Monday, 15 October 2012

Four Years of Books Books Books

Lausanne's English Bookshop Celebrates its 4-year Anniversary

I remember August 2008. I gave up my job and rented a space in Holmes Place which I planned to turn into a bookshop. Some days I whirled around making booklists, ordering furniture and speaking to suppliers. Other days I watched the shadows move across the floor, paralysed by indecision.

Can I do this?
Is this a mistake?
What happens if....?

4 years is a long time. The shop has experienced stomach-lurching drops and vertigo-inducing highs. We've yet to have a day where we've made no sales, although we have been close. Other days we've had five people working flat out to get the work done.

Do I wish it was easier? Yes, all the time. Do I stop to think about what I've achieved? No, never. Like many businesses the gap between success and failiure is too slim. Do I feel like celebrating? Yeeeerrrrsssss!

Join me for a cocktail on November 6th at 7pm at the bookshop. Diccon Bewes will be speaking about his books - Swiss Watching and the recently-released Swisscellany.

Sign up here

See you then!

Monday, 1 October 2012

What do these books have in common?

Can you see what these books share?

  •  The Giver By Lois Lowry
  •  Where the Sidewalk Ends By Shel Silverstein
  •  Catch-22 By Joseph Heller
  • To Kill a Mockingbird By Harper Lee
Not sure? How about if I add these:
  •  Fahrenheit 451 By Ray Bradbury 
  •  Slaughterhouse-Five  By Kurt Vonnegut
  •  Leaves of Grass By Walt Whitman
  •  The Master and Margarita By Mikhail Bulgakov
  •  The Catcher In the Rye By J.D. Salinger
Need a couple more....
  •  The Handmaid's Tale By Margaret Atwood
  •  Ulysses By James Joyce
  •  Native Son By Richard Wright
  • A Wrinkle in Time By Madeleine L'Engle
 I am sure with these titles you'll be able to guess:
  • Animal Farm: A Fairy Story By George Orwell
  •  Lolita By Vladimir Nabokov
  •  Brave New World By Aldous Huxley
  •  The Satanic Verses By Salman Rushdie

That's right, they've all been banned at one time or another. Apparently, Where The Sidewalk Ends  was banned in some school libraries because it , “suggests drug use, the occult, suicide, death, violence, disrespect for truth, disrespect for legitimate authority, rebellion against parents.” 

According to the American Library Association (ALA), the most frequently challenged or ban books are the Harry Potter Series because of - and I am paraphrasing - "its themes of death and resurrection.. depictions of potions and other hocus pocus [and] celebration of witchcraft."

I am mentioning this because it is the Banned Books Week, the ALA's annual celebration of the freedom of speech. This year it is running from September 30th−October 6th.

BBB is joining the celebration and is offering a 35% discount on any of the ALA's top 100 banned books. You can find the list here -  contact the bookshop if you want to order.  The offer's good until October 6th.

Monday, 24 September 2012

What's On in Lausanne?!?

I often get people in the shop who say that there's nothing to do in Lausanne, that the city is boring and they'd much rather be in New York, London or some other metropolitan area. This attitude always amazes me. There is so much to do here it sometimes feels like an embarrassment of riches.

I don't consider myself a particularly cultured person. I don't scan the arts listings every week to see what's going on. But I thought I'd list a representative sample of the events I attended over the past few months, not to brag, but in the hope that people will get switched on to the events on offer.

  1. Estival - this is a summer-long series of free events for people of all ages and tastes. There are walks, tours, concerts and readings and they are all free. The best event is probaly La Fete de la Cite, a week-long festival in the old town with gigs, comedy and theatre. You should check out the Estival site for more info. 
  2. International Guitar Festival - this is so awesome it's unbelievable. Some of the best guitarists in the world come and play for a few days in the summer. The events take place all round the city. I went to see three guitarists who performed at the the Abbaye de Montheron. The atmosphere was amazing and there is a great restaurant next door too. 
  3. L'Orchestre de Suisse Romande - did you know that Lausanne is home to one of the world's leading orchestras? I went to see them at Beaulieu and, while not a great fan of classical music, I really enjoyed it. Definitely worth going to see. The musicians also give smaller concerts throughout the year in more intimate venues. You should drop by the Fondation de l'Institut de Ribaupierre on Georgette to pick up flyers
  4. Throughout October there is the Lausanne Underground Film Festival. Many of the films are in English and often the directors are there to introduce the films and take questions from the audience. There are also at least three independent cinemas in Lausanne where you can see films all year round. 
  5. Aperti - every year all the artists in Lausanne open their doors to visitors. This is called 'Aperti'. The organisation publishes a map and other details and you can easily spend an afternoon going from studio to studio meeting the artists and seeing their work. I was suprised at how many artists Lausanne attracts and at the quality of the work.
  6. Scarecrow festival - admittedly a bit left field, but the village of Denens near Morges is the Swiss capital of scarecrows. There is a lovely walk to do all year round between the village and Vufflens le chateau, but once a year they crank it up and have a festival with theatre, fireworks and more scarecrows you can shake a stick at. It's happening this year on 29th September.
  7. While we are in Morges, we should mention two more festivals. First of all, the tulip festival. You can spend a nice afternoon looking at tulips, which is actually more fun than I make it sound. 
  8. The Livres sur les quais is Morges' book festival. They have a growing English-language component and this year featured Douglas Kennedy, Stephen Clarke, Nancy Houston. Well worth the effort. 
  9. As I mentioned in my earlier post, anyone can study at UNIL. You need to simply fill in a form, pay CHF 150 and choose the courses you want to attend. You don't get credits, and some courses you can't take, but essentially you get the run of the university and a chance to put those grey cells to use. 
  10. Geneva Writers Conference - a weekend of writing with the big boys, this conference attracts some very high profile writers and literary agents who share their knowledge with you. 
I could go on, so I will. Did you know there was a free show at Beaulieu last night featuring a 250-strong choir, full orchestra and a light show? Did you catch the awesome temporary theatre in Lutry this summer? Have you ever been on a walk with Pierre Corajoud? Even better, have you celebrated the annual Fete des Voisins - it's a city sponsored intiative that gets neighbours together over wine and food. It's one evening a year that pays dividends all year round.

