This is the blog of Ant Miller, senior research manager and dilettante geek at large at the BBC.
I wail moan and cuss about the challenges and fun to be found here.
These are my personal opinions, and not those of my employer. Or anyone else here for that matter.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Apostropocalypse

Or the final nail in the coffin of the bibliophile driven bookshop.

I used to be a bookseller.  It's a lovely job- selling books and buying books is an activity that really does tend to bring out the best in people.  It's an activity that we engage in when we feel a little bit noble, a tad worthy, and maybe just a tiny bit pleased with ourselves.  It represents an exchange that is clearly a part of a long tradition, of the constant interplay of literature and economics, and we hope when we buy a book that the cash handed over will be repaid manifold in a wealth of intangible riches.

To be more prosaic, as a job at university it was easy to do with a stinking hangover, had flexible hours, the customers tended not to be too awful (though never without their elements of occasionally parabolic eccentricity), and you could meet girls.  Pace my wonderful wife.

The shop I originally worked in was the little branch of Waterstone's on North Street Brighton.  It's not there now, but that funny little horseshoe shaped leaky shop was a fantastically concentrated example of the old school Waterstone's ethic.  Every member of the staff planted their extraordinary personality on the section they ran, which with our bunch meant we had a fairly esoteric stock, and thus a similarly peculiar clientèle.  We would routinely purposefully 'flood damage' books that got scaled out from HQ- whole crates of Princes Diana schlock was dunked in buckets of dirty drainwater.

Our events were occasionally riotous- trying to wrangle 200 surprisingly boisterous stoners in to see Howard Marks for one of his Mr Nice talks was quite a struggle, and I had to feel for my colleague who was 'volunteered' to look after him.  We used the staff room (with it's glorious south facing rooftop suntrap) as a green room for visiting authors, and on this occasion it reeked of skunk for weeks after- my colleague who shall remain nameless staggered downstairs looking like he'd been hit by a bus before mumbling through a heartfelt but largely incoherent introduction to Howard.  Ah happy days.

We did our own window displays- mine were rubbish, but many were extraordinarily beautiful examples of temporary urban art.  I think we even had a transexual stripper in the window one year.

The point I am trying to make is that at one time, not so long ago, the UK was spattered with a chain of bookshops which each had a vibrant and creative ethos and community of engaged customers and which thoroughly and without any constraint reflected the most radical and literary of their local communities hopes and aspirations.  And this from a shop!  A profitable one too!

Now what do we have- anonymous, repetitive centrally managed battery farms of literary ubiquity.  A stultifying published pap box shifter.  I used to pop into a Waterstone's to get a mediated flavour of a town, to see what they read, what they were into, what events would draw them out- you could catch half of that from the locally designed and lovingly created window displays.  No more- those windows are prime high street real estate- auctioned off as generic advert space to be identically dolloped without care or attention in hundreds of shops nationwide.

If this total collapse of passion and imagination had happened to one chain, one shop amongst may, this would be a tragedy, but it isn't.  This bland monster has swallowed up two of the UK's other biggest bookshop chains leaving them too bereft of their signature quirks and sensibilities; Dillon's and Ottakar's (which had previously swallowed up Hammicks).  Today on any given British high street you will probably only see one major bookshop, and it will be identical to the one you would see on any other high street.  Its stock, displays and overall character will be utterly indistinguishable from any other Waterstone's on any other high street.

So they're dropping the apostrophe? Good.  As a symbol of lost sense of any ownership by individuals it is salient.  As a symbol for a collapse in any respect for literature, it is salient.  As a symbol of a shift toward an all encompassing, ever spreading miasma of conformity and corporate anonymity, it is salient.

Local independent bookshops are the best.

Only got around to watching this at the weekend, but I think it illustrates the sort of beautiful crazy that used to be possible in Waterstone's and all the other little chains that it swallowed up, but now lies so far beyond the petty imagination of that corporate behemoth that it breaks one's heart.


Anonymous said...

Still gutted the Travel Bookshop near Centre House shut. That place was awesome! Got my idea for the Egypt trip with a book called "With the Camel Corps Down the Nile" in there.

Anonymous said...

I managed two days working at the new Waterstones. It...was not good for the soul.

Globalism said...

A beautifully put paean to a bygone moment, Ant - took me back there for a moment too.

Any readers interested to see some of those old window displays can do so from here:

(pics from the branch referred to above start from the fourth line)