Bookshop memories - Orwell and Me

George Orwell, famous author of 1984 (the year I was born), wrote many short essays on a variety of subjects, some of which are collected within the Penguin Essays anthology. Amongst this odd collection is a short piece in which Orwell recounts his time as a part-time bookshop assistant - a job which I also currently hold.

The essay contains many insights, some of which closely resemble my own observations, and so I thought it would be fun to compare our respective experiences.

Orwell starts off rather disdainfully by stating that barely 'ten percent of our customers knew a good book from a bad one', listing 'first edition snobs', 'oriental students haggling' and 'vague-minded women' as some of the less discerning customers. Well, I haven't seen many first edition snobs come into our shop - presumably they have turned to the internet or more specialist shops to find their collectables. We do get a fair few foreign students, of all nationalities, but this is mostly because there is a language school nearby, and so the students come to us for their textbooks. They also never try and haggle - despite the sometimes fairly steep prices. As for 'vague-minded women' - well there are plenty of these, but vague-minded men also.

One curious thing about bookshops is that the staff are often expected by the public to have a perfect database-like memory of the thousands of books in print. Orwell's complaint of a 'dear old lady who read such a nice book in 1897 ... doesn't remember the title or author but does remember that it had a red cover' is certainly a recognisable query. What is perhaps more remarkable is that it is often possible, with a bit of effort and some new technology, to work out what the customer is after. The standard books-in-print database supplied by the wholesaler Gardeners is fairly crude, but the company Bookwise sell a more detailed database on CD-ROM, and Amazon is always useful as a reference. There's also BIM (Books In The Media), a trade magazine which lists books reviewed in newspapers and those connected with TV programmes and recent films. Google can also prove useful for correcting customers' half-remembered spellings of obscure authors or titles. So whilst a “red cover” might not get you very far, sometimes even the scantiest bit of information can provide enough of a clue. Wirth Amazon's recent development to allow full-text searches of e-books, these powers could become greater than ever.

A further observation Orwell gives is the importance of Christmas: “we spend a feverish ten days struggling with Christmas cards and calendars, which are tiresome things to sell but are good business while the season lasts”. Ten days?? The Christmas selling period is more like two months now. Orwell is right that it is important though, the entire financial year is built around Christmas, during the run up to which sales can quadruple, and more. It's a sad truth that more books are sold as gifts now than as personal purchases - even outside of Christmas many books are sold as birthday, wedding and even christening presents - you can tell as much from when a single book is sold in combination with a sheet of wrapping paper and a card. Many customers will even ask to borrow selotape so that they can wrap it up on the spot! You have to wonder how many of these books - often glossy, coffee-table items, are actually read. So big is the gift market that the book trade has its own national currency, book tokens, for those that cannot choose an appropriate title.

Further comments by Orwell that I can identify with are that “lunatics tend to gravitate towards bookshops”, that “modern books for children are rather horrible things” (though this isn't completely true), and that classics like Dickens are often bought but seldom read.

For Orwell, the book trade was a temporary job, but he considers what it is like as a career. The claim that, given a small investment, “any educated person ought to be able to make a small secure living out of a bookshop” seems a little off the mark - I wonder what my boss would say to that! Sadly, Orwell's claim that “the combines [chains] can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence” is also sadly no longer true. I work in an independent shop, but it has done very well to prosper in a difficult market, where chains can demand bigger and bigger discounts (margins).

Orwell concludes though by stating that working in the book trade can make you lose your love of books. This is true in the sense that shifting such quantities of mass-produced books lowers the amount of value you ascribe to them (it's amazing how many people will hoard and treasure all books, regardless of content). Books also take up a huge amount of space in your home, if you let them, despite the fact that many are read only once. If is often much better to throw away or give away your reads paperbacks - if you do need them back you can always re-purchase them at minimal cost, or borrow from a library. Despite all this though, many books do hold value, in a way that CDs now often fail to. Books are tactile, physical objects which can often contain high quality pictures or covers. CDs, on the other hand, are crude containers for purely digital information (often getting scratched), and so the physical object is less important - almost throwaway in the age of iPods and CD burners. Perhaps this explains the growing collectability of vinyl.

Finally, I would like to point out that the bookshop Orwell worked in was between Camden and Hampstead, which can't be more than a stone's throw from my bookshop in Kentish Town. I'll end the comparisons there though (already I feel his style creeping into this blog) as I haven't written a best-selling novel studied at some point by all school children. Nevertheless, his bookshop experiences draw some interesting parallels with my own!