*I’m a bookseller again!*
The bookshop where I work opened its doors to the public on Monday after many long weeks of lockdown. It’s been an incredible and surreal experience; on the one hand I’m now talking to my regulars through a Perspex screen, which takes some getting used to, but on the other, the beautiful comments we’ve had from customers who are over the moon to have their local bookshop back have been overwhelming. It’s easy to forget how much of an impact books can have on people’s lives, and this week I’ve felt honoured to play a small part in that.
All this has meant it’s been an unusually lean week for reading and writing – after over two months of being furloughed returning to a full-time job has proved to be quite draining, and my evenings have mostly been about cobbling together some dinner, pulling on my pyjamas and being dead to the world before it’s even completely dark. However, there have been a couple of bookish highlights!
I’ve limited myself to just two this week:
- Bone China by Laura Purcell – I’ve never read any of her novels before, but she’s a name that keeps popping up across a number of book blogs I follow, and I decided it was time to give her a try. I’ve been in the mood for a bit of creepiness lately (see my recent posts on M R James and Melmoth) and this continues the theme.
- The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett – honestly, I’ve seen sooooo many good reviews of this one! I loved the synopsis and whereas it usually takes a lot to tempt me into splurging on a hardback, this was one temptation I couldn’t resist.
*Mission accomplished (otherwise known as books finished this week)*
Just the one book finished this week, but it’s a good ‘un: The Last Protector by the always fabulous Andrew Taylor. If you’re a fan of C J Sansom, S J Parris or similar historical crime authors then this is one series you have to try. Review will be up on the blog shortly!
I promise I will try my best to up the blogging again next week, but in the meantime, thanks for reading and see you back on This Girl’s Book Room soon!
I was beyond excited last week when the first of three book parcels arrived on my doorstep. Working in a bookshop, I’m lucky enough never to have any need to order my books online, but I have to admit there was an undeniable sense of anticipation knowing what longed-for items lay within. I’ve watched a few unboxing videos now and then, and as an enthusiastic proponent of hands-on high street shopping I confess they’ve always left me a little bit underwhelmed; but having experienced the warm, fuzzy glow of seeing the big black W on my post office delivery, I feel a bit more like I get it. Will this be anywhere near the happiness of stepping back into a bookshop again when these dreadful times are over, however? I somehow doubt it.
Since we closed our doors my fellow booksellers and I have been struck, and quite moved, by the affection that’s come our way from the local community. There have been posts and messages online telling us how much we are missed. A couple of my colleagues have been stopped (at a safe distance let me reassure you) while out walking by customers who want to tell us how much they loved coming into our shop and how they long to be able to return. I’ve even seen an amazing piece of artwork posted online that was done by someone sitting in our café prior to the lockdown and which depicts various groups of people relaxing with a coffee or browsing the shelves in the background.
All this is proof, if any were needed, of the genuine emotional connection that exists between a community and its bookshop. It’s so much more than a convenient place in which money is handed over in exchange for goods; it’s an ark of knowledge, artistry and ideas, and a space in which any book lover can wax lyrical to like-minded individuals about a shared passion. It’s a cornucopia of reading pleasure in which you can get a recommendation from a person, not an algorithm. It can be a safe haven for the anxious or the lonely, or a place that inspires children to embark on a lifetime of reading. It’s an outing to look forward to when you unwrap those book vouchers on your birthday, and a place to make and meet friends – or even, if you’re lucky, come face to face with your favourite author.
No cardboard box on the doorstep can ever compete with all that. I very much hope that there are enough people out there in agreement with me to ensure those bookshops that survive these difficult months will be there for many years to come.
If you’ve been reading my blog recently you may know I went for a job interview a couple of weeks ago. You’ll also know I didn’t get it, but the fact I came so very close to embarking on a completely new life (in the end it came down to a choice between me and just one other person) threw me into a state of reflection and self-evaluation the like of which I haven’t experienced for an extremely long time.
My original career plan was to go into publishing after graduation; I realised pretty quickly however that either living in or commuting to London were both out of the question due to my financial circumstances at the time. Instead I plumped for what I felt was the next best thing but what instead turned out to be the very VERY best thing: a career in bookselling. In fact, to start with it wasn’t even meant to be a career, rather a way of earning some money in a relevant field before I moved on to what I really wanted to do. Fifteen years and several bookshops later and I’m still here. I’ve been a shopfloor bookseller, a store manager and more recently have done some really interesting and fulfilling work in learning and development – but everything I do is grounded in books and the joy I find in them every single day.
And this new job? Well, it was pretty amazing. If I’d been successful I would have had an opportunity to travel all over the UK and to work with some of the leading figures in retail L&D. The responsibility and kudos attached to the role would have been something else. Yet as I sat on the train on the way home from the final assessment day I felt slightly sick. Not simply from the fear of change or nervousness about my ability to take on a new professional challenge but because – I realised later – I couldn’t imagine a life away from the world of books that had come to virtually define my existence for most of my adult life.
