Bookshop

I have, in partial explanation for my extended absence, returned to my old job of managing a bookstore. It’s all been a bit strange; comfortingly familiar and weirdly unfamiliar at the same time.

The store is, for a start, in a very different area from the previous store I managed, on the outskirts of Johannesburg. The old store was in a venerable old suburb, filled with venerable old people. I was young there. Now I am old, and half of my customers look like they should be accompanied by a responsible adult. They are just starting out in life, with first homes and tiny children. I do a roaring trade in pregnancy books. But that’s not all. A huge proportion of my customers are Afrikaans.

That makes me not just old, but tiny. There is a reason why South Africa does so well at rugby. Afrikaans people are big. Not all of them, obviously, but the small ones are all my size. And in my old area, I was on the larger side.

An Afrikaans person saying hello to an Australian.

An Afrikaans person saying hello to an Australian.

People act differently, too. Couples hold hands. It’s the sweetest thing. It doesn’t sound like much, but on my first day, it stopped me dead in my tracks. No-one used to do that in my old area. And it’s not those young people I talked about, either, it’s the old ones; stooped, greying Darby and Joan types, tall, angular men and dumpy little women, pootling around comfortably, arm in arm or hand in hand like teenagers. And daughters seem to spend an awful lot of their time hanging round with their mothers…

 

Maybe they just need  something to lean on.

Maybe they just need something to lean on.

But that’s not what I’m on about today. Something else is different. The pressure is on. The economy is tanking for a second time, and young couples just starting out in life are kinda sensitive to that sort of thing. Suddenly, instead of filling up a room with books and sitting back to watch them walk out of the store, I actually have to go out and sell the damn things. It’s most disconcerting. Community marketing, the bosses call it…

And so I decided to start a blog for my store. Nothing fancy, just a friendly little place where people could come to talk about books. Generally. I am, despite my calling, not much of a salesman. I have loved books all of my life, but cannot bring myself to stand up and shout about how fantastic the new Donna Tartt book is, and why you should get two in case one spontaneously combusts. Instead I hoped to sit down quietly and chat about how nice it is to surround yourself with words. Any words, be they a life changing, anguished dissection of the emptiness of the human experience or a rattling yarn about how a roguish Scottish laird seduces an innocent young governess while somehow losing track of his shirt, despite the nippy highland weather.

 

Chapter one: Find him a shirt.

Chapter one: Find him something warm to wear.

I have, in other words, been doing a bit of writing. Just not here. There’s a problem, though. I work for a large chain. They cannot simply unleash fifty or so starry-eyed individuals on the internet armed only with a company logo and a dream. There are risks.

And so I’m finding my little bookshop blog to be a bit of a hard sell. I get it. We all remember this woman, and she was a pro. But I don’t like writing things and then saving them in a folder. This blog has been calling to me. There are people here…

And so I’ve decided to slap up a few of my planned posts for your enjoyment, or otherwise. This is the first. I hope you like it. Or at least tell me if you don’t. If it makes you rush out and blow your lunch-money on books about bare-chested Scotsmen, let me know; it might just help me convince the powers that be to let me loose on the interweb.

 

I promise to be discreet...

I promise to be discreet…

“In the dining room of my childhood home there was a huge, glass-fronted, antique cupboard filled with precious things. Books. And not just any books. My father’s mother was a bibliophile. A collector. The cupboard was filled with leather and cloth-bound first editions, some of them signed and some of them containing folded-up letters from exotic people like T.E. Lawrence (yup, my granny seems to have been pen-pals with Lawrence of Arabia).

The first of these treasures I was allowed to touch was The Jungle Book. It was a thing of beauty, bound in coarse, red cloth; its yellowing pages hiding richly coloured illustrations nestled between sheets of tissue paper. Proper illustrations; illustrations of tigers that looked like they would tear your throat out rather than say something snide about the cut of your jib, and monkeys that would raid your crops without singing a single word in a raspy Louis Armstrong voice.

I was deeply impressed. Not by the beauty of the thing; children are savages. No. I was impressed to learn that Mowgli was raised by wolves. And wore rather fewer pants than the good people at Disney would have you believe. But mostly that he was raised by wolves.

 

Sing me a song, Bagheera. A song about pants.

Sing me a song, Bagheera. A song about pants.

I wasn’t raised by wolves. I wasn’t even allowed to sleep in the kitchen with the dogs. But I came a close second. I was raised, at least in part, by bookshops.

It was my parents’ fault. They blessed me with three sisters. Having three sisters is nice. Most of the time. Going shopping with three sisters does not fit into the category of “most of the time”. It was excruciating. Three different favourite shops. Three different sets of clothes to choose. Three different opinions on what worked and what didn’t. Three different emotional breakdowns when a pair of jeans seemed to magnify rather than flatter. An afternoon could last a lifetime.

