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...