FROM THE PULPIT
M ILES K INGTON Hats off to Otterstone’s
W HEN I VISIT a bookshop, I like to visit one with character. One that’s a bit different. A bit eccentric, even. That’s why I favour Waterstone’s. Can I give you an example? Not long ago I went into my local Waterstone’s to get a French book. No special French book. Just a French book. I was off on a trip to France and I wanted to get some of the rust off my French by reading something in French. Anything, really. ‘Got any French books?’ I said. ‘Down there,’ said the man, pointing at a bookshelf. I had a look. It was all dictionaries and grammars. ‘I don’t mean books about French,’ I said. ‘I mean books inFrench.’ ‘You mean, French books?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘I don’t think we’ve got any ... no, hold on. I think we have one. Yes, here it is.’ And he handed me a copy of Kes, by Barry Hines, translated into French. ‘That’s a curious choice,’ I said. ‘Very curious. I mean, if you are going to have just one classic of French literature in the shop, Keswould not be the one I’d go for straight away.’ ‘No,’ he said. ‘The fact is, a customer ordered it, and then when he saw it, decided he didn’t want it after all, so we thought someone else might want it, and kept it.’ That’s what I like about Waterstone’s. Their quaint old-fashioned ways. Their quirkiness. Their individuality. You don’t get that sort of thing in an independent bookshop. The independent bookshop, being small, knows it has to be ruthlessly efficient to survive. That’s why I like ordering a book from places like Waterstone’s. It gives you plenty of time to relish the anticipation of the arrival of the promised volume. ‘We can get it for you in a week or ten days,’ they say, and you say ‘Fine,’ knowing that you’ve got a whole leisurely week at least in which to look forward to the thrill of its arrival. But go to the independent bookshop and it’s a quite different experience. ‘Should be in by tomorrow,’ they say, threateningly. And you hardly seem to have got home before the phone rings and they tell you it’s in, and you have to go all the way back there and get it, without any of that lovely intervening period of growing anticipation. There’s something so impersonal about the independent bookshop. Whereas Waterstone’s has a sense of fun. I know that, because I recently had a book published called Someone Like Me, which is a humorous book, being a spoof memoir. It’s meant to go with the humour books. But my local Waterstone’s puts it down among the autobiographies. I have once or twice asked them to move it, but obviously they like a bit of fun and they haven’t done it yet. Yes, I warm to a bookshop with character, so I am all
in favour of the proposed union of Waterstone’s and Ottakar’s. After all, we have to have something big enough to stand up for us against the massed seriousness and efficiency of the independent bookshops… It was ever thus in the old days, when the only bookshop that anyone ever told warm, humorous stories about was the biggest of them all – Foyle’s. My favourite story about Foyle’s was that told by a friend of mine, who had rung the shop one day to find out if they stocked the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The Swedish assistant who answered the phone (Foyle’s was just like the Arsenal football team in those days – not an English face in sight) told him to hang on, then she came back to the phone after two minutes. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘but what was Mr Britannica’s first name again?’ On my only guest appearance at a Foyle’s Literary Luncheon, I was privileged to sit next to the great dame herself, Christina Foyle. The conversation, I remember, got round to psychic powers, which she admitted to possessing. ‘I was once, and only once, in the presence of a man who I was convinced was pure evil,’ she told me. Before I could say anything, the man on my left, a very famous actor, leant over and said: ‘I too have had that experience, but with one man only.’ ‘In my case, it was Kenneth Tynan,’ she said. ‘With me too,’ said the famous actor. What a spooky moment. Another spooky thing is that in those days Foyle’s was as big as bookshops got. Nowadays it is the same size as it ever was but nowhere near as big as Borders, Waterstone’s, Ottakar’s, etc, so Foyle’s, without changing size, has gone from being a massive bookshop to a small independent, and therefore it is highly efficient and nobody tells humorous, heartwarming stories about it any more. Do you get people telling warm, humorous stories about the little independent bookshops? Not in my experience. In my experience, independent bookshops are only interested in the hard sell. No sooner have I set foot in the door of my local bookshop in Bradford-on-Avon than Jim is on to me. ‘Ah, Miles,’ he says. ‘There’s a book just come in which I thought might interest you, so I put it on one side for you to have a look at…’ It might be trains, it might be humour, it might be French, it might be jazz, but I have a sinking feeling that I might be handing over good money to supersalesman Jim before I leave the shop. Give me Otterstone’s every time. They give you respect there. They leave you alone. No pressure. No hassle. Just nice sweet old-fashioned values.
LITERARY REVIEW June 2006