One of our regular customers came in to the store yesterday. A perfectly nice, normal guy who pops in now and then, buys mostly non-fiction. He brought his book up to the counter and as my colleague put the sale through, he peeled off the price sticker. 'Oh, would you like it gift wrapped?' asked my colleague, as we do that a lot. 'No thanks', he replied. And then, deliberately but unselfconsciously, put the sticker in his mouth. Was it an absent-minded mistake, we wondered? Would he spit it out, with a sheepish smile or a slight air of surprise?
No. He actually chewed. And then, making eye contact and smiling contentedly, said 'mmm'. So that has set the bar defiantly high as the strangest thing I've ever seen a customer do.
Booksellers and customers alike are renowned for their oddities, but I rarely actually witness any Black Books-quality eccentricity. We did used to regularly host one of the show's stars (who is himself fairly odd) but in what is at heart a service industry, none of us would get very far by 'doing a Bernard'. Though who among us has not longed to crack open the red at 10am after a particularly demanding mother or fastidious academic.
And strange customers, well there have been a few. I particularly enjoyed the elderly gent who phoned the store and told the answering staff member that he 'needed some dick' without any further explanation. (Detective fiction it transpired.) The parents who insisted their eight year-old would enjoy Freakonomics while he trailed behind looking at his Horrible History, disconsolately. The Morningside Ladies, an octogenarian group famous in Edinburgh for their hellraising ways at book events which belie their demure outfits and aristocratic tones. Regularly thrown or carried out of launches, they are the living definition of 'all fur coat and nae knickers'. The excellent facebook group First Against the Wall is a great compendium of observations from booksellers around the world, and evidence that in spite of reward cards, corporate branding and fears of homogenisation, a healthy amount of eccentricity is still alive and well in the book world.
All part of the rich tapestry of life. Any booksellers have a favourite oddball customers?
Inspired by a post at Bean There, Read That today I bought and read the new Babysitters' Club prequel, The Summer Before. Ah, the Babysitters' Club! A whole world of adventure based around the rudiments of childcare. There was tomboy Kristy, shy Mary-Ann, kooky Claudia and hipster Stacy. Not to mention the later additions Dawn, with her tofu-eating ways, Mallory, Jessi and the kids they looked after, running to a cast of thousands by the end of the series. I settled down with a coffee, eager to revisit Stonybrook, a town where wearing mismatched earrings was enough to mark you out as truly different, and junk food was the worst vice anyone ever succumbed to.
I was immediately struck by how much more sophisticated the narrative is in the prequel (The Summer Before our lives changed forever! Who knew babysitting could be such a turning point in a young girl's life?). Relatively speaking, of course - Ann M. Martin is not Proust but the writing style is much tighter and we're spared the interminable descriptions of all the main characters that used to fill the first 30 pages of every single title ('Dawn, with her waist-length ash-blonde hair, had moved to Stonybrook from California a year ago with her brother Jeff.' WE KNOW, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD! You've told us this key fact in the opening chapter of every book for the last 38 titles in the series!).
And, significantly, it is hinted that the characters are narrating the story from quite far in the future, ie when they're adults which was never the case in the originals. It made we wonder who the book, and others like it, is really aimed at? It was also recently announced that there will be a one-off Sweet Valley High book out early next year, another of my pre-teen obsessions. I'm obscenely excited about this and am already laying bets that Jessica will be in PR and will have already had at least one Britney-style 24-hour marriage and that Elizabeth will be in publishing and possibly sleeping with that slightly creepy English teacher who ran the student newspaper, Mr Collins. So who is supposed to buy this? At first glance it will obviously be aimed at the nostalgia market like me and do quite well there. But where does it sit in a bookshop? The BSC one today was in YA - but given that the rest of the series is completely out of print (and rightly so, they were dated and badly written even when I was reading them) there is no ready teen market for them. Although I suppose given the cycles of fashion, Claudia's silver leggings and neon hi-tops might actually be quite appealing to today's teens.