And then things changed. We started off a visit to the shops by stopping in at a bookshop. My mother found what she was looking for, paid, and turned to go. I didn’t. “Could I”, I asked in the querulous, wheedling voice that all children adopt when they know the answer is going to be “no”, “stay here until you guys are finished shopping?” The answer was not “no”.

Excellent! While my sisters hunted cheerfully through the bright lights and bustling crowds for purple leg-warmers and shiny bubble-skirts (it was the eighties) I found myself a haven, a quiet place that smelled of paper and held the keys to a limitless supply of words and all the magic they could conjour up.

 

Things would have been different if I'd known what I was missing.

Things would have been different if I’d known what I was missing.

And so, all those years ago, I learnt something important. Bookshops are different.

The shopping malls and high-streets of the world are full of places where you can spend money. But there aren’t many places there where you can spend time. Give it a try. Give yourself four hours in your favourite clothing shop. Or furniture shop. Or electronics shop. You’ll be crawling up the walls long before you’re done; there aren’t that many ways to look at a chair, and even the unparalleled thrill of trying on new pants gets a little old after the first hour or so.

And bookshops? You can pick up an obscure natural history book because the guy on the back looks a little like your high-school geography teacher and leave three hours later with an encyclopaedic knowledge of badgers and a slight feeling of resentment that you weren’t allowed to mark your page by folding over the corner of the page.

 

Ask me anything...

Ask me anything…

Which leads me to the next thing which sets bookshops apart. Bookshops are pretty much the only commercial operations in the world which let you consume their products for free. Give it a whirl; nip around Woolworths opening up the packages and trying a grape or two here or a stick of salami there. Stride purposefully into your local pharmacy, open up a new toothbrush and take it for a test-drive. And then, when an enraged and slightly nervous looking security guard rushes over, smile at him and tell him that you’re “just browsing”. It won’t go well.

And bookshops? That’s exactly what they’re there for. Step in out of the bustling crowds and wonder at the wealth of words surrounding you. Pick up a biography, flick through to the pictures in the middle and spend a happy few minutes dipping into the faded record of a stranger’s life. Don’t crack the spines, though. We hate that. Read the first paragraph of that novel everyone has been talking about. Check out the headlines of the papers. Flick though a magazine or two. You can even sit down and page through a picture book with your child. No-one will bother you; you’ll be doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing.

You’ll meet some interesting types in bookshops, too. Books are a magnet for charmingly peculiar people. Growing up, I got to know, by sight at least, and sometimes by name, a few of them. There was the wild-eyed, wild-haired man who stalked between the shelves in the same fading brown suit for more than a decade, driving children from the comics section by staring at them wordlessly until they backed slowly away behind the nearest best-seller display. There was the soft, round, gentle-looking lady who seemed genuinely overjoyed to find small people in her presence, but had no idea how to relate to them, winking and giggling and warbling and pulling funny faces until she was overcome by sudden shyness, reddening and scuttling off self-consciously to rearrange a perfectly well ordered shelf. There was the fierce, hatchet-faced old crow whose appearance completely belied her nature, who never learned my name, but knew every book I had read and who knew before I did which new books I would love.

 

She always seemed to have a snack ready for me, too.

She always seemed to have a snack ready for me, too.

And so, having grown up like this, I know exactly what I want my store to be. Come in and spend some time. Step out of the light and the noise and the crowds into a place filled with more words and pictures and stories than most of humanity throughout history would have encountered in their entire lives. Strike up a conversation with a bookseller; they tend to be a friendly and interesting lot. Sit down on the floor; we don’t mind, and browsing those bottom shelves while hunched over like Quasimodo is murder on the spine. Sample our wares. Pick up a book you have no intention of buying. Feel the weight of it in your hands. Take in the aroma of fresh paper and glue. Dip in to a paragraph or two.

And maybe, just maybe, you can take a couple home with you. A book is, after all, nothing but a bundle of empty words until it finds a life to touch and a home to make warmer. And we booksellers do, after all is said and done, need to eat.”

And working with books burns a lot of Calories.

And working with books burns a lot of Calories.

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41 thoughts on “Bookshop

  1. narf77 says:

    Give that little Aussie lad a bit of credit, he isn’t just lying down and taking it…there’s a bit of fight left in him yet and he appears to be clinging tenaciously to that large green and gold (you STOLE our colours!) brick wall with chutzpah sir!

    No-one will bother you? I take it you don’t mean “No-one in a Tasmanian bookstore” there Mr 23Thorns as our local book selling personages tend to start sniffing loudly if you stand in one spot turning pages for more than 5 minutes. There seems to be a time limit, possibly indicated by egg timers matching colours on prospective victims clothing to keep track, turned over and monitored judiciously. A series of ever increasing sniffs, coughs, and outright “Can I HELP you Sir/Madam?” in increasing shades of icy grey wafting in your general direction and it would take the spine of one of your pristine encyclopaedias to resist that kind of “GET THE HELL OUT OF MY SHOP” gale force scorn.

