When I was 17, I thought I'd achieved my dream to work in a bookshop. I got a Saturday job in Lear’s bookshop, Cardiff, only to be placed in their stationery department, in a separate shop unit further along an arcade, without a book in sight. As the decades passed, fate scattered obstacles in the path of my bookselling ambition and I began to believe it would never happen.
Step forward ace bookseller, Peter Snell of Barton’s Bookshop, Leatherhead. Peter has already supported my debut novel After Leaving the Village by hosting a full-day signing event last October, and he invited me to be featured author at Denbies Vineyard book club in Dorking. Now he grants me a third wish and says I can spend a day on ‘work experience’ in Barton’s Bookshop.
It’s a Saturday and I’m working alongside Peter and his colleague, Cameron, whose combined encyclopaedic knowledge of books and genres equips them to make spot-on recommendations for the most challenging customer. I arrive just late enough to avoid the hoovering and am sent on a mission to familiarise myself with the shop’s layout and sub-sections. One of the first things I notice is the scope and scale of the Travel section. Leatherhead people do a lot of travelling, Peter explains, so this is a good indicator of ‘know your customers’.
Time for my first test. “Where would you find a guide to Madeira?” Peter asks.
Luckily my Geography’s not too shabby and I spot it, just along the shelf from country guides to Portugal. Travel books are filed alphabetically, by country, with states/regions/cities following on, so all the Lonely Planet and Rough Guides to the USA, for example, would be followed by guides to states, such as Florida, and city guides to Boston, New York and Washington. Maps are held in a separate section, Ordnance Survey maps following a numerical order. Travel writing is yet another section and includes authors such as Bill Bryson.
My next task is unpacking stock deliveries from the two main book wholesalers, Bertrams and Gardners; scanning barcodes to enter books onto the system, coding or recoding where needed and checking the totals add up. Unpacking the Gardners order felt like Christmas had come early as I unearthed four copies of my own novel and had the huge thrill of scanning them in. We trawled back over sales records and I discovered that towards the end of 2017 my novel was a high-selling title at Barton’s and – briefly - held their top spot. That’s the closest I’ve ever come to being a ‘number one bestseller’.
Deliveries include a significant number of customer orders, alongside routine stock replenishment. In these dark days where we’re often warned of the death of the high street it was cheering to see that Leatherhead customers support their local bookstore. We ring round customers to let them know their order is ready to collect.
It’s time to learn how to use the till and the credit card reader. I hammer in the sub totals, because the till doesn’t understand a gentle tap, make sure the coffee cups don’t go flying when the till drawer opens and stash the cash and credit card receipts inside.
Throughout the day, interesting people visit. Some are customers, some are window shoppers, and some are – well – just interesting. I have a brief fan girl moment when Roz Morris, an author and writing coach I’ve been following on Twitter, pops in. Soon we’re exchanging publication experiences and book promotion strategies. I stroll round to the customer side of the counter and buy a signed copy of her latest book Not Quite Lost.
Children bring their parents and grandparents into the shop to buy them bookish gifts. It’s a chance to give advice, make suggestions and ensure no one leaves empty-handed. Local people bring in advertising posters: a sports fest in Guildford; theatre and music productions and other events quite far-removed from literature, but Peter generously finds display space for them all.
The glamour of the book selling role can never be over-stated. I’m put to work retrieving books that customers have clumsily replaced and have tumbled down inside the shelving. The task is physical and involves removing all books from the lowest shelf, stacking them in exact order to avoid refiling; sliding one hand under the next shelf to remove it. If it’s too tight, remove all books from the shelf above also and discover a treasure trove of missing books. I add an extra step into the procedure and dust the shelves and books before replacing them. It’s a hot and sweaty task.
“What’s taking so long?” Peter asks me.
“I think I’ll bring a can of deodorant next time!”
“Are you suggesting I smell?”
“No, I’m saying I do!”
As the day progresses, we begin making up orders for the two distributors. Each order must reach a certain value benchmark to qualify for free delivery. Mixing and matching is both an art and a science to ensure customers get their free next day delivery - a better deal than Amazon offers, if you’re not an Amazon Prime customer.
Our next visitor is Amanda, a new novelist with her self-published, illustrated children’s book. We all read extracts, give advice on how she could improve the layout in a future edition and pronounce it well done. But there’s a problem. Despite having an ISBN number, Amanda’s book is not showing up on the Nielsen Book Data system so is not discoverable and bookshops can’t order it. Peter offers more advice on how she can get it registered and keeps a copy to read and critique for her in his own time.
Towards the end of the afternoon, a man brings in the three winning entries from a schools’ poetry competition his charitable organisation has sponsored. Could Peter please read through the judges’ report that will accompany the winners’ cash prizes and suggest any edits or improvements to the feedback. As there’s a lull in customer footfall, Peter, Cameron and I read the poems, finding them quite exceptional for ten-year olds, and scribble our suggestions.
It’s time for cashing up. I’m told the day has been reasonable, partly due to the number of customer orders, but in recent months, footfall and transactions have taken a dive. Even in leafy Surrey, money is tight and book purchases, though inexpensive, are discretionary spending.
It’s clear to me that customers value what they have – Barton’s has recently been voted winner in the bookshop category of the Muddy Stilettos Awards for businesses throughout Surrey. As I discovered on my work experience day, the shop sits at the heart of the community. These days many people gravitate towards online communities and buy from ecommerce stores but where’s the heart and soul in that? We should all get out more. In a bricks-and-mortar shop, you step across the threshold into the calm and reassuring presence of the delightful Peter Snell, inspiring the next generation of readers; agony uncle to the community and champion of authors by hosting signings and events in his fantastic shop.
So, what I want to know is – who’s supporting him?
Grateful thanks to Peter and Cameron for their patience. Next time you're in Surrey, why not visit this amazing shop? Barton's Bookshop 2 Bridge Street, Leatherhead KT22 8BZ