Rebranding books to appeal to different demographics is a key publishing strategy, whether it's the adult covers of the Harry Potters or movie tie-in version of a classic. It seems to be particularly prevalent within the children's book market at the moment; for example, pretty much anything mentioned in the dreaded Twilight series has been given a gothic makeover, complete with an obnoxious 'Before Bella and Edward' stamp. Candace Bushnell's latest offering, The Carrie Diaries, is a strange one too. It is an account of Sex and the City heroine Carrie Bradshaw's teenage years and is indeed aimed at teenagers. But it is jacketed in the pink and black of the SATC brand - can I convince the parent of a 14 year-old girl to take a punt on it, when it's not only by an author famed for her explicit writing on sex but designed to remind you of that writing?
And it can work both ways; Margo Lanagan's magnificent, haunting, mythic Tender Morsels was classed as YA when it first came out because she is perceived as a YA author. But it is quite graphic, shocking and brutal, and I would think twice before recommending it to any young person without knowing them well. Similarly, it has already raised the hackles of our book group because they don't want to read 'a children's book'.
Rebranding builds new readerships for books and can help that readership to see something old in a new light. When done well, it's great and can make a real difference. But when it's done sloppily or the elements jar, it can actually make it much harder for booksellers to sell. We are constantly asking ourselves 'who is it for?' especially in a genre like YA when so much depends on the reader, their likes, abilities etc. A bad cover or misleading blurb or strange classification can make it that much harder for us to sell it to someone, even if we love it ourselves. And that's a loss for us, for the author, the publisher and the reader.
Having said all that, I will definitely be purchasing Sweet Valley High: Confidential on its release next year and if you know anyone looking for romance, drama, high school worries and 80s hair in the California playgrounds of the rich, then you'll know what to get them!
I have not been very good at updating this blog for any number of reasons, but have had several conversations recently about blogging and its virtues so after gentle nudges from Hannah the Inkling, Vanessa at Fidra Books and others, I have resolved to be better. I even sort of promise. To get us going, am just about to post some thoughts on nostalgia reads and rebrands and whether or not they work. All thought appreciated as always...
When it comes to books, I'm usually with Erasmus who is reputed to have said 'When I get a little money, I buy books and if there is any left I spend it on food'. However, there comes a time when even the most dedicated booklover finds themselves staring, aghast, at bundles of receipts, bank statements and full-up loyalty cards and mentally comparing them with the Amazonian rainforests of books they suddenly call to mind. Has anyone else ever considered how much they spend on books in a year, relative to how many of those books they've actually read? Do so, and then work out an average cost per page; pretty sobering stuff.
I have imposed a (half-hearted and poorly enforced) book buying ban on myself this year; every book bought, read and placed lovingly on my bookshelf-slash-wardrobe (there was some economising at Ikea when I arrived) just has to be either shipped home at vast expense or given to the op shops. And given that some of the books I might conceivably buy are imported to Australia from the UK, it wouldn't do much for my Carbon Footprint to send them on a round trip of 20, 000 miles. The exceptions to my rule are Australian books not released overseas and 'ones I just can't live without'. How strict that latter definition is depends very much on how close to payday it is. A book with a title like 'Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea' probably wouldn't make the cut on an average Tuesday (though great title, isn't it?) but it did hit the spot last week when I urgently needed something to read on the tram.
Luckily, there are plenty of ways to read on the cheap and to aid me in my quest, I have joined no fewer than three of Melbourne's libraries. Now, I'm no stranger to the pleasure of a library - the papery smell, the vertiginous sense of promise as you survey the shelves, the ease of being admitted to the club. 'You mean...just hand over this gas bill and these beautiful things can all be mine?'
However, I'm also very acquisitive by nature and if I like a book enough to want to read it, I probably want to own it too. Bookselling intensifies this drive, it makes it too easy. You find yourself looking at something like 'The European Tragedy of Troilus' and thinking 'Collected essays on the figure of Troilus in medieval Europe? Only £75? Oh, be mine!' And my library visits of my uni years, while extremely frequent, were usually driven by necessity and vague but constant feelings of resentment (do they have it? where is it? how long will it take me to read it? Are there any KitKats left in the vending machine?).