    I draw a direct correlation between the literacy and numeracy rate in Tasmania and the elitist attitude of our local bookshops when it comes to the disgusting, low-down, slimy segment of the indigenous population known as “browsers”.

    The most honest appraisal of book sellers would have to be the delightful and most deliciously dark and hysterically funny “Black Books” series whereby the protagonist owns a bookshop so that he can legitimately hoard books and genuinely despises selling them in any way, shape or form. You tried valiantly Mr 23Thorns, your words were imbued with a genuine desire to sell the second love of your life and for that I salute you. I only wish we had a few 23Thornesque book shop owners locally to elevate the humble page to glorious heights like you just did. If I lived in Sarf Africa I would race in and spend my sock money on books post haste. Alas, I do not. Probably for the best really as I am unable to cling as tenaciously to brick walls as I used to be in my ill spent youth.

    • 23thorns says:

      It’s karma, narf (shouldn’t the f be capitalised?); you guys stole our Acacias!

      I’ve come across a few of those bookshops in my time; the sort of places that remind you of those restaurants where the waiters, through subtle body language like wiping down your table while you’re stilll eating, and vacuuming ’round your feet while you drink your coffee, make it clear that it is time for you to sod off so they can ive your table to someone else.
      I don’t go to the same lengths as Black’s books, but I have been known to take books into my office and leave them on my desk for a while when I’m not quite eady to part with them…

      • narf77 says:

        SHHHHH Mr 23. No-one else has worked it out yet! See I couldn’t be a book seller. I would be like Bernard. I would demand to see drivers licenses, library cards, school reports…all SORTS of things before I parted with precious books. Not sure if you saw the Black Books episode where a man comes into the book store looking for “leather bound books”. He didn’t care what they were, just they had to be matching and leather bound. Bernard told him that he couldn’t have them as his pounds weren’t leather bound and shooed him out of the shop with a broom. OH the bliss of educating the aspiring and the unaware :). I am now aspiring to own a book store at which time I will add a capital “F” to the end of narf and will out myself.

  2. mariekeates says:

    Welcome back. I’ve missed you. The book blog sounds like a great idea, I hope the big bosses go for it. Bookshops are some of my favourite places.

  3. For all of my life books have been my best friends, and my family and friends never had to worry about what to get me for a gift – it’s a;ways been either money to buy books, or book tokens! Lol

    I’ve been fortunate enough to have always had fantastic, local, book shops to visit regularly – and even have a local pub that has it’s own book shop/reading room to spend time in, so I’m totally with you in those wonderful memories of finding great characters in such places – both within the books themselves, and of those wonderful people who sell them :)

    I do hope you have a great time introducing new worlds to the customers in your new book shop, and look forward to seeing your new Blog all about it – after all, how could your boss resist your blandishments! :)

    • 23thorns says:

      I do hope they go for it; writing it would be fun. And then I’d have to set about getting people to actually read it…..

      • I don’t think you’d have any problem getting followers – it’d be finding the time to answer their queries about the books you’re selling that’d be the problem! Lol

  4. Lyn says:

    I would go mad if I had to spend four hours in a clothing store. Electronics store…not too bad. But lock me in a bookstore and I’d be delighted. I’ve always wanted to own a second-hand bookstore that has a cafe attached.

  5. syddent says:

    For years there was an independent bookstore close to where I live – “Good Enough Books” and it did ok even in the big chain era. People went there and had a cup of coffee and talked about books. But it couldn’t survive the Amazon era. We started going to one of the big chain stores. I browse; I compare directly; I make spontaneous and unplanned purchases. Sadly, even the big books chains are hurting on this side of the Atlantic. Making the store a community where people actually interact on a face to face level make the book store special. Hope your blog works wonders.

    • 23thorns says:

      Yup. ‘Browsing” on Amazon will never be quite the same as pootling around the shelves on a Saturday afternoon….

      Bookshops are in trouble everywhere. I don’t think it’s just Amazon, either; there are just so many things to do with our free time these days. TV here used too be three channels, and ended at eleven. Now it never stops. Then there’s the internet…

      The best we can do is try to be a nice place to be.

  6. Arkenaten says:

    Where in Joeys is your shop?
    I’ll try to come by for a visit.

    • 23thorns says:

      It’s out in the wild, wild west, near Roodepoort.

      • Arkenaten says:

        I’m down over in Observatory, near Houghton.
        Shop’s name?