Don't fly home for the summer - you'll miss the best bit.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Studying at UNIL

Even if you are not a student

Every year the professors in the English section order books through the shop.  This year someone ordered books by authors who interested me and I found out something valuable: you can take courses at UNIL even if you are not a student.

All you have to do is to pay sFr. 150 and sign up as an auditor. You can do this here:

Being an auditor entitles you to attend the lectures in whatever course interests you (with a few exceptions), and you don't even have to do the homework.

Responsibility-free study appealed to me, as did the course, so I signed up. This semester I'll be studying Paul Auster, Don Delillo and Chuck Palahnuik.  It feels great to go back to University again, even if all I can do is listen!

Monday, 10 September 2012

More Thoughts on Writing

I was sitting at the dinner table talking to my eight-year-old daughter about the difference between good and bad writing (poor girl!) and I was trying to think of an example of what I thought was good writing. What came to mind was a passage I read in Douglas Kennedy's The Moment.

The passage happens early in the book when the narrator, Thomas Nesbitt, is looking for accommodation. He has responded to an advert and set up an appointment to view a flat. He is climbing up the stairs of the apartment building looking for the place. Kennedy writes,

'As I reached it I saw that its door was in the same style as the others, only this one had been whitewashed in a way that allowed its old brown finish to underscore the artfully swabbed white paint.'

I think the writer is doing two things. It may not seem like much of a trick, but he has given us in a condensced way a description of a door that we can perfectly imagine. It's short enough that we hardly notice it and yet the image is perfectly clear. Very few writers can do this. Having sat thinking about this for a few minutes, the only other author I can think of is Murakami.

The other achievement of this sentence is that he has decribed the character we are about to meet before we have met him. Reread the sentence...what kind of a person do you imagine has a front door like this one? If you guessed a painter who cares about, and takes care of, the environment in which he lives then I hope you get my point.

Of course, each writer has their own style. Camus might have written, 'It was a door' and everyone would have gone wild, myself included, leading the parade with pom-poms. But it fits the the context of this book where the author spends considerable time describing the surroundings.

Totally off topic, but another sentence made me gasp today. Here it is:

'In his dream, which he later forgot, he found himself alone in a room, firing a pistol into a bare white wall.'

A free book if you can tell me the author.....

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Life in the day of a bookseller

What do I do all day?
As I mentioned before, I thought I planned to spend my days at Books Books Books sipping cappuccinos and making literary small-talk with less fortunate readers. Surprisingly, this doesn't happen very often. Yesterday was a pretty exceptional day but I covered all the elements that make this job, if not exactly fun, then at least interesting. Here's what I did.

I got up at 6am and took some money to the bank. I needed the cash to pay some bills. On Monday the money-in machine had swallowed the day's takings so I was relieved when the payment went without a problem.

Back at the shop I paid all the bills marked urgent (i.e. most of them), then I walked down to the car hire place and picked up a van I needed.

I drove it back to the shop and then began to answer the emails which started 'Dear Matthew, This is the third time I have written to you and I hoping - praying - that I might get an answer.' At 8.50 I began to reply to an emailed order, indeed I had got as far as the 'D' in 'Dear' when the phone rang. It was a teacher making an order. As I took this down my colleague James arrived.

We loaded the van with about 30-odd boxes and I drove it to a local suppliers. I had ordered about 400 books through this supplier at the beginning of August. The week before I had exhausted the box marked, 'Ask politely about the status of your books' and had started hectoring them twice a day for news. This had got better results and I drove to their place to pick up my books.

With these loaded I drove to a school where I had arranged to sell directly to the students. The concierge who had been slated to help me disappeared leaving me to carry all the boxes from the van to the school, down some stairs and then to another wing. By the time I'd finished there were about 100 students waiting for books. Some of the teachers kindly helped me and by 3pm I was out the door and back in BBB.