So it was with great delight that last Saturday I visited Camberwell district library, a homey little building that was indeed once someone's house, with no list, no pre-formed idea of what I wanted, no internet reservations. I rummaged, I rifled, I wandered round and round the aisles with no sense of purpose. Now that I think about it, it may have looked to the staff like I was casing the place and planning to pop a Danielle Steele down my trousers, a la Dylan Moran in Notting Hill. That notwithstanding, it was a deeply pleasurably experience and one that reminded me intensely of childhood Saturday mornings, almost all of which until early teens were spent en famille at the supermarket (rubbish) followed by the library (amazing). I'd fill up my child reader's card and come home with a real stack - let's ignore the fact that it was almost always comprised of Sweet Valley Highs - which I'd devour with my Saturday penny chews. That sounds very idealised but is in fact accurate, my parents managed to provide some idyllic and treasured experiences along with the dysfunction common to all families.
My experience of Australian public libraries so far is that they are much like British ones; full of Danielle Steele and Catherine Cookson hardbacks but pretty light on new releases - the ones that do sneak in are then lost forever in a mire of waiting lists and reservation queues (currently a 4 month wait to get so much of a sniff of a dragon tattoo in my local just now for example). But if your branch is otherwise quite well stocked, then it provides a great excuse to get stuck into those books you've been meaning to read but never quite got round too. I came home with March by Geraldine Brooks, Restoration by Rose Tremain and a later Muriel Spark, Symposium. I loved them all. I also took Victoria Hislop's The Return and hated it. But that's the beauty - it didn't matter. It hadn't cost me anything other than a couple of tram journey's worth of time.
A visit yesterday yielded Margo Lanagan, Peter Goldsworthy and Robert Dessaix - all respected Australian writers, none of whom I've read. I hope to post about my experience of local writing and if it's possible to define a national literature soon. Just give me another few trips to the library.
Is everyone sick of the lists, round ups and reviews that litter book pages and websites at this time of year? I actually rather like them, they provide a chance to gather your own thoughts on the year and often unearth intriguing titles you may have missed. I'm not going to attempt a summary of my reading over the decade; the so-called noughties straddled my early teens to early twenties and included reading for an English degree slap bang in the middle. Certainly the first half of the decade was much more highly concentrated on 'the canon', and the second half has been almost exclusively focused on contemporary literary fiction (and Jilly Cooper).
So here are 9 of my favourite reads from '09. I'll be making an effort to read more genre fiction and non-fiction this year (there's a graphic novel gazing up at me reproachfully from the floor by my bed, I will open it this month...) - so any and all recommendations gratefully received! What were the books you loved last year?
9 for '09
Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel
Booker Prize in 'worthy winner' shock, said the book world. And for my money, this re-evaluation of Renaissance 'fixer' Thomas Cromwell was a phenomenal achievement. Mantel is a consummate wordsmith and by focusing on the machinations at the edge of Henry VIII's court rather than the figures at the centre, she managed to bring a fresh perspective to the well-covered murky world of Tudor politics.
The Women in Black - Madeleine St John
A beautifully observed comedy of manners about a group of ladies who work in the 'frocks' department of a department store in 1960s Sydney. St John was born in Sydney but spent most of her life in London; this, her first novel, was published when she was 52, and the subsequent The Essence of the Thing was shortlisted for the Booker, making her the first Australian women to be nominated. Will ring especially true for anyone who has - now or ever - finished a festive season working in retail...
I Was Told There Would Be Cake - Sloane Crosley
A collection of essays from a very funny writer. They're basically about being young, single and a bit lost in New York, a sort of Sex and the City for slightly dysfunctional twentysomethings. The book was given to me by my own New York twentysomething pal (I won't say dysfunctional) and I loved it unreservedly. My only disappointment has been that having painted a very lovable portrait of herself as slightly chaotic, shambling artsy type, it turns out that she is one of New York's most well-known and respected book publicists, managing Dave Eggers, Toni Morrison, Jay McInerney and the like for Vintage. Damn her! I want to be her!
