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.