Fireside Chats With a Bookseller, II

new-books2_2_1

image credit: Heywood Hill

“Can you get it today?”

There are a lot of reasons to find Amazon unappealing. I know that they have done some valuable work in the sense that they provide a much bigger platform for self-published authors, and even through a veil of retained snobbery, I can recognise that that’s a good thing for a lot of people. It’s pretty clear, though, that they also engage in deeply unsavoury business practices (the Hachette price wars); depressing – though evidently unsuccessful – attempts to break into bricks-and-mortar bookselling; and services like Mechanical Turk, which lets you hire humans to do jobs that computers can’t do, which sounds great until you actually try to sign up for it as a worker, at which point you realise that the tasks are generally painfully menial, you have no way to negotiate with prospective employers, and you’d have to do six hundred of these tasks per day in order to make anything like a decent wage.

They contribute, in other words, to the service economy that we now have, which convinces consumers that anything, any commodity that you can possibly imagine, should be available to you within two hours. Services like Quiqup, Deliveroo and Uber are entirely reliant on this. Amazon drone delivery is a service designed with this in mind. It fosters the idea that you should never have to wait for anything, ever, if you can afford not to.

These are companies that are built on hundreds of thousands of backs, mostly belonging to people who provide unskilled and low-paid labour. It is the only way this particular business model works; the only way that you can get a pizza, or a pair of shoes, physically delivered to you in under an hour is to have an army of people standing by, just waiting for you to order it.

Small, independent businesses do not work like that, and so it always baffles me when a customer – piqued that we cannot, in fact, special-order something for delivery in under an hour – chooses to vent their distress by informing us that they “only shop here to support small businesses and fight Amazon.” You cannot support a small business if you expect it to be doing what Amazon does. If you support a small business, you have to understand what you are sacrificing, and what you will receive in return. As a consumer, you sacrifice a lot of your power: you can only walk out of a small business with whatever is on the shelf at the time; if you order something, you will need to wait – probably no more than 24 hours, because deliveries happen once a day, but waiting is an anomaly for consumers now.

But what you get in return is something magical: people who love what they’re doing. People who will spend half an hour with you, if you are friendly and interested, picking out books that they think you would like. People who will talk to a regular customer about her dog, her kids, her holidays, what she’d like to read next. (Although this deserves a caveat: we’re at work, and just like you in your office, we don’t always have all the time in the world for a catch-up, particularly if you’re regular, but not always a regular customer, if you see what I mean. More on this in another post.) People who know what’s over-hyped and what’s underrated; people who can size you up the second you walk in the door; people who, on their best days, can pluck exactly what you need from a shelf you didn’t even notice. If you have a good independent bookshop nearby, that’s what you’ve got: a building full of witches, of knowledge and instinct and experience. That’s the edge we have over Amazon: you should buy books here not because it’ll make you feel better about your lifestyle, like a smug purchaser of farmer’s market aubergines, but because the results in the long-term are generally better. We can introduce you to authors and books that an algorithm might never have shown you; that sort of thing can change a person’s life.

If you’re not willing to give up immediacy, that’s okay! Some people don’t need or want a high level of personal attention; they want what they know they like, right away, and there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s exactly what Amazon is good for. But if you do earnestly want to support local independent businesses, understand what that means.

(Endnote: I should tell you that there has been one occasion, as far as I know, in the history of the shop, where we exerted ourselves on someone’s behalf to get them a surprising quantity of the same title in the same day. The only way it was possible to do this was to literally walk to Waterstone’s and buy twelve of their copies, walk them back to our shop, and charge the customer. The customer was entirely content with this arrangement. As you’ll have gathered, this was a pretty unusual interaction.)