I figured I would unload the two boxes I had in the van and then drop it off. However, a teacher drove up and we discussed her order on the street. James and another colleague had a few questions and another customer needed some advice. Then our favourite delivery driver arrived. We call him Mr Benzedrine because he drives to and from Argaau everyday and by Friday his eyes look like bloody dots in the snow. He doesn't speak French and I don't speak German so we've evolved a kind of pidjin that covers how many deliveries he has to do, if James's sleeping and if he can leave his van in my spot for five minutes. I took the van back when he left.

It was 4pm and a local teacher came in to speak with me. There had been a problem with her order a few days earlier. James had mistaken the figures '17' for '117' and '20' for '120' so we had a few too many. I had written to her to say, 'I have just shot James and stuffed his body in the nearest rubbish bin' to which she had replied, 'I'm soooo sorry to have caused the death of your colleague' and  I supposed her visit was to reassure herself that we had recycled his body correctly. I'll never know because someone uttered the words, 'It's been really quiet today' and suddenly we had about 50 customers in the shop. The next time I looked up she was gone.

Having been going for 11 hours on a bottle of orange juice I popped home and bewed a cup of English lifesaver. I wanted to stay home, but there were emails I knew I had to answer so I went back to work. It was ten to six when I continued the email I had started that morning, 'Dear Mr Moser' I wrote, 'Thank you for your email which I received this morning....'

I got home at a very reasonable hour and after supper I picked up a book The Moment by Douglas Kennedy which I am reading because I am interviewing him at the Morges literary festival next Sunday. The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work might have been more appropriate.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Speed Read: Outlaws, assassins, spies and...restaurants?

how to eat out - giles coren

 My picks for the WRS SpeedRead

  •  The Sister’s Brothers by Patrick deWitt
  • Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben Macintyre
  • How to Eat Out: Lessons from a Life Lived Mostly in Restaurants by Giles Coren

Saturday, 30 June 2012

What is good writing - one reader's advice

The Sister's Brothers vs. Fifty Shades of Grey

I get to read a lot of books. This month I have read, or reread, the following titles:

How To Eat Out
Dog Collar
Double Cross
The Sisters Brothers
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid
What Will Survive
a lot of James Ellroy

and I have also given up on many books, the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey being one.

I had just finished The Sisters Brothers when I read that Fifty Shades sold 1,000,000 copies in 11 weeks, overtaking Dan Brown and J K Rowling in the process and making it something of a record breaker.

I loved The Sisters Brothers and could not get beyond the first chapter of Fifty Shades. It reminded me of some self-published novels I have read. While it might be unfair to single out this particular book - there are many other books I haven't liked - the gulf between it and Sister's Brothers was so wide, so obvious, I thought it would be interesting to compare the two. 

In doing so I am trying to approach the question, 'What is good writing?' concious that the answer should always be, 'Something you like.' Taken at face value this is as good an answer as any. I like it so it's good for me. So why is it that millions of books get written every year and only few are published? If you want to be a writer what should you be doing?

For me, good writing elevates itself above the ordinary because it never tells the story, it shows it. Let me give you an example.

New York writer and journalist Pete Hamill tells the story of one of his first newspaper articles which was about a fire. He described the event and finished with the sentence 'It was a tragedy.'.

His editor brought the article back with this sentence underlined. 'It was a tragedy? Write it like it happened and let the reader decide if it's a fucking tragedy.'

Quite so.

We find this kind of show-don't-tell writing in the first chapter of The Sisters Brothers. The narrator is talking about his new horse Tub. We learn how he got it, 'in partial payment for the last job', why he got it, his last horse died violently, why he doesn't like it, '[he] could not travel more than fifty miles in a day' and why he has to keep it, because his brother got first pick while he was in bed with a leg wound.

In less than 30 lines we know everything we need to know about Eli and Charlie. They are living and breathing for us and we know that bad but exciting things are about to happen to them, and all because the narrator is talking about a horse.

The writer is showing us the action and letting us draw our own conclusions. He is allowing us to unpick the subtlies of the brothers' history and relationship. He could have said, 'Me and my brother Eli are gunslingers and we were at our bosses house to get a new job. Our last job ended badly and I got wounded. I don't get on with my brother all the time but we work as a team'  - and that would have been both dull and shallow.

By comparison, in Fifty Shades we learn that the narrator Ana is going to be subjected to 'an ordeal'. She is a brown-haired girl with blue eyes who is currently frustrated and exasperated. Her friend Kate is 'gamine and gorgeous...articulate, strong and persuasive.' Kate has volunteered Ana to interview a 'mega-industrialist tycoon' the CEO of Grey Holdings.

I just don't find this as gripping. The author is telling us what is happening in primary colours. She is not asking the reader to untangle the relationship. It is presented as fact and we are not allowed to draw our own conclusions.

