally start writing in the same way that I will at a certain time each day automatically brush my teeth. I don’t have to think about it. Of course, what I write may be utter gibberish but I don’t really mind. Somerset Maugham said that he would just sit there and write his own name until something came to him. I’ve never tried that one but I’m happy to write myself into something. I don’t suffer from first sentence perfectionism; I’ve written too many awful ones in my time to have any illusions that what comes out first will be useful or kept.  I just jump in and blunder around in my mind until I come across something that takes my fancy and then I follow where it leads.

Taormina, Sicily: Etna at sunset.

Taormina, Sicily: Etna at sunset.

While on holiday I was reading The Writer’s Book of Hope by Ralph Keyes. It’s a great book and so is the one he wrote about writing and fear, The Courage to Write. I was reading it while the plane was coming into land at Gatwick and being buffeted by the end of  Hurricane Gonzalo. The experience was not unlike being a dry pea in an empty tin can, tied to the ear of a horse, competing in the Grand National. So I was feeling little hope and lots of fear when this sentence caught my eye.

“Regular work habits and high tolerance for tedium characterize working writers.” 

Hmm, I thought, that sounds just a tiny bit familiar. Maybe a high tolerance for tedium contributes to my  low tolerance for holidays. Because on holiday everything is different and new. The temperature, the food, the money, the language and the interesting range of biting insects. There is also the fact that one is a tourist. Writers, on the whole, like to observe and that’s much harder to do as a tourist because you are the observed. You’re bound to be because  you are a source of cash to the local tradesmen, restaurants, tourist guides and postcard sellers. This loss of the ability to fade into the background makes me feel uncomfortable. It’s a big disruption to how I generally am in the world.

Agrigento, Sicily.

Agrigento, Sicily.

There was a bar just off the Corso Umberto. White cushions on the steps, neon cocktails and the super cool crowd dressed in hippy chic. Unfortunately we had to pass them on the way back to our hotel. I tried smiling at some of the more hatchet faced ones a few times and then gave up and decided, charitably, that Botox was probably inhibiting their normal facial expressions.  Near the end of our stay, as I was puffing past them, puce-faced and sweaty, I saw a very large, reddy-brown cockroach lever itself out of a drain and begin to climb quickly up towards them. It was a lovely moment. It reminded me of the scene in the film Victor Victoria when the impoverished Victoria Grant, played by Julie Andrews, goes and has an enormous meal in a grand Parisian restaurant secure in the knowledge that she has a cockroach in a matchbox that she can  throw in her salad and use as an excuse not to pay. The cockroach escapes and crawls up the leg of a large woman and the whole restaurant erupts in chaos.

The gardens in Taormina.

The gardens in Taormina.

So, had I gone on holiday by mistake? No, of course not and it would be arrogant to suggest it. Taormina in Sicily is spectacularly beautiful and it has a history of attracting writers from Oscar Wilde to D.H. Lawrence to Tennessee Williams. It’s also supposed to be the place where Truman Capote wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I enjoyed the sun setting over Etna (very beautiful), the temples of Agrigento (spectacular), and the mosaics of Piazza Armerina (you must go). And I really enjoyed a large cockroach heading towards the cool crowd.

I also came back with an idea for a novel that would never have come to me if I hadn’t visited the gardens in Taormina. Showing, I think, that a little bit of disruption is good for the creative juices.

When we got home there was a postcard waiting for us from a friend who’d been on holiday in Crete where the temperatures had been rather higher than she’d expected. She wrote:

“So hot I’ve aged 100 years and taken up knitting.”

Now that’s a holiday I can relate to!