In the days after the interview and subsequent rejection I was struck by the fact that I’ve managed to achieve something (through chance I should add!) in my working life from the word go that many people take years to find, and some possibly never at all: I found a career that’s a perfect mirror of myself. Bookselling is essentially me personified and what’s more, it’s also a reflection of almost everyone who works in it. I’m going to put it out there: I’m a little weird and finally, as thirty recedes rapidly in the rear-view mirror, I’ve made my peace with that. I’m sure my bookselling colleagues who’ve also found themselves in it for the long haul wouldn’t mind me saying that a few of them are a little weird too! Books undoubtedly draw in a certain kind of person, and as I sat a couple of weeks ago in a plush Birmingham hotel surrounded by a completely different breed of working people – lovely, welcoming and friendly as they were – I felt my kindred spirits were suddenly very far away from me. My non-booktrade friends would probably tell you they have some people at work they really like, some who are fine and a not insignificant number they’d be happy to see fall under a bus. I won’t pretend I’ve adored every single person I’ve ever come into contact with at work but by and large the proportion of people whose company I’ve enjoyed and who I’ve felt I can be completely myself with has been pretty high. My career in books has given me some of the best friends I could ever have, and it’s no exaggeration to say that at times my book-loving workmates have felt like my second family.
We spend a ridiculously high percentage of our lives at work and so to find a professional world into which you fit without effort is nothing short of a blessing. I also feel now that not getting that new job was a blessing of its own as it made me stop and think about where my happiness really lies. I’ve heard so many people say over the years that you don’t work in the book trade to get rich; you do it out of passion. I see now that my passion is more consuming than I’d ever realised before, and I hope it will keep me at the forefront of this great industry for many years to come.
As I sit here in my flat, typing away with rain pouring down the window, it’s hard to believe that only a few hours ago I was in blazing sunshine a short drive away down the coast in the gorgeous seaside town of Hastings. The British summer may have ended before it’s begun, but I’ve brought a little bit of cheer back home with me in the shape of a beautiful second-hand book I found while rummaging in the old town quarter earlier today.
Many old hardbacks have quite plain fabric covers, so this one jumped out at me straight away. I love the 1920s and 30s illustration style and to find it adorning the jacket of a classic like this was a bonus indeed! Inside the front cover there’s a book plate that tells me a little of the book’s history (which I always love finding); it was presented to a Newcastle schoolgirl called Ada Simpson in 1932 for “attendance, progress and conduct” – amazing to think that more than 80 years ago, someone was holding this very book in their hands with probably as much delight as I do today. And it gets even better – there are beautiful colour plates throughout the book, each with a brief caption in the form of a quote from the novel.
I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read any of Elizabeth Gaskell’s work; how this has happened I’m not quite sure! Both my mum and sister are huge fans, yet somehow, when I was embarking on my literary educating by raiding the family bookshelves in my adolescence she was an author I must have passed over for some reason. I haven’t read any classics in a while as I’ve been going through more of a contemporary fiction phase, but now I’m the proud owner of this lovely edition this surely has to be next on my reading list.
I’d love to hear about any gems you’ve uncovered while book-shopping, so do share your finds and pics!
This week’s bookshop spot is a pretty stupendous one if I do say so myself! You probably wouldn’t associate chain bookshops with antiquarian titles, but this bookcase of joy has just appeared in one such store in my nearby city of Canterbury.
I sometimes wonder why, in this age where vintage pretty much everything has become fashionable and desirable, old things are so often considered to be inherently superior to new. I have a perfectly serviceable edition of “Pride and Prejudice” on my shelf at home, so why should I feel the need to purchase another copy to go alongside it simply by virtue of the fact that it’s seventy years older? Maybe it’s as straightforward as nostalgia; anything that leads us to reflect on a vanished era – even if it predates our own memories – can bring about a sense of wistful peace. Having a book in your hands provides an instant escape route into the world of imagination, a mental space that widens exponentially when you’re holding something a multitude of hands have held before you over the decades. I often think about who might have owned the book originally and how it’s come to be where it is now; there’s something particularly poignant about finding dedications written in archaic hand on the frontspiece.
Whatever the reason, our love affair with the past will probably exist as long as humans continue to live and breathe. My own love affair with this particular second hand book section will no doubt be fuelled by a series of more-frequent-than-is-sensible breathless encounters, as I struggle between the desire for book-buying gratification and the need to eat. I was incredibly restrained today and limited myself to one book: a relatively plain but undeniably elegant slipcase edition of Hardy’s “Wessex Tales”. Having got home with it and started wondering how it fitted in with my bookcase aesthetic I’m now sorely tempted to begin building my own antiquarian collection. Watch this space.
Not long ago I was in a lovely little bookshop on the south coast and I stumbled across one of these gorgeous books.
Looking inside I saw a list of other intriguing titles in the same series: weird and wonderful little studies of some of the more obscure and enigmatic elements of art, folklore, history and more. From crop circles to Celtic patterns, mazes to mind tricks – these minute editions instantly seemed to me to be a spark of mystery in a sometimes pedestrian world. I immediately ordered four that particularly caught my interest, but I suspect I will be adding more to the collection before too long. “Symmetry” is about the remarkably ordered patterns we find in nature and how those patterns have subconsciously passed into human art and culture. “Sacred Geometry” explores the concept that certain shapes and proportions have a symbolic value and meaning that influences music, architecture and many other aspects of human design. “Mazes and Labyrinths” I just couldn’t resist (do you know the difference between the two? I didn’t) – it may not sound like the most riveting subject but I was fascinated to read about the different types of design and why they work. Lastly “Islamic Design”, which I picked quite simply because it’s a thing of beauty, explains how the earliest Islamic artists founded the tradition of incorporating Arabic script with ornamental patterns that is so recognisable the world over.
I love an unexpected bookshop find and I’m so chuffed with these. From the diminutive size to the striking cover design, everything about them is appealing. The publisher is Wooden Books; I’d thoroughly recommend looking them up and discovering these miniature gems for yourself.