I don't care for the scene either. A good author creates tension by explaining the stakes. We know that these are high for Eli and Charlie, it's life or death . It doesn't always have to be so dramatic, but suspense compels the reader to find out what happens. Fifty Shades starts with Ana brushing the knots out of her hair. What is at stake is the success or failiure of an interview with a 'mega-industrialist tycoon' for a student paper. I am unconvinced that I should care about this.

I gave up with Fifty Shades on page five where the author describes a view as, 'Wow.' This might be a shame as there is possibly a good story to come but I am reluctant to invest my time in finding out. I need writers to try a bit harder, to show me they are serious.

Here's Jonathon Saffron Foer describing his grandmother who survived during the war on scavenged ends of potatoes and scraps of meat, 'And so she never cared if I colored outside the lines, as long as I cut coupons along the dashes.' Elegant, entertaining and persuasive.

Here's Colum McCann on the first page of Let The Great World Spin: 'He stood at the very edge of the building, shaped dark against the gray of the morning.  A window washer maybe. Or a construction worker, Or a jumper. Up there, at the height of a hundred and ten stories, utterly still, a dark toy against the cloudy sky.'

And just to show I'm not singling out Fifty Shades, here is Wm Paul Young in The Shack, 'March unleased a torrent of rainfall after and unusually dry winter. A cold front out of Canada then descended and was held in place by a swirling wind...' Why? Why? Why start with the weather? Is this a book or a forecast?

'The articulation of perception', as Geoff Dyer has called it, the ability of good writers to delive beyond the exterior and articulate what they see. 

Marcus Brigstocke Washes God's Socks

God Collar by Marcus Brigstocke

Now the move has been completed to the new shop, it is great to start up the blog again, particularly with a an excellent book.

I was in England recently and bought God Collar by Marcus Brigstocke on impulse. I knew of the author because of his famous appearance on the witty BBC news show 'Have I Got News For You' - you can watch a short clip here.

I hesitated getting the book because the only blurb came from The Big Issue. Also, the book is a spin-off from his God Collar tour and I was worried it would be simply a disappointing cash in.

Brigstocke is an athiest, albeit a reluctant one. He wishes he could have the calm and security that he finds amongst believers. Essentially he is trying to find if he and God have anything in common.

As you might expect from one of the UK's leading comic talents, the book is a laugh-riot. I do not suggest you do as I did and read it on plane, train and metro unless you don't mind the sidelong glances as you smother your giggles. Despite the levity in the writing the book's topic is deadly serious. He poses the question, 'How can we follow God if his followers abuse kids, blow themselves up and declare, "We have the only truth"?'.

This might appear to be a flimsy context for a 300-page tome but there are no soggy bits. I genuinely looked forward to reading more and was a bit sad when I finished. Having said that, there were parts where he started to simply rant or digress into an interesting story half-way through an argument. He does warn the reader that they won't necessarily find anwswers in the book, and that is certainly the case. The lack of conclusion does not detract from the book and I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

The Bookshop is Moving

Books Books Books is Moving....I hope you'll come with us!

From Tuesday, 22nd May the bookshop will be at Rue Jean-Louis Gaillard 2. This is located in the Chauderon/Tour section of town, about a 2 minute walk from Holy Cow at Rue des Terreaux. 

Please note that there is parking directly outside the shop. We are still selling literature and non-fiction. We are still doing events. The life of the bookshop continues.

The shop is going to be closed from Thursday, 17th - Monday, 21st May while we make the move (this is the Ascension weekend). Please note that the new shop will be closed every Monday from 28th May until the end of August after which we will resume the normal opening hours. Having worked 6 days a week for 3.5 years I need a break!

In the next three weeks we will be liquidating more stock. We are also giving away 20 small, black 'Billy' bookcases - feel free to drop by the shop if you want to take some away.

Opening Party

Come and celebrate the new shop on the evening of Friday, 25th May. We'll be serving a sophisticated choice of cocktails from 6pm and have invited the bestselling writer Jon Steele to talk about his book The Watchers. Jon earned many awards as a camerman/editor, reporting the news from every corner of the world. In 2008 he lived for three months with an American combat unit, recording their lives for the documentary film, The Baker Boys: Inside the Surge.

He moved to Lausanne where he wrote The Watchers sitting in LP's bar at the Palace hotel and in the bell tower in the cathedral. The book is a gothic thriller and takes place in and around our beloved cathedral. Jon is an interesting guy and an excellent raconteur, particularly after one of my fabled cocktails.

Please sign up for the event here:
I look forward to seeing you at the (new) bookshop soon,


Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The Shop is Moving

There are many reasons to move shop, some large, some small. There are also particular reasons why Books Books Books is moving to Louis-Gaillard. This is going to be a long post, but if you are interested in the shop and the retail market in Lausanne then you may find it interesting.

Something I noticed right away in Lausanne is the large number of shops that never seem to have any customers. 'How can they survive?' I asked myself, 'And why would you bother if you don't make any money?'

Part of the reason for the plethora of idle businesses is the fonds du commerce. Although illegal, this works in the following way. There is a real pressure on downtown retail space. If you have a place you can sell your 'goodwill' to the highest bidder. So, even if you haven't sold a bean for years your rental property is worth something and many people will wait years for the right offer.

