If you know me at all, you know about the books. If you’ve ever seen my office – especially the new office – you’ll have noticed that there are books. A lot of books. Books I’ve read, re-read and loved; books I’ve read once; books I’ve yet to read, even books I read and didn’t enjoy – those ones are on the shelves because not only is it sinful to dispose of a book, even if it’s in a good cause, but also because one day I may decide that my inability
to enjoy the book was my fault, not the book’s, and try again.
Books furnish a room almost as much as they furnish the mind, and so I have a lot of books. It follows, you won’t be surprised to learn, that I spend time in bookshops –bookstores, I have to call them now, although I flit between the two almost at random, no doubt to the bafflement of my Canadian friends who wonder why I need to take my books in to be repaired.
Bookstores and I go back a long way. I cannot remember a time when I didn’t know
where my nearest one was, and I definitely cannot remember a time when I could walk past the door of one on the way to somewhere else without a yearning to pause, peer in and – go on, just a minute or two, it can’t hurt – cross the threshold and be lost for a while. I can – and this has happened – spend entire days just visiting bookstores; indeed, back in the UK this summer, I drove at least a hundred miles out of my way just so I could go back to Hay-on-Wye, which is almost entirely made of bookstores.
You see how it is?
Different stores require different approaches; an old favourite second-hand store rewards careful scrutiny; head to where I know the good stuff is, then work my way round, being careful not to miss anything important on the way. Stores I haven’t been in before get sized up on entry – I can tell what kind of place it is within a minute or so of opening the door; I won’t give away all my secrets, but the number and location of orange Penguin spines is part of the assessment – and I either linger or move on in search of the next delight.
New bookstores require a different approach; in these, I will generally linger by the shiny new releases before going any further. Something will catch my eye, and I’ll read the blurb and sample the prose before moving on. At this point, one of two things will happen: I’ll be distracted by something else shinier nearby (the internal monologue goes something like “Ooh! I didn’t know he/she had a new book out”) or I’ll be set off on a path of discovery by something I just read.
The path of discovery will take me to all parts of the store, but in no particular order. Something about the way the first book is written, or the subject matter, or the name of a character, will lead me to look for something else entirely, and while hunting for that, I’ll be reminded that I read about another book a month ago which I meant to look up, and so on it goes. Entire afternoons can easily be lost this way, and large amounts of money can be inadvertently spent while I’m about it.
However, new book stores – particularly the chain stores, but, sadly, this also applies to some indies, and the rare second-hand store – often contain a device which will have me scurrying from the store in no time.
It’s called the staff.
Not you, of course, should you happen to work in a bookstore. Not you at all. It’s a particular kind of staff in a particular kind of store, and it’s not their fault, of course; they are only doing as they are told.
Some years ago, I encountered (sadly only in print; he was semi-mythical, and – come to think of it – may have been the invention of Iain Sinclair) a delightful fellow who went, for reasons which were never made clear, by the name drif field (sic). drif was a second-hand book dealer, and cataloguer of bookstores. He was, to put it mildly, idiosyncratic, but he knew what he was talking about. I have his guides to the second-hand bookstores of Britain on my shelves to this day (fat lot of use they are to me here in Canada, but the are works of art. They are also books, of course, and as such May Never Be Disposed Of).
The guides are wonderful, eccentric and very true. drif encountered pretty much every type of bookstore staff (he may, in fact, have met everyone who ever worked in one of
these stores), and he had an acronym for each of them. My favourite was the delightful F.A.R.T.S.
If a store was tainted with F.A.R.T.S., I knew at once it was not my kind of store, and was to be avoided, for I have a problem with this behaviour, and I think I know why.
If you were to film me as I wandered from bookstore to bookstore, the pattern would be similar in each; allow at least an hour for general browsing, plus decision-making time and ‘chatting with the staff as I try to justify to myself why I’m spending so much money on books’ time; the pattern will repeat wherever I am. Unless, of course, I am confronted by a member of staff. Then things change dramatically. There are two kinds of staff interaction in-store which will drive me away – F.A.R.T.S. and the generic and aggravating ‘Are you finding everything OK?’ interaction – I genuinely don’t know how to answer that question without seeming curmudgeonly, because it is only ever asked while I am reading the blurb on a book, or checking the index of a non-fiction title for references which will make me want to buy it; in either case, I am busy; I am book-shopping, and I do not wish to be disturbed.
Book-shopping is a serious business, not to be interrupted lightly, and I am certain that, if you were filming my every bookstore interaction, you would notice that the time I spend in store after I am interrupted can be measured in seconds rather than minutes.
Extreme, I know, but there it is – you broke the spell; you interrupted my serious business, and now I’m going to take my custom elsewhere. Sorry about that.
Oh, and F.A.R.T.S.?
Follows Around Recommending The Stock. Don’t do that. Just don’t.
And, yes, once I was thinking about it, I reckon I know why. I remember being about 14, and not at school having had the flu or some such – I was not a sickly child; this may have been one of the few times I genuinely was unwell, but by the time I decided, bored, to take the bus into town to go book shopping, I was probably well enough to go back to school.
Malingering, it’s called.
Anyway, there I was, minding my own business, browsing in that shop on the Upperkirkgate in Aberdeen which I can so nearly remember the name of when a member of staff – no doubt a parent, and with a keen eye for the truant – took it upon herself to interrogate me as to my reasons for not being in school. She interrupted my Serious Business, and made me feel awkward and aware that I did, in fact, have no excuse not to be in Double German right that minute.
I scurried from the shop and got back on the bus, scarred, as it turns out, for life.
So, it’s me, not you, bookstore staff. But please; I know that it says in the manual that you have to ‘engage with your customers’ – I understand you’re just doing your job. All I ask is that you look at it from my point of view; I’m in my sanctuary, the one place I count on to let my mind wander and explore; the place where I feel most at home among the insanity of the modern ‘retail experience’. If I look like I’m concentrating, it’s because I’m concentrating. If you can’t catch my eye, then pass on by.
And if you arrive behind me in your comfortable, rubber-soled shoes and I don’t know you’re there, ‘Are you finding everything OK?’ will cause me to drop the book I’m reading on my foot.
It’s not going to make me like you.