Magazine article The Spectator

The New Curiosity Shop

Magazine article The Spectator

The New Curiosity Shop

Article excerpt

In November 1936 George Orwell published an essay entitled `Bookshop Memories' based on his experience of working in a second-hand bookshop which `stood exactly on the frontier between Hampstead and Camden Town'. I work part-time in a markedly different kind of bookshop: one of those modern, multi-storey edifices in which you can simultaneously enjoy live jazz, a vanilla-flavoured decaf. lane and shiatsu head massage. Nonetheless I was amazed, reading Orwell's essay, at the extent to which his experiences coincided with my own and how little has really changed in the intervening 64 years.

In spite of the material with which it provided him, Orwell seemed to regard his bookselling days with scant affection. It wasn't the cold, dusty air or the dead bluebottles littering the tops of the books that put him off so much as the fact that his job obliged him to come into daily contact with the book-buying public:

Many of the people who came to us were of the kind who would be a nuisance anywhere but have special opportunities in a bookshop. For example, the dear old lady who read such a nice book in 1897 and wonders whether you can find her a copy. Unfortunately she can't remember the title or the author's name, or what the book was about, but she does remember that it had a red cover.

I applied for my bookshop job when the mixture of university tutoring, administration and writing with which I'd supported myself since gaining my PhD suddenly dried up. And though I've had my fair share of enraging and surreal experiences with customers (most memorably the one who wanted a book by James Joyce and, when I'd suggested some titles, barked, `Well, just give me his latest one!'), I don't think I've ever experienced the remorseless loathing that Orwell conveys with such gusto.

In a town like London [he writes elsewhere] there are always plenty of not quite certifiable lunatics walking the streets, and they tend to gravitate towards bookshops, because a bookshop is one of the few places you can hang about for a long time without spending any money.

He would doubtless be appalled to learn that modern developments in bookselling have increased this trend to an undreamedof extent. When a shop is open - as ours is - from eight in the morning until 11 at night and has a licensed cafe and lots of comfortable chairs distributed around every floor, it becomes a practical Mecca for the narcoleptic and the sadly bewildered.

Orwell, like Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, chose a job in a bookshop because it gave him time to write. He described his routine in a letter to his friend Brenda Salkeld:

8.45 go down & open the shop, & I am usually kept there till about 9.45. Then come home, do out my room, light the fire etc. 10.30 am-1 pm I do some writing. 1 pm get lunch & eat it. 2 pm-6.30 pm I am at the shop.

It sounds like a small miracle of domestic productivity: the author rattling up and downstairs between selling books and writing them.

The booksellers in my shop, mostly graduates, work there because there's nothing else. Some of them intend to continue in bookselling, which is fair enough - it's an honourable profession. But I can't help feeling that there's something wrong with a society that seems obsessed with cramming more and more youngsters into higher education, most of whom are going to end up working in shops or call centres. …

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