Meanwhile, Over At Shiny: The Pledge

pledgeShiny New Books has undergone a revamp and now sports a new look! I’m over there today talking about Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s detective novel The Pledge, reissued by Pushkin Vertigo and made into a movie a few years ago starring Jack Nicholson and my beloved Robin Wright. Dürrenmatt challenges the very foundations of the detective genre, in a short novel about an obsessed policeman whose strict adherence to “the rules of the game” still isn’t enough to overcome the factor of random chance that inheres in all criminal investigations. It’s atmospheric, postmodern, and highly tricksy:

In a mountainous Swiss canton not far from Zurich, a little girl’s body is found. She is only seven or eight, with blonde braids and wearing a distinctive red skirt. She has been murdered, brutally, with a straight razor. It’s the last day on the job for Inspector Matthäi, of the Zurich police: he is about to be seconded to Amman as a consultant working on the reform of the Jordanian police system. He does the necessary preliminary work, then hands over the case and prepares to fly out the next day. But the girl—Gritli Moser—haunts him. At the airport, he can’t bring himself to board the plane; instead he rushes back to Zurich, determined to bring Gritli’s killer to justice. The fact that someone has already been arrested, confessed, and hanged himself in his jail cell doesn’t matter to Matthäi; he believes the man was innocent. The rest of Dürrenmatt’s novel recounts Matthäi’s increasingly desperate attempts to find the real killer.

You can read the rest of the review here.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

Run by Christine at Bookishly Boisterous, to whom I often forget to give credit, which is bad.

h-hill

  1. I have a MAJOR ANNOUNCEMENT, and it is this: I am now officially a bookseller again! I’m starting at Heywood Hill (a small but perfectly formed shop in Mayfair; you may have seen it in Vanity Fair or profiled recently in the Times) on Monday. I could not possibly be more excited. The shop runs Year in Books subscriptions (twelve or six months, depending on your preferences and budget, with a new hardback book, hand-picked by us booksellers and tailored to your personal literary tastes, delivered to you each month) and helps to build private libraries as well as just, you know, selling books. I am overwhelmed with delight at the idea of actually being paid to do this. Please, if you are in or near London, come and visit me!
  2. Over the weekend, I was singing at a gig in the church of St Mary-le-Bow (late C19 French choral music, if you’re interested), and had to run out during a rehearsal break to buy a black folder from a nearby Rymans. I also picked up a four-pack of black fine-point Uniball pens, because they’re the best pens of all time, and handwriting the novel has suddenly become extra enjoyable. Seriously, writing with these things is a sheer delight: a perfect, smooth line, a balanced weight in the hand… I love them.
  3. All of my makeup is running out. I’ve been reduced to smearing my ever-flatter lipstick stub onto my mouth every other day, instead of daily, and I’ve been hacking my mascara as a crude eyeliner for months now. (This is so embarrassing and I wish it weren’t true, but if you’re ever in an emergency, trust: you can use mascara as eyeliner. Just wibble the wand around the inside top edge of the tube, so it gets nice and thick, then make sure you hold your eyelid down hard while you poke at it. It’s not elegant but it gets the job done.) Anyway, I need some more cosmetics and that right speedily. My eyeliner is non-negotiable (L’Oreal 24 Hour Gel), but on the lipstick front, I’m thinking Burt’s Bees—moisturiser AND deep colour!—and maybe an Avon gloss stick. Any other recs? (Nb: my top limit for lipstick price is twenty quid. I absolutely refuse to pay more than that for what is basically face crayon.)
  4. Winter is always a difficult time for me to eat sensibly (“Why can’t we just order pizza like normals?” I shouted at the Chaos, as he cruelly forced me to stirfry some broccoli and mushrooms in soy sauce, in the name of getting some vitamins, this afternoon.) Anxiety this year has made it all the harder. I have a curious feeling that the new job is going to make a huge dent in the anxiety problem—I keep getting little bubbles of joy just thinking about it, which has to be a good sign—so I’m keeping an eye out for things I’d like to cook and eat soon. Spaghetti with lemon and olive oil is near the top of the list, followed by apple and honey cake from my Riverford cookbook.

