This piece was written in July 2008 and is one of a number detailing the pleasures of trying to persuade bookshops to stock copies of Smoke (or our book); Crockatt & Powell should, alas, now be in the “fondly remembered section”. The bit about the Birmingham Barrel Organ refers to a Field Mice gig in the early eighties.
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 one 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 magazine 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, so… I guess 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 your pockets, waiting for a car to appear out of the mist and drive to you to Nottingham, really the best use of a degree in physics? Probably not. But where was I? Oh yes. Basically, I’m sure it must annoy 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 – in my defence, it’s not much fun for me either.
But these things have to be done. So, spotting the manager of the new shop alone in his premises one afternoon, I went in, unleashed my spiel, rolled out my pitch, reeled off the names of other shops nearby I thought might impress… and waited while he hummed, and hawed, and said no thanks; before – a small glimmer of hope? – adding that, if I wanted, I could e-mail him 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 of hope – not to mention 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. So 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. Basically, I gave him ten copies for free. And one of our plastic stands to put them in. I knew he’d have no trouble selling ten copies and that that, surely, would convince him 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 his 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 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,” he says, indicating the woman 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. She 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 a somewhat pessimistic approach to stock control, but – I decide not to go down that route. Instead, I reel off a list of 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, she wouldn’t take the new issue. Or return my plastic stand (they cost four quid, you know, and the place that makes them is two miles’ walk from Harlow Town station), because it had somehow gone astray. Oh, maybe she’d just decided she didn’t want Smoke cluttering up her counter – which is fine, it’s her shop, but… she 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 the rudeness that really gets me, actually. 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 while not raising his eyes from the book he was reading; 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 Wimbledon who asked me who on earth I thought would buy “something like this”; or the one in Victoria who – no, really – turned her back and 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, who ran the place, still owed me £75 for issue#11.