This payment is normally dressed up one way or another to circumvent the letter of the law, but if you are looking for a space that is already occupied you should be ready to pay a mimimum of 60K just to get your foot in the door. I have heard of prices as high as 150K for shops as small as 40 m2.

This means that small shops struggle to get a foothold in Lausanne. When they go out of business they are replaced either by large shops who have the required capital to take the slot over, or by businesses with high profit margins, such as opticians and hairdressers.

I have been looking for a new space for the shop for about two years. I have both responded to adverts and sought partnerships with other independents. None of these have come to anything. The search became particularly acute last year when Holmes Place changed management and started to expand. From that moment I knew that I had a tenuous grip on my lease and I had to find a new place sooner rather than later.

I essentially had options on three places. One had a 50k price tag, but was a lovely place. Another was in a partnership with a bookshop, and finally I was also hoping my neighbour might find a place for me in his shop. These places were within a short walk of the current location and for different reasons these leads dried up. It seems that the local commercants are not so commercial after all.

As you know, the book market has also radically changed over the last two years. I estimate that four years ago the online retailers probably held about 80% of the local market. It was a tough environment, but there was enough of the pie left to make a living. E-readers have further expanded the online market share. Whereas before you wanted a book so you decided whether to buy it online or on the high street, now you have an extra choice of downloading it, further shrinking the role of the bookshop. Video did indeed kill the radio star.

Happily for BBB, our sales have expanded every year and 2012 should be no different. However, sales to expatriates, the mainstay of my first year, have shrunk. I was faced with a choice. I could rent an office, work less, earn the same or I could continue in a shop and continue earning the same and work everyday. I chose to keep going.

I still think that bookshops play an important role in the intellectual life of the community. I am still passionate about literature. If I wanted to work in an office I could do that tomorrow and earn more. Ultimately not everything can be measured in a balance sheet.

The new shop is in my neighbourhood and I see it very much as a neighbourhood bookshop. I am also looking to make links with the School of Life or any other organisation that can add to Lausanne's intellectual or cultural enrichment.

Most importantly, though, I will still be selling books, specialising as always in quirky fiction and non-fiction. This is where my passion lies and this is the reason I am still here. My thrill is selling a book I love to a person I like.

There's not much more to add, other than thanks for reading and I hope I'll see you in the new bookshop soon,


Monday, 26 March 2012

Put the book down and step away from the sofa

The sign of a good book is that you can't stop reading it. I've lost count of the times I have woken up with a book on my face, or by the loud bang as it slips out of my fingers and hits the floor.

I am on a noir kick at the moment having read through 'The Best American Noir of the Century' edited by By Otto Penzler and James Ellroy. In the introduction Ellroy describes noir saying 'It’s the long drop off the short pier and the wrong man and the wrong woman in perfect misalliance. It’s the nightmare of flawed souls with big dreams and the precise how and why of the all-time sure thing that goes bad.' While not every story lives up to this expectation there were enough good tales that I decided to buy Ellroy's L.A. Noir to see how his writing measured up.

L.A. Noir is a trilogy set around Detective Sergeant Lloyd Hopkins, a deeply flawed LAPD homicide cop. Hopkins' ability to understand killers makes him Homicide's most effective cop, it also makes him obssesive, exacting and an extremely difficult husband. In the first story in the trilogy he is hunting a serial killer who had killed more than 20 women across the decades.

Sometime ago I read Steig Larsson's Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and hated its depiction of violence and sexual depravity. Ellroy adds casual drug use to this mix and I really liked the book. Why the sadistic violence in this book works better than in others I don't know. Maybe because it's in the context of the story. In any case, the plot is rivetting. In the small hours of the morning I realised I had started to read the book in extreme close-upand called it a night.

I can't wait to get back to it this evening. Forget about all these modern crime writers - buy Ellroy from your nearest independent bookshop to discover what the genre is really about.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Bookshelf by Alex Johnson

Oh, unhappy life!

Don't read this book.

You'll want something on every pages. You won't be able to tear your eyes away.

Put it away. Lock the drawer. This way misery lies.

Laquered steel, silicon, recycled wood, plexiglass
Slings, wheels, balances, arrows
Chairs, staircases, expresso bars, dresses

Bookshelves in varieties, designs and colours that you have never imagined.

Porn for the book lover.

I have signed copies.

I'll wrap them in brown paper.

I promise not to tell if you buy one

Friday, 24 February 2012

The Difference Between e-Books and Real Books

e-Books vs Paper Books. What's The Difference?

I wouldn't send my wife an e-card for her birthday.

Friday, 17 February 2012

The Swiss Vote on the Price of Books

Fixed prices for books in Switzerland?

Next month the Swiss will vote on 'The Federal Law on the Control of Book Prices'. It's creating a brouhaha in the book world and will affect the majority of books in Switzerland. Despite not having a vote I have been following the law for some time and thought I'd explain it as best I can.