Hungry Generations Chapter 1 is up

dscn1066

If you want to read part of the book that I haven’t actually finished writing yet, the first chapter is now up on the book’s own website! (ohgodohgodohgod) I’ve edited it a little to make it fit for human eyes, but there’ll be more changes—this is still very much a first draft—but I’m very excited to share it in its current state. Here’s the first paragraph:

At the interview, Simon talked about epiphany. He’d brought a piece of work he’d done on Dubliners. It was mostly on one story, ‘Araby’; he’d focused on the boy whose point of view the story took, his horrible shame and embarrassment as he realises he can’t afford a present for his friend Mangan’s older sister. He was about to start unfolding the way Joyce’s few paragraphs of description framed the sister as a saint, or possibly even as the Blessed Virgin, when the senior English tutor, a tall woman with long white hair twisted into a chignon, leaned forward in her chair and said, “Tell me about epiphany.”

You can find out just what the hell is going on in this scene here. I would be so pleased if you did.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

lemon-cake

Lemon drizzle is a fine thing

  1. The number of unused Waitrose recipe cards I have is approaching the ridiculous, so I am cooking my way through them at the rate of one new recipe a week. Last week was pan-fried white fish with cannellini bean purée, which was nice but not overwhelming; this week was aloo gosht, which was bloody delicious.
  2. The principle holds true for my Peyton & Byrne British Baking book, which I bought from the Hampton Court Palace gift shop in 2013 for some silly amount of money (£20? Sounds about right) and which I had barely baked from at all until this year. So far, chocolate hazelnut cookies and lemon drizzle cake have met with extreme satisfaction all round. Next, jam roly-poly, which I have had to promise won’t be “like the ones we had to eat at school”.
  3. I have never learned to cycle. So I am learning now. In London. Without a helmet. Such fun! (It’s okay, I haven’t yet graduated from riding round and round a low-traffic residential square. We’re currently working on how to signal left. My ability to do this is limited by the tendency of the bike to jink wildly whenever I remove one hand from the handlebars. I am told that I need to “learn to steer with one hand”. Sounds like witchcraft.)
  4. This book I am writing… I can’t guarantee that the above-mentioned baking and cooking isn’t just displacement activity. Likewise my newfound intense desire to catalogue all the books in our sitting room. Writing 1,000 words a day is taking a lot longer each day than it did a few weeks ago. At least it’s interesting to see where I’ve hit the wall (at roughly 34,000 words); I wonder if it’s standard. Like the mid-term depression we used to call “fifth week blues” at university.
  5. Regarding careers: at what point do you stop trying to get the thing that you want, because it’s taken you three years to even be in a position to try and you can’t afford to try for much longer and really very little is happening and everyone is telling you it’s a hard industry to get into and you’re becoming more disillusioned about the industry itself by the day but maybe that’s just the bitterness talking? I mean, hypothetically. For a friend. Suggestions welcomed with open arms.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts is run by Christine at Bookishly Boisterous; link up, link back, say hi.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

14063739_10206921281566520_7725185100742395986_n

We were in Cornwall all last week, Airbnb’ing in a studio flat above a gallery on Barnoon Hill in St. Ives. So this week’s Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts is Cornwall-themed!

