Wednesday, September 1, 2010


I'm with that great writer and philosopher Voltaire, who declared that work banishes the three great evils of boredom, vice and poverty. Especially boredom. Never mind the lucrative, fancy-sounding but boring jobs, just leave me the perilous and satisfying ones. All the jobs I've really enjoyed, and stayed in longest, have been busy, stressful, unpredictable, full of variety, crisis-ridden, exhilarating and challenging. Bookselling for example.

Anyone looking for a cosy little job should look somewhere other than a bookshop. There might be an air of quiet busy-ness, and outsiders could be forgiven for thinking that bookselling is a genteel trade, that no one gets their hands dirty, that the most strenuous part of the day might be wafting a feather duster over the shelves. Ha.

It is not a soft option. It takes stamina, an ability to hold a colossal amount of information in your head, and the constitution of a stevedore. The art of balancing leaning towers of books on each arm while running up and down stairs is in the job description. Multi-tasking was probably invented in a bookshop. Everyone, except possibly the packer, is expected to be able to step into any job if necessary.

Books are heavy and do not arrange themselves neatly on the shelves. They come literally by the truck-load and unpacking them is hard, dusty work. A proper bookseller's eyes light up at the whump of huge sacks thudding onto the loading dock. Booksellers are identified instantly by the tough rubber bands - essential tools of the trade, for snapping around bundles of books - on each wrist instead of bling.

They are greedy readers, and Solomons of bookish wisdom. They are expected to know all the answers, or at least how to find out. Catalogues are practically bedtime reading so that customers are given good advice. For example grandparents, invariably beaming with pride because their toddling grandchildren are streets ahead of the pack when it comes to reading, are congratulated and guided towards The Cat in the Hat. People who have seen a book advertised but can't remember the title or the author must be pressed a little further until the problem is solved. Proper booksellers know that "Doctor Zhivago" does not belong in the medical section.

Wobblies are optional but in my experience rather frequent. We used to say that if you could last a week, you were at least on the way to becoming a proper bookseller. They tend to be articulate, opinionated and given to meaningful discussions in the tea-room or, in emergencies in one place I worked, in a cupboard under the stairs with the brooms, dusters and cardboard boxes. I remember some monumental scenes with people who couldn't control their tempers. One Irish girl, in her first week, didn't appreciate being asked to dust the shelves. "I'm not a skivvy!" she screamed, and there was a very public row - no question of retreating to the cupboard first - and she stomped out, never to return.

As a bookseller I don't remember ever being bored. As Noel Coward observed, work was much more fun than fun.

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