TRCH - Flawless

A Bookseller in Notts

18 January 18 illustrations: Alex McDougall

The latest in our series takes a look behind the scenes in one of Nottingham's book shops...

All sorts of people walk through our doors: English students, university lecturers, hipsters, anarchists, Buddhists, budding poets (Nottingham has loads of ‘em) and general bookworms. They’re mostly pretty lovely people. Once, someone came in and spoke at length about his favourite obscure cheese – which apparently looked just like shredded tobacco – then walked out without once looking at the books.

I’d always liked the idea of working in a bookshop, but I kind of fell into the job. With the general decline in book sales in the 2000s I’d just assumed it wouldn’t happen, but I’ve loved every minute of it. I used to help with the company before they opened a physical shop, making e-books and helping with the publishing side, then I got asked to come and help put some shelves up and never got round to leaving. I think they keep me around as the token young person; they need someone who knows how to plug in a projector.

On a typical day, I turn up an hour earlier than necessary to collect parcels, sit down, drink some coffee and serve the customer who ignored the “Closed” sign. Then I proceed to talk to all kinds of people about the things that interest them, and recite the ABCs over and over while I try to work out where books go on the shelves. You’d have thought that over four years this would get easier, but I’m told every bookseller does the same thing.

Sometimes, when the shop is empty, I’ll stick on some nineties hip hop and crank up the volume. A few of the older customers give me some strange looks when they see me running over and swapping it to Einaudi as they walk through the door, but mostly it’s all pretty relaxed. The most challenging thing about my day is probably trying to track down that book... “The one with the green cover, but I can’t quite remember who the author is… or the title for that matter. I think it was a novel.”

I often take phone calls where I have to to explain that “we don’t buy second hand books, sorry.” I also welcome the daily person who asks: “How long have you been here? We’ve just found you!” and gently coax out the bookworms who don’t quite care for the closing time. My work hours are roughly 9.30am till 5.30pm, but I often stay later as we keep booking events. We once had a rule of one event a week, but that’s never been stuck to.

After work, I often get to relax with a glass of wine which, if I’m lucky, is free – Nottingham literati will know what “refreshments provided” means – at one of the many literary events around town. Most evenings there’s something going on. Aside from our events, the various libraries around town do a lot, and there are countless poetry readings.

My job’s great because I’m always inundated with great recommendations for books I’d never have heard of. I also occasionally get to spend the boss’ money on learning how to typeset and publish various things. Myself and a colleague have tricked him into paying for flashy colour programmes, Poem in your Pocket cards and even putting together a new pamphlet, which turned out super nice, and was mostly a really fun experience.

I hope the current trend of people moving back to paper books from e-books continues, so many more independent shops like ours can spring up all over the country. I’d love to get more involved in publishing, too. Our friends at Russell Press were kind enough to show me around when I was working on one of our flashy colour programmes last year. In a nerdy way, I find the whole process really interesting.

The thing I dislike most about my job is trying to find a place for weird books; what category do you put Soviet Bus Stops or A History of Whistling in? Trying to explain how to set up speakers and projectors over the phone is a bit of a trial, too, and it’s more frustrating than it may sound: ”Get the black wire with the grey bit on the end... No, that’s the phone line.”

Over the past couple of years, we’ve ended up running a sort of counselling service. After the 2015 election, then Brexit, and then Trump, we decided it just wasn’t worth trying, so we went out, got a big pack of biscuits and put the kettle on for anyone looking a bit glum. We were primed and ready for the June 2017 election too, but everyone seemed quite chipper, despite the huge mess we’re in.

There was an afternoon in our first year where the shop was deathly quiet. We had no customers for well over an hour, but we found a bottle of sherry left by the previous occupants in the kitchen, so the three of us cracked it open, had a mid-afternoon drink, and gave up for the rest of the day. Of course, within fifteen minutes, a family came in and we all tried to hide it. Badly.

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