What does it mean?

Assuming the Swiss people vote in favour then the law be applied only to new books, written in one of Switzerland's national languages that are published or sold in Switzerland. The law will extend to online sales, including cross-border transactions.

If the law is implemented then publishing houses or the importers (distributors) will set book prices and the bookshops will be oblidged to respect this price. The 'Surveillant des prix' will keep an eye on the prices and if they are too high in relation to prices in other countries then he has the authority to propose a maximum authorised price to the Federal Council.

Why is it being discussed?

There are many reasons why this law is being proposed. Currently bookshops  are being, frankly, screwed by the publishing houses as they must go through distributors to get the books. This means that a book costing 5 Euros in France costs CHF 11.50 in Switzerland. And there is no other channel to get the book.

On the rare occassions I have been asked to buy French books I have tried to short circuit the system by buying the books from another bookshop, or as a last resort through an online retailer. This works for the very small quantities of French books I buy, but clearly does not work for large French bookshops. The situation for German books is not quite so acute - there are many large wholesalers in Germany who offer reasonable terms - but French publishers and their distributors exert have rigid price and ditribution controls.

The law is also intended to protect small bookshops who struggle to compete on price with the big sellers, particularly those online, who offer huge discounts. This problem is particularly acute in Switzerland where 90% of books are imported. Fixing the price is intended to level the playing field and bring customers back to the independents who offer a quality service and can make informed recommendations. It is an attempt to maintain the biodiversity in the Swiss book market.

Finally, the law aims to protect Swiss publishers and writers. Currently these publishers produce a small amount if books in comparison to their international rivals. This means that they have little power in their own market where their books have to compete with a few, large publishers.  By fixing prices it is hoped that they too will compete more equally with the big boys of publishing which will in turn assist Swiss writers and protect the book as a cultural object.

The view from the bridge

You might think that I am jumping up and down in support of this initiative, but I feel quite ambivalent. I think the law over-simplifies a very complex situation. I am also wary of the fact that it will be publishers and importers who set the price. In whose interest will they do this?

I am also unsure that the state will be able to effectively police online retailers. As the law's opposition point out, these retailers will be rubbing their hands together in glee if they can find some way not to submit to the initiative. A legal challenge by the onine giants is not unthinkable and you can be sure that they will make hay while the challenge winds its way through the courts.

How to vote? 

In the ideal world the consumer would value books as objects and fully appreciate the benefits of buying from a bookshop. In my experience most readers consider price and convenience as the main determining factors and have already voted with their wallets. This law does not and cannot address this situation and, in my opinion, makes the debate something of a sideshow.

If you vote against the law then you more or less approve of the current system, with all its imperfections. If you vote yes then there is no guarantee that the system will improve. It may even deteriorate.

Whichever way you vote you can be certain that no-one will ever open a new bookshop in Switzerland. Globally, the number of bookshops is only ever going to decrease. Our children will be the last to ever walk into a bookshop and be blown away by the presence of so many books. This is a very high price for convenience.This is the crux of the matter.

Monday, 13 February 2012

The Perks of Owning a Bookshop

One of the perks of owning a bookshop is that quite often I get to meet the authors of the books I read. I am especially spoiled this month as I went to the Geneva Writer's Conference where I met Patricia Duncker and Bret Lott. Regular readers will also know that Jonathan Coe will be in Vevey next month.

I believe that meeting a writer provides some insight into their books. In the case of Bret Lott, for example, it was fascinating to hear how he began his career as a VC Cola salesman and how this experience influenced his first novel, which incidentally centred around a VC Cola salesman. Having heard Bret speak it was also easier to 'hear' his words as I read his words.

On this month's World Radio Switzerland SpeedRead it seemed appropriate to review books by these three novelists.  At the end of the slot Alex asks me which one of these novels I preferred. Honestly, I believe you could buy any of these books and be treated to an enjoyable read and maybe even discover a writer you really like. The choice I made was strictly personal...

You can listen to the interview here.

I would post an image but in 2012 it seems to be beyond Bluewin to provide me with a wifi connection capable of uploading a 72 kb image.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Jonathan Coe is coming to Vevey

 Jonathan Coe at the '4+1 traduire' Festival

You might be wondering why I am getting very excited about Jonathan Coe's visit to Switzerland. (He is here as part of the "4+1 traduire" festival in Vevey.)

He is the bestselling author of nine novels, including The Closed Circle, The Rain Before It Falls, and most recently The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim.

Personally I liked Maxwell Sim and reviewed  it on WRS. The narrator in the title writes in the style of a new and unpolished author. I was thinking, 'I am not sure if I can take another 300 pages of this', when he turns to the reader and says, 'Do you think you can read another 300 pages of this?'. My instinct was to answer 'No' but the story had hooked me and I didn't give up.

Later in the book other characters share the narrative - there are memorable exchanges on web forums and in letters - and either Maxwell Sim's style improves or Coe's style comes through as the book is certainly well written. The story concerns Sim's ill-fated journey to Scotland as a toothbrush salesman, and explores isolation in the age of Facebook.