      • 23thorns says:

        I’m from Pretoria originally. I only moved to Joburg about twenty years ago, so I haven’t had the time to learn my way round yet. I thought Observatory was in Cape Town…
        I’ll have to wait to hear what the powers that be have to say before throwing the name around, but we’re in Clearwater…

      • Arkenaten says:

        No Sweat. I’ll wait for ”official approval”. Then I’ll pop over and say hello.
        Hope you make a go of it.

        Yeah, there’s also an Observatory in CT.
        I guess being stuck behind the ”boerwors curtain” as a dear friend who lives there refers to Tswane means you didn’t get out much? :)

      • 23thorns says:

        It’s even worse than that; I was sent off to exile in the Eastern Cape during my formative years…

      • Arkenaten says:

        Rough childhood, eh? Did you have therapy afterwards? I heard that this helps.

      • 23thorns says:

        Nope. It was idyllic. It’s just that there weren’t any decent boarding schools in Verwoerdburg…

  7. Go forth and multiply.Always a joy to read your blogs.Why would they not want to take advantage of the talented and amazingly witty 23thorns

    • 23thorns says:

      Mrs 23thorns and I have learnt the hard way what happens when we go forth and multiply.
      I do understand their caution; the internet is littered with examples of what happens when companies let individuals speak in their name. But I haven’t given up quite yet…

  8. […] As the majority of my devoted readers (as opposed to those who merely follow) are, like me, also rabid bibliophiles, I thought you’d enjoy this latest post by my fellow South African, 23thorns, titled, Bookshop. […]

  9. Heather says:

    My company pays someone full-time to deal with social media. Sounds like you’re offering your company a great deal!

    I am a bit curious about how Hank was able to recognize Fabio when he was fully clothed … but I suppose he would stand out at a Whole Foods. It does get chilly by the refrigerator cases, thus the shirt, I suppose …

  10. billgncs says:

    The hello story reminds me of a friend I had who went on rugby tour to South Africa in the 1970s. He and his team were warming up when the opponents ran on the field chanting and carrying a gigantic telephone pole.

    The South African team won the game before the match even began.

  11. Dalo 2013 says:

    Wonderful post…the magic of a books store, a concept that is disappearing (outside of B&N in the States). Wonderfully written post, as always so fun to read. Having grown up with 3 sisters myself, my hat is off to you. Cheers.

  12. Do you still have the letters from T.E. Lawrence? My grandfather worked under him in WW1, living in Bedouin camps, teaching the Arabs how to use British rifles. How a headmaster of a tiny country school in a wee country on the backside of the world (AKA New Zealand) ended up playing in the Arabian desert with nomads and speaking pure Arabic, I’ll never know, but there we have it. I’m always interested in hearing more about Mr Lawrence, as it feels as though it brings me closer to my beloved grandad.

    When I was a kid, the best christmas present I ever got was a set of bookshelves. All to myself!! And the second best was book vouchers. I lived for books, they lifted me out of dreary normality and into exciting adventures and eccentric and interesting people. For my 50th birthday I got a Kindle. It doesn’t smell the same, but it does mean I can carry my library around wherever I go on this planet – whilst on my own adventures with interesting people. If I have my books, all is well with the world.

    Go for it – do the blog, I say. How scary can it be, right??!! After all, you do a fabulous job of this one. :D

    • 23thorns says:

      I haven’t checked for years, but I hope so.

      It was, however, a sobering experience to realise, years ago, that guests to my parents’ home had stolen a good few of my grandmother’s books, so it may be gone. It’s always disappointing to see what sort of people some people allow themselves to be.

  13. Jim Morrison says:

    Well,done. I would run over to your book store at a drop of a hat after reading this. Unfortunately, I am about 10,000 miles away. Distance may prove a problem in your blog marketing plan. Have you thought of tweeting?

  14. Mary Southon says:

    Oh, this is beautiful, Mr. 23 Thorns. I’m posting it to my Facebook page and sharing with my librarian friends!

  15. Hank. says:

    It’s lovely to hear again the siren song of 23thorns after so long an absence. Sing, smaller-than-neighbors man, sing! Your love of bookstores is music to our hearts. Hank is just finishing “The Orenda” by Canadian novelist Joseph Boyden after gobbling up “Three Day Road”. Both are lovely works, though maybe not so important as “How to Marry a Highlander”.
    P.S. Fabio was at our Whole Foods the other day. He had a shirt on. And pants!

  16. I would rush over to your bookstore immediately if I wasn’t half a world away! Bookstores are dying and this is exactly what is needed to bring new life [and customers] back. My daughter works for a publishing company and I have had the opportunity to visit some of her favourite stores with her – they are remarkable places run by remarkable people and have the most fun staff. Interestingly they are her best customers – which means they have a high turnover :-)

    I loved your proposed piece for your bookshop blog and would follow that blog too! Good luck with convincing your bosses – they would be pretty short-sighted not to at least give your idea a whirl!

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