Flirting with Bookshops

I woke up this morning and discovered it was National Bookshop Day. Is this an oxymoron, I wondered? Surely every day should be bookshop day? As a writer, I believe sustenance from reading is more important than eating. Bookshops exist to feed that addiction.

With the idea of National Bookshop Day buzzing in my brain, I recalled my flirtations with bookshops over many decades. So, instead of getting up to eat breakfast, I sat in bed with my tablet and wrote this blog.

As a child, I couldn’t get enough of books. Every week I went to the library to select my six-book fix, but I saved my pocket money to spend in bookshops on the Saturdays we went into town. In those days most bookshops were independent; W H Smith was the only chain and, back then, it was still a bookshop. No disrespect, but lately I’ve found myself querying whether Smiths still is, in fact, a bookshop. I once popped into a branch to buy a couple of volumes from the Booker shortlist. Not only did they have no Booker promotional display, they didn’t stock a single   book on the shortlist.

I digress.  We’re back in Cardiff; I am 16 going on 17 and I need a Saturday job. In the glass-domed Royal Arcade, dating back to 1858, was a large independent bookshop called Lears. When they said ‘yes’ to my job application, I was so thrilled I forgot to ask about the money or the hours. The hours were long; before setting off to catch the bus, Farming Today was on the radio. The pay was poor, compared to friends who were working in M&S, but, never mind, I had a job in a bookshop. Or did I? When I turned up that first morning, I was placed in the stationery department.

Now, you might think that’s no problem. Stationery is cool, right? But Lears stationery shop wasn’t even inside the bookshop but in separate lock-up premises, further along the arcade. As I child, I’d loved browsing for stationery and picking out multiple small items: pencils, biros. And so, I discovered, did many others. But in those days the tills didn’t add-up the purchases; you had to do it in your head while the customer looked on, tapping impatient fingers on the counter, and I had a terror of mental arithmetic.

There was other complicated stuff we had to sell – different weights of cartridge paper and card; artists’ materials I’d never heard of and – worst of all – Rotring drawing pens with hundreds of different nibs. These were beloved by draughtsmen and engineering geeks, who expected the untrained Saturday girl to answer their techy questions. I would lurk behind the counter, anxiously eyeing up customers as they came in the door. If I thought a harmless anorak-wearer might be an engineering pen geek, I’d invent an urgent errand and flee to the stock room.

Imagine my terror on the day my maths teacher came into the shop. The previous summer I’d triumphed in my maths O levels – with the lowest grade that counted as a pass. Now I had to face Mrs Hudd and add up her purchases in my head. (She was lovely and my fears were groundless).

In my twenties, I developed a passion for secondhand books and became a collector. I couldn’t afford antiquarian on my meagre budget, though I studied the subject, learning words like foxing and end papers and the difference between first edition and second impression. I subscribed to a magazine called the Book Dealer and scoured the listings to track down books by my chosen authors. I collected some T S Eliot plays and found a couple of first editions (his poetry was way too expensive) and novelists, such as, Isabel Allende. I was a regular visitor to Hay-on-Wye where entrepreneur, Richard Booth had transformed a whole town and its culture by giving old books a second chance. At weekends my husband and I often travelled to visit friends and I loved nothing more than being let loose in the secondhand bookshops of Oxford or Birmingham or wherever our travels took us.

People still collect old books but, in the internet age, I can’t believe they experience the thrill of the chase or get the same buzz as I did when I discovered a precious volume on a dusty shelf.

In the mid-1990s, the major company I worked for was undergoing a transformation: moving out of London and making up to 30,000 people redundant. If you wanted to stay, you had to reapply for a job in a new town or city. The redundancy scheme terms were generous and I had over ten years’ service at a high salary. I fantasised about selling up in London and buying a bookshop with live-in accommodation – perhaps somewhere near the coast. I researched this plan in some detail, scouring ‘for sale’ listings and sending for  particulars. In the end, the sums wouldn’t add up. Estimated income was £12k and we were a family with two children aged under five. In retrospect, it was a lucky escape. Soon after, Amazon took over the world and toppled many independent bookshops.

I have my own bookshop now. It’s on my website www.helenmatthewswriter.com/shop and has been open for preorders since early summer. It has one product, my debut suspense thriller ‘After Leaving the Village’. My book, which is also available in Waterstones and other good bookshops, will be published next Thursday 12th October by Hashtag Press. So, today I will be packaging book orders and printing postage labels, ready to send out on Monday.

So, now I’m a reader, a writer and I’ve achieved my dream of owning a bookshop. I couldn’t be happier.

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