Jonathan Coe also plays with literary convention. Without wishing to give it away, the last chapter of Maxwell Sim asks the question, 'Why do you feel emotion for characters you know are fiction?' In The Rain Before It Falls the book's narrator is a character who is describing photographs. Many people might groan when they read words like 'literary convention' but these books are funny and grounded without being trivial.

If you are interested to come to the event in Vevey it's on Friday, March 9th. The programme is here. I understand from the event organisers that Johnathan Coe will be signing books afterwards. Otherwise why not pass by your local independent bookshop and pick up a copy of one of his books.

Monday, 6 February 2012


1Q84 - Haruki Murakami

Do you know the feeling of looking forward to a particular meal so much that the moment you sit down to eat it you no longer feel hungry? That's how I felt about 1Q84 the new book by Haruki Murakami.

Murakami is one of the authors whose new books I always read. The wait was particularly tortuous as this book was published in German earlier in the year and only came out in English in November 2011. I saved it for Christmas and read the first chapter on the plane.
'This is brilliant', I thought, then I couldn't bring myself to read another word.

Only in January did I sit down and read it.

Murakami fans will be familiar with certain elements. There is a girl with magic ears, an entire scene devoted to the making of food, a slight dislocation of reality. In this case the heroine gets stuck in a traffic jam and her cab driver advises her to use the emergency stairs off the expressway. He warns her that by doing so she will be leaving the world as she knows it in 1984 behind.

In another part of Tokyo a writer and his editor are discussing the entries for a writing competition, in particular the story Air Chrysalis by an unknown high-school student called Fuka-Eri. They like the story but feel that it needs more work to win the prestigious prize it has been entered for. They decide to ask Fuka-Eri's permission to improve the text.

From this beginning I was thrown into the world of 1Q84. This is not a small undertaking. It is three books in one, or 1000 pages. Because the world is so compelling it is difficult to come up for air. You want to read and read, sprint through it, despite its length. The detail is well imagined that you do get lost, you are there with the characters, seeing the same things and weighing the same options.

In an important way the book didn't meet my expectations. In his previous novels Murakami has always drawn the most sexy women. Not classically inviting, prehaps, but with some indescribable allure. 1Q84 does deliver sex, probably too much of it, but without Murakami's trademark mastery of the language of attraction.

Otherwise, the story is sublime. Wildly imaginative and well told. Definitely worth the 3-4 weeks it took me to read.

It is also a beautiful book. The hardcover export version (pictured) has a semi-transparent cover with a see-through title.Inside, the page numbering which shifts positions on the page margins and is sometimes written in mirror writing. There are other small features that are worth the effort to look for.

In the bookshop I often recommend Murakami but I always suggest the easier titles first. First time readers might consider opting for Norweigen Wood or A Wild Sheep Chase.

Friday, 3 February 2012

The Perfect Book Blurb

The perfect book blurb has to contain the words, '[this book] has that Certain Something which makes you want to crawl through thirty miles of dense tropical jungle and bite somebody in the neck.' I think we're only going to stock books whose jackets read like this.

This is from a real book jacket published in 1906.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Book Making, Book Keeping

A friend of mine dropped by the shop today. I mentioned that I have a job interview tomorrow. He asked me what the job was for and I said that it was for the job I used to do before opening the bookshop.

I explained to him what that it was a marketing management position and outlined the pros and cons for accepting it, particularly in regards to the bookshop.
He thought about this for a while and then said:
'I see. So it's for the status and because people listen to what you have to say.'
'That's right' I agreed.

Then I realised that he was referring to the marketing job and I was thinking about the benefits of being a bookseller.

Prehaps office life has changed in the last four years. Or maybe I have.

A Book About Fonts

A book designer I know is soliciting opinions on the capital Q of various fonts. She says that this letter is seldom used so type designers often use it to showcase the font's philosophy.

I chose the Q pictured which comes from the Bauhaus typeface. I have to say that I find it pretty ugly. We can think of the Zen circle drawn freehand with a calligraphy brush. All that spontaneous energy poured into the creation of something not quite perfect, prehaps in black against a dramatic red background. This Q opposes this spirit. It is technology as it swings away from human experience. 

I have been thinking about typeface alot since I read Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfiled. It's really a book of stories about individual fonts. It starts with comic sans, the typeface reasonable people love to loathe, which came into being to make MS Help more human; it narrates the story of Helvetica, the Swiss typeface invented 60 years ago which has since become the corporate face of The Gap, Hoover and gave birth to, or was ripped off by, Arial; it describes the creation of Metropolitan, the font used on the Paris Metro, and many more.

Whether we have articulated it or not, we all have an opinion on font. While this books does occassionally stray into geekery, I found it interesting to see how my own opinions on a font compared to the aims guiding its creation. The book could possibly be improved by a little humour, but it is a beautiful book to read with elegant typesetting and lots of font samples. 

If you are interested in this book then please get it from your nearest independent bookseller. US residents can find a list here.