  1. First things first, Cornwall is utterly beautiful. We went for a long walk one day and by the time we came back into town, the Chaos was saying things like “I could get a gig at Truro Cathedral” and peering in the windows of estate agents.
  2. St. Ives is famous for two things, primarily: being an outstandingly good-looking coastal town, and artists. Barbara Hepworth was one of them, a sculptor who moved down to Cornwall in the 1940s with her children and husband to escape the Blitz. She was a total boss—had triplets unexpectedly in rural nowheresville, divorced husband #1 after a few years, lived scandalously with husband #2 before actually getting hitched, competed with Henry Moore for commissions, and became such a part of the St. Ives community that she threatened to take the town council to court when they wanted to make the beautiful hill area into a massive car park. She was made a Dame in 1965. She died after a fire in her studio that started because she insisted on smoking in bed. The pictures of her make her look like a boss biddy, and I would like to write a novel about her. Her sculptures are also beautiful, powerful forms that were way ahead of their time.
  3. Speaking of novels, I didn’t write every day on holiday, but the days I did write were great: over 1,000 words every time. I’m also well past the 20,000-word mark. In fact, I missed it when it happened. The next benchmark will be 25,000, for which I need some suitable way to celebrate. Ideas welcome.
  4. Reading on holiday was great, but also awkward. I started Neal Stephenson’s magisterial (= 912-page) The System of the World in the train on the way down, which was utterly brilliant and absorbing but which took me three days. By then, I only had two days left, and, because I’m a twit, five more books in my suitcase. I ploughed on, read The Tailor of Panama, which was a fun little relaxing number, and most of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s second Cazalet book, Marking Time (which I’ve now finished). I am just going to read all of my planned holiday reading in the week after the actual holiday, I guess. (The others: Starship Troopers; Lolly Willowes; Hot Milk.)
  5. Cornwall has an unusually high proportion of Regionally Significant Foodstuffs: meat-and-potato pasties, Cornish clotted cream, “the cream tea” (scones + clotted cream + strawberry jam), ice cream, fudge. If you are in St. Ives, your range of options for pasties and fudge is immense—nearly every shop in the middle of town seems to sell one or the other, if not both. We can also personally attest to the deliciousness of bread from the St. Ives Bakery.
  6. The Chaos having the whole month of August off is great, in that he has a whole month off, and not great, in that he shares that month off with every wailing snot-nosed child in the United Kingdom. Most of these children had converged, with their drained and pinch-faced parents, on St. Ives. Having no children, we were able, mostly, to avoid them, except for going up and down Fore Street, where you just have to stare blankly into the middle distance until it’s all over.
  7. The St. Ives Bookseller is a gorgeous little independent bookshop at the very top of Fore Street. They’ve won best bookshop awards from The Bookseller in the last few years. We didn’t buy anything there, which was, as you can imagine, painful, but it’s a really nice place to browse, with well-selected content and interesting displays.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

st-ives-wide

    1. We booked a holiday! Oh my giddy aunt. We’re going to St. Ives for five days in August. It is stupidly expensive and long to get there by train, but who cares? We’re staying in a little flat in the center of town, and we won’t have to do anything all week but there’ll be plenty to do if we get bored. I plan to read and cook and sit in the sun. The Tate, the Barbara Hepworth Museum, and the seaside are all I want. Oh, and maybe some hikes.
    2. I’m still plugging away at JavaScript. I’m trying to do half an hour a day, but it’s hard and it makes me cry a lot (or, if not cry, at the very least wring my hands til my wrists feel loose). I wish it came more easily. This sounds, I know, ridiculously arrogant, but I am just not used to having to work hard at learning something. It fucks with my self-esteem no end.
    3. Saw my friend and former housemate Ollie on the weekend; we went to the National Portrait Gallery. I was especially interested in an exhibition showing photographic portraits of black migrants in England before the Windrush’s voyage in the 1940s. There were some from 1891, when an “African choir” came on tour to London and also visited Queen Victoria at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight; they looked so modern, staring straight out of the frame, the photographic techniques good enough by then to capture fine details of their clothing texture, skin and hair. There was another display case of smaller portraits, including some of a band of Pygmies who came to London in 1905, and one of an Ethiopian prince whose father committed suicide upon defeat by the British and who was brought back to England by a military commander called Tristram Speedy. He went to Rugby and to Sandhurst, but died of pleurisy at 18. Such curious, little-known lives.
    4. I bought a little chunky journal on Saturday, after bidding Ollie farewell but before getting the Tube back home. It’s grey with a flower pattern on the front, and only cost £3.99. It feels inviting, but unthreatening, and I like it very much. I’m hoping to re-establish the habit of journaling by hand. So far, it’s working.
    5. My novel carries on apace. I can’t say I write a thousand words a day, but I try to write a little bit most days. I’m slowly discovering what one of my characters is all about; he’s a surprisingly complicated chap, not entirely nice or passive. I’m also approaching a point at which I’m going to have to switch to writing about one of the other POV characters for a while. It stops me from getting bored or stuck in a rut.
    6. Now that the weather is sunny again, I am getting broody about dogs. There was a beautiful wrinkly brown shar pei in the park over the weekend which I literally couldn’t stop raving about. The Chaos asked me why I always have to like “the fugly ones”. It’s because they’re fugly. Fugly dogs are the most beautiful.
chinese_shar-pei_5445450

This will never NOT be perfect.