American Wife - Curtis Sittenfeld
An interesting one, this. I liked the American cover so much (compare and contrast)that I held off reading it until my own New York Twentysomething was able to bring the US edition to me in person but it was worth the wait. It's a fictionalised account of a First Lady, married to a President whose decisions have made him very unpopular, and it amounts to a monumental defence of not only her continued support for him but of the decisions she has made her entire life. Apparently it is clearly based on the life of Laura Bush - I wouldn't have known that, but it is a compelling look at what it means to really 'Stand By Your Man' and also at the American psyche which I think is continually fascinating to us Brits.
Vanessa and Virginia - Susan Sellars
I've always been drawn to Vanessa Bell, artist and sister of Virginia Woolf, as there have never been very many famous people with my name, and I latched onto her when I was young! This novel is a fascinating imagined look at the relationship, at once passionately loyal and corrosively jealous, between the sisters. To romanticise the bohemian lifetyle of the Bloomsbury group is to overlook how unhappy most of them seemed to be and the novel covers the many tragedies in Bell's life, such as the loss of her son Julian in the Spanish Civil War. Sellars ends with an audacious interpretation of Woolf's suicide, implausible in reality but heart wrenchingly 'true' in the context of the novel. It's published by Two Ravens Press, who are based in the Scottish Highlands.
Case Histories - Kate Atkinson
Crime for non-crime fans, I think, this one, the first in the Jackson Brodie trilogy. It's a complex detective story with a huge emotional pay-off that had me unsettled for days. And the beauty of it is, you can then pick up One Good Turn and When Will There Be Good News which are equally satisfying.
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - R L Stevenson
Despite knowing the story inside out, I had never actually read this famous tale of the good doctor and his villainous alter ego and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it had the power to cause a lights-on-all-night situation, in spite of its familiarity. Although set in London, it is of course usually taken to represent the duality of Edinburgh, with its staid, civilised new town, and dark, seedy underbelly but I think that kind of duality is common to any city, and certainly I can see it here in Australia. 'The Lucky Country' prides itself on its veneration of the 'fair go' and opportunity for all, but the beers, BBQs and mates joviality is undermined by, for example, a recent spate of racist murders and some extremely questionable policies on immigration.
Be Near Me - Andrew O'Hagan
We did this for Book Group in April, to coincide with the National Theatre of Scotland's production, and it was a slightly divisive choice. It's not a cheery read, examining the ugly truth about Scotland's racism and sectarianism, and in particular the odd brand of discrimination Scots often turn on other Scots who are perceived as 'English' or posh, in other words. Having an Edinburgh accent and an Oxbridge degree, it's a subject I feel quite strongly about and Andrew O'Hagan is a searingly brilliant writer.
Fraction of the Whole - Steve Tolz
I don't even know where to start describing this sparkling, labyrinthine, faintly hallucinogenic book, save to say that Steve Toltz has one of the most original voices I've ever read. It tells of Martin and Jasper, a father and son duo and their completely chaotic lives together - every other sentence is laugh out loud funny, and although its length is daunting, it never flags. It's a big, baggy, effervescent novel and I agree entirely with the cover pull-quote that says 'unlike any Australian novel - indeed, unlike any novel - I can think of'. It also has a brilliant cover design that complements the content perfectly, and there is an interesting piece by the designer, including early drafts, here.
Incredibly sad news this week that Borders UK has gone into administration. The chain's fortunes had really taken a nosedive over the last few years with a resulting drop-off in quality, and the end has really been a long time coming but it is a horrible situation for the staff and it is always sad to see bookshops close their doors.
It will also inevitably add fuel to the fire for the naysayers who say that the book trade is dying; after all, if a huge chain, with discounting, brand recognition and big marketing budget can't keep the customers from amazon, how can a little independent?