Incidentally, the Books Books Books logo is set in bold Helvetica to show the Swiss origins of the shop and as a reminder to adopt an adventurous vision.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Books Books Books

Many people think that owning an independent bookshop involves sipping cappuccinos and making literary small talk to a crowd of less fortunate readers. Surprisingly, that's not true. Mostly it involves shoveling books from one side of the shop to the other. What keeps you going is the idea that if you can just shovel fast enough then you might eventually get paid for it.

I wouldn’t say owning a bookshop is badly paid, as that would assume you actually earn something. I didn’t eat lunch for the first year I opened my shop. The only money I spent was on a Sunday morning when I bought my kids pain au chocolat from the local bakery. I lost 10 kgs while they developed an addiction to calorific pastries.

So why torture yourself?  Part of that answer for me, and I suspect for other booksellers too, lies in the wonder of walking into a bookshop. When I was a young lad my mother used to take me and my brother to Hammick’s bookshop in Farnham. It seemed incredible to me that I could walk into this shop and take any book from the shelf and sit down and read it. I still remember the large ladybird cushion where we would spend hours reading Hal and Roger adventures or the latest in the Fighting Fantasy series.

I loved the smell in that shop. I loved the little cardboard slips with the stock information typed on them. I loved the wooden counter where we reluctantly relinquished our books in order to allow the woman to sell them to us. The shop was constantly busy and I remember being conscious that there were many more shelves outside the children’s' area - shelves that I couldn’t yet reach the top of – full of boring books of the kind adults liked to read.
‘You’ll read them one day,’ my mother assured me.I didn't believe her.

Of course, Farnham Hammick’s is long gone. There is a Waterstones in the Lion and Lamb courtyard, a WH Smith’s on West Street and the out of town supermarkets with their cut-price hardbacks. Not many towns boast a bookshop, particularly a bookshop where the owner, or some quixotic assistant, has hand-picked every title with a certain audience, even a certain customer, in mind. Where the chairs and tables are unique to that establishment and not replicated throughout the country, or even the planet.

Before I opened my shop, I read two excellent publications from the British Bookseller’s Association and its American counterpart. These were quite old editions of their ‘How To Run A Bookshop’ manuals. I remember reading in one of them about this new thing called ‘The Inter Webs’. The author cautiously opined that it might eventually have a small impact on the retail book trade. There was something so tragically wrongheaded about this prediction that I found myself laughing. Yes, the cruise missile did hit the house, but miraculously we picked the best china out of the rubble and were able to enjoy a cup of tea.

But before we get misty-eyed, it is worth saying that this is not a lament, it’s a hurrah. Hurrah for the people who love books so much that they still continue to sell them, despite the competition and the dash for digital. It takes a certain kind of reader, too, who can find the time to visit a shop and browse through the titles on display knowing all the time that it might be possible to buy the same titles cheaper online.

I see the bookseller and the reader as a couple enjoying a last waltz as the band plays on and the ship slips beneath the waves. On the horizon the moon rises and its beams pick out lifeboats being hastily rowed away by discount book purchasers. Forget them. I am interested in knowing what brings the couple here, why they can't let go and what hope the future holds. I am interested in the magic of books and the shops that sell them.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

The Joy of Books

You would have to be pretty insane to try this. But if I can find half-a-dozen volunteers I am ready to give it a go.

WRS | Speed Read: Funny reads to chase away post-holiday blues

WRS | Speed Read: Funny reads to chase away post-holiday blues

Here are a few picks from my Speed Read slot on Radio World Switzerland.

Major Pettigrew Gives Me Hope

2011 was a pretty grim year for booksellers. Look at the headlines. 'One million Kindles are sold each week, says Amazon' Hurray for them. I spent Christmas listening to my family extolling the virtues of Kindle, while watching my own retail sales dwindle.

But there are still somethings bookshops do so much better than online retailers. I was reminded of this on Thursday when Helen Simonson, the author of Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, skyped into the bookshop.

Don't be sad if you don't know who Helen is. I'll give you a brief synopsis. She is a New York Times bestselling author and has been reviewed by such luminaries as Alexander McCall Smith and Elizabeth Strout. Her book is my favourite work of fiction I read in 2011, and this is from someone who doesn't read much romantic comedy.

Major Pettigrew is an retired widower who lives in Edgecombe, a conservative town on the south coast of England. He falls in love with Mrs Ali the local shopkeeper of Pakistani origin. The book is the narrative of their growing love and a very funny look at the problems of inheritance and family. What I love about this book is the way Helen is able to peel away the layers of character until the whole person is revealed.

She kindly spent an hour answering questions from one of our bookgroups and I think everyone left the shop buzzing. (Thank you Helen).

It is this kind of book I love to champion. A book which will bring its readers pleasure and, if it's not too strong a word, joy. And it's this kind of event which makes it easier to put up with callers asking, 'Do you sell the Amazon Kindle?'

I urge you to buy this book from your nearest bookshop, and to contact Helen if you have a bookgroup that wants to read the book.