a higher evil


Increasingly, I’m toying with the idea of writing a semi-autobiographical novel about independent bookshops. I already have a title: “Waaaaaarggghhh.”

A while ago, a new independent bookshop opened here in South London. The last issue of Smoke had been out for a bit, but I thought I should at least introduce myself, smile at them sweetly, flutter my ears (it’s an old party trick) – you know the sort of thing. Then, however, a fellow editor mentioned that said shop had been less than enthusiastic – I can’t remember if he actually used the word “contemptuous” – about stocking his own small publication, and… well, I wibbled. I sucked in my cheeks. I stuck a thermometer between my toes and watched the mercury shrivel. The thing is, you see, I’m really not a salesman; to the extent that I often wonder just how on earth I actually ended up doing this job. But then I remember that I used to wonder that about my previous job too, and so conclude that I must just be really bad at making career choices: is, for instance, selling CDs and T-shirts in a pitch-dark corner of the Birmingham Barrel Organ (it’s a pub, not a… well, barrel organ), and then standing in a deserted car park in Digbeth at 1 a.m. with eight hundred quid in notes stuffed in my pockets, waiting for a car to appear out of the mist and drive to me to Nottingham, really the best use of a degree in physics? Some would say not, and not only out of jealousy. Where was I? Oh yes. Basically, I’m sure it must annoy many bookshop managers when I turn up out of the blue demanding counter-space for something just because it’s damn good, rather than just because HarperCollins have used Rupert Murdoch’s money to secure a place just to the left of the till and a dump bin by the door, but – it’s not much fun for me either.

Not much fun, but these things have to be done. So, spotting the manager alone in the shop one afternoon, I went in, unleashed my spiel, rolled out my pitch, reeled off the names of shops I thought might impress… and waited while she hummed, and hawed, and said no thanks, before – a small glimmer of hope? – adding that, if I wanted, I could e-mail her when the new issue came out. Now: my problem is that, after five years of doing this, I’ve developed a keen eye for small glimmers, a deaf ear for euphemisms, and a strange taste for Sainsbury’s Harvest Crackers, eaten dry. Basically, three of my five senses are shot to hell, and there’s not much I can do about it. And thus I decided to make a spontaneous gesture; we’re all in this together, after all, publishers and booksellers alike; we need each other. Also, I like making gestures at bookshops – I’m adding new ones daily, many involving both hands. So, I gave her 10 copies for free. And one of our plastic stands to put them in. I knew she’d have no trouble selling 10 copies and that that, surely, would convince her to order plenty of the next issue?

So, when the next issue is ready, I go back. The manager is busy with the window display, and her colleague is busy with a nice young couple who aren’t capable of gift-wrapping their own presents. I wait politely, toying with buying a guide book to Spain as we’re off there on holiday and, well, it’s better to give your money to your local independent than to Waterstone’s, isn’t it? But then the manager emerges from the window and I seize my moment.

“You’d better talk to the owner,” she says, indicating the man behind the till.

The owner? This rather throws me. It’s a bit like discovering that Dr No and Goldfinger were actually just doing a 9-5 on behalf of someone else, some Higher Evil. But… the nice young couple have now departed, so I approach the counter. He looks up and smiles; I must have the aura of someone who wants to buy a book.

So quickly I run through my spiel again, culminating in the observation that they’d obviously got rid of the ten free ones I’d left.

“We might have lost them. That’s the trouble, things like that get lost.”

Not ordering things because you think you might lose them seems an odd sort of business plan for a shop, but – I decide not to baffle him with logic. Instead, I try a different approach, listing other shops in South London that successfully sell Smoke.

“Crockatt and Powell…”

“We’re a very different sort of shop…”

“The Clapham Bookshop…”

“We’re a very different sort of shop…”

“Review, the Riverside Bookshop, Crow on the Hill…”

“We’re very different. I’m not saying we’re better, but…”

Basically, he wouldn’t take the new issue. Or return my plastic stand (they cost four quid, you know), because it had somehow gone astray. Oh, maybe he’d just decided he didn’t want Smoke cluttering up his counter – which is fine, it’s his shop, but… he could have phoned to ask me to take them back, and they’d have been gone within the hour. My number was on the stand.

Smoke is offered to shops sale-or-return. No money upfront, no risk. Obviously no shop owner should sell stuff they don’t want to, but… if an independent bookshop isn’t prepared to support independent publishers, and to stock the quirkier, more esoteric items… then I’m not quite sure how exactly they differ from Borders or Waterstone’s, other than by having a smaller stock and a greater contempt for their customers. It’s that rudeness that really gets me. Sometimes, it’s jaw-dropping: the bookshop manager in Clapham (not the Clapham Bookshop, I’d better clarify, who are lovely) who refused to even touch the copy of Smoke I was offering him, but just kept telling me it wouldn’t sell; or the one in Shepherd’s Bush who, again without touching it, told me there were plenty of newsagents in Shepherd’s Bush for that sort of thing; or the one in Victoria who – no, really – walked off while I was in mid-sentence…

I think I’ve probably done. This post is dedicated to all the good independent bookshops of South London. To Crockatt & Powell, Review, Riverside, Clapham, Crow on the Hill and Kirkdale Books, and to the memory of Index in Brixton, Wordsworths in Camberwell, and Tlon in the Elephant & Castle shopping centre, which was repossessed last month. Yup, another one gone; and as I stood peering in through the glass, at the books scattered across the floor beyond the darkened till, and the unsold Smokes on the counter, I couldn’t help feeling that there wasn’t much justice in the world.

And not just because Marek still owed me £75 for issue#11.