Bookselling is the business or practice of engaging in the trading of expert literary knowledge in exchange for meagre payment and/or some other benefit (ie. staff discount). Bookselling is sometimes described as a form of retail or shop work.
Ah, bookselling – the oldest profession in the world.
No it isn’t, really. As we all know, prostitution is the longest-established gig in the world. But bookselling is also a pretty ancient form of tortured exchange in which the vendor is potentially compromised in some profound way (usually by being expected to live an impoverished life on an impossibly low salary).
Bookshops all over the world are manned by the most over-qualified staff. No other sector of retail is peopled by so many graduates (#NotAnOfficialStatistic). No other industry could boast a workforce comprised almost exclusively of academics with alarmingly specialist knowledge who are paid basically nothing (once again, #NotAnOfficialStatistic).
Bookselling is a siren call to people with particular common interests. It’s irresistible to those who romanticise the margins and seek out difference; who fetishise books, fandom, subcultures. It’s like national service for people who like The Fall and Patrick Hamilton.
‘It’s like national service for people who like The Fall and Patrick Hamilton.’
Bookshops are refuges for life’s uneven remainders; where the scared-to-dance gather to be among their own, and to benefit from a staff discount on all full-price titles. It’s one of the only places where an encyclopaedic knowledge of folk horror or cryptozoology is not a social disability.
I’ve met some of my best friends during my stint as a bookseller. It’s a tour of duty, in which you and your squadron (in my case, first floor – Biography, Cookery, Pop. Psych and Music) bond in a powerful way, united as you are by a common love (books) and a common enemy (the customers), and the adverse conditions (terrible pay).
I won’t reveal the name of the bookshop I worked in, but let’s just say we cryptically nicknamed it ‘the ‘Stones’. I was stationed in the Piccadilly branch of this particular retail chain – the flagship store and the largest book shop in Europe. As such, we hosted all manner of exciting events during my time there. Priscilla Presley did a book signing and I was allowed to stand quite near her, reverentially wearing three pairs of false eyelashes. I’ve never met someone so famous and so simultaneously underwhelming as when Sir Paul McCartney came in for an event. Terence Stamp popped in frequently, unfortunately often wearing a pair of blue Crocs – as piercingly blue as his blue, blue eyes.
some most ways, I was quite a bad employee. I wiled away the majority of my shifts in the lift lobbies and stairwells. I excelled in making up elaborate excuses to leave the shop floor and go for a smoke with the cool boys in Goods In (shout out to Lewie Peckham). I probably spent more time reading the merchandise than I did selling it, and I ordered in all sorts of non-returnable and virtually unsellable stock based on whatever obscure subject had captured my imagination that week – shelves of books about the marriage of Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier/the history of fanzines/everything ever written about Sparks/David Bowie fan fiction.
I’ve been a reformed bookseller now for a decade, but I’m still drawn to bookshops like a moth to a flame. Like some sort of bookselling-Tourettes, I always find myself re-pyramiding the tables in Popular Psychology, doing a few face-outs in True Crime and shaking my head, tutting, as I re-shelve Daphne du Maurier from ‘D’ to ‘M’. Like all former-booksellers, I’m institutionalised. The pay may have been rubbish, London Weighting may have been negligible, but no one goes into bookselling for the money. The incredibly basic wage is supplemented by the privilege of handling books all day and creating friendships with people you’ll know for the rest of your life.
Above: Pricilla Presley (she actually got off with Elvis); Paul McCartney (so much like just meeting a mate’s dad); Terence Stamp (the Crocs: more Macca than Tezza, surely?).