Bookshops are not always romantic
Neil Gaiman once said, “a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore... it’s not foolin’ a soul.” In theory, Gaiman should be pleased, for a bookshop now exists in almost every pocket. Do not be fooled; while the bookstore has condensed into hand-held devices that can be slipped into one’s pocket, its scope has expanded exponentially. Even the rarest of books can now be owned at the click — give or take a few — of a button.
But Gaiman was speaking, of course, of brick-and-mortar bookshops — the beleaguered cousins of the equally endangered entities, libraries. Each October, on various dates, many countries across the globe celebrate some variation of ‘bookshop day’ with the faint hope that the publicity will prop up sales, perhaps entice some souls to make repeat visits and procure enough business to see the establishments through the year. Maybe it is the fast-fading nature of these edifices that makes them prone to romanticization. Whether it is fiction, non-fiction or films, bookshops are places where anything can happen. From Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s Sempere & Sons, that is a beacon of warmth, passion and resistance, to Flourish and Blotts in Harry Potter where the tomes can bite a browser’s fingers off, bookshops are magical places where books are not the only things with tales to tell.
If bookselling is relentlessly romanticized, so is the bookseller — think Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face or Salma Hayek in Desperado. But a portrayal that is closer to reality would probably be Hugh Grant’s character in Notting Hill. This is not to suggest that bookshop owners are prone to running into gorgeous movie stars. But there is a telling sequence in the film where Grant catches a man sneaking away a book in his pants.
Booksellers have little reason to be the cheery folks they are made out to be. Besides struggling to keep the business afloat and endless slow days filled with stocktaking, they, unavoidably, run into regular oddballs (a kind misnomer, at times). Jen Campbell catalogues some of the most bizarre requests she has fielded as a bookseller in Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops. (For instance, “My granddaughter’s looking for a book about Agnes’s knickers... do you know what I mean?”) Stray bodily fluids — children’s poo to adults’ amniotic fluid — aside, booksellers have to deal with never-ending questions about why books are cheaper online, constant jibes about Amazon and cavalier parents who treat the children’s section like a crèche. Little wonder then that Bernard Black in Black Books is the curmudgeon that he is. Next time while watching Notting Hill, instead of swooning over Hugh Grant, consider the time his character must have had wiping the book he rescued from within the thief’s pants.