Rachel Cooke in The Guardian has offered a welcome and most laudable positive reaction to the news in this article: Beyond Borders . She makes the sorts of arguments that all passionate booksellers and readers always make: that a good bookshop not only provides you with the books you came in for but also ones you didn't realise you needed; quirky stock selection that reflects the personalities of the owners rather than a faceless head office etc. And it surely doesn't need said that I back this argument all the way. However, her argument that perhaps the closure of a chain like Borders paves the way for a 'new chapter' of bookselling where people will start to frequent their local indie and learn to value all the above traits over saving a few pounds on amazon is overly naive and glosses over the main problems faced by said indies.
Firstly, Cooke suggests that "book buyers are feeling alienated by big stores like Borders (and Waterstone's), with their bored-looking staff and their piled high three-for-two offers". Is there anything to substantiate this claim at all? Since the oft-lamented disbanding of the net book agreement, 3 for 2s and massive discounts have become the norm; the point was made brilliantly in the Observer (I've lost the link) when one of their cultural commentators confessed that he now sees the RRP as a fake price, immediately translating it in his head to the amazon equivalent. We cannot reverse the damage that was done in the 90s - I think it would be very difficult to the majority of the book-buying public to reassess what they are prepared to pay for, say, a new hardback.
I also take issue with the reference to 'bored-looking staff' in chains; having worked for chains and indies, my experience is that the majority of booksellers, wherever they are, are ridiculously overqualified and passionate about reading. Has Rachel Cooke ever asked one of said staff for an opinion on a book, or has she just assumed they are probably stupid because they didn't have the good fortune to land a job in a beautiful store in a posh north London suburb? Most booksellers in the UK are almost certainly working for a chain because that is where all the jobs are! Independents usually have very few staff, and a much lower turnover. And next time you see a 'bored-looking' assistant, remind yourself that they are working for the minimum wage and probably facing an ever-decreasing amount of responsibility and input into their work, as all operations are gradually centralised.
I suppose I just think her arguments are overly naive, and assume that everyone is a Guardian-reader-type who has the cash to spend on several £18.99 hardbacks every weekend, and browse for hours on a Thursday afternoon or whatever. And indeed, that most book-buyers are in some way aware that they are missing out on an experience by shopping on amazon. I obviously say all this as a fully paid up Guardian reader type myself; I just don't think that the average person in Waterstone's is thinking, gosh, I do get tired of all these half-price new releases, if only there was somewhere where I could get them for double. Most people my age have been using amazon since they were old enough to borrow their parents' credit cards and see it as the normal shopping experience, rather than a watered-down version. And how many of us know people who buy online (or indeed do it ourselves)because it's cheaper even though they in theory support the idea of buying local? It's been 4 years since I last had to do without a staff discount - can I honestly say that I would have bought the same number of books if they'd all been full price? I don't know. I do know that Australian books are so extortionately priced (a post for another day) that it is cheaper for me to buy them from a UK website and have them shipped over than it is for me to buy them including staff discount here, which is staggering.
To try and end on a positive note, I do think that if more people are exposed to the benefits of their local independent then there is the possibility for conversion and so in that sense, a reduced presence of chains on the High Street presents opportunities for indies. How clever indies go about capturing the hearts of these customers is the challenge.
Since my last post, which was shamefully long ago in blogosphere terms, I have acquired a second bookselling job in order to swell the coffers, which took a serious knock in the transition period! This has been good news.
I'm now working for both a large chain, and a smaller, quirkier independent. Those who know me can probably guess what my feelings are towards each but I don't want to get into that for the time being until I know a little more about my longterm employment prospects... I can say that the two different experiences are furnishing me with insights by the barrel-load about retail, the Australian book scene, Melburnians and local life in general here and I will try and share them in due course. However, as a result of these jobs and some freelance work, I am currently working 7 days a week which is responsible for the lack of content here!
Things I have been enjoying this week have included two blissful nights of low temperatures after weeks of blistering heat; the discovery of Chinese broccoli; a brilliant novel by David Malouf (Ransom); a weekly second hand book market in the centre of Melbourne; catching up with a dear friend, the lady who put me up last time I was here, and a bar that is carpeted with Astroturf and made to look like a garden.
I do promise to make this blog more readable, just bear with me while I get through the next few weeks!