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The 'Basil Fawlty of Booksellers' & Co.

Bernard Black, the patron saint of curmudgeonly booksellers

Bernard: You sold a lot of books. You got on well with customers.
Manny: Thank you.
B: I'm gonna have to let you go.
M: But I got on well with all the customers, I sold a lot of books!
B: It's not that kind of operation.

--"Manny's First Day" episode of BBC's Black Books (about the 20:20 mark)

After showcasing the quirky/quaint aspects of bookselling in Wigtown last week, I felt equal time rules demanded that we highlight the legendary curmudgeonly side of the trade, especially in light of certain recent viral headlines: "Steve Bloom: the Basil Fawlty of Booksellers"; "Yorkshire's 'bookseller from hell' regrets calling customer 'a pain in the arse' "; "Blame Yorkshire's wuthering winter, says wife of U.K.'s 'rudest bookseller' "; and even "What Britain's grumpiest bookshop owner can teach us about the NHS crisis."

Bloom, owner of Bloomindales in Hawes Market House, was accused of being ill-mannered to potential customers who refused to pay his 50p entry fee. The chairman of Hawes Parish Council said members want the bookseller to change his attitude or leave the town: "I have received more than 20 letters of complaint in the last four years about the abusive behavior of Mr. Bloom--by letter, e-mail and telephone.... The bookseller is a discredit to the good reputation of the town, he is letting the Market House trustees down time and again."

Having since expressed some regret for his behavior, Bloom nonetheless vowed to continue his admission fee policy: "I explain about the 50p and when they come to leave with a book I say keep the 50p. Many people then say 'no keep it or give it to charity.' So it goes to Compassion in World Farming.... Those people who get upset about the 50p feel challenged. This is a test. I want people who come into to shop to be interested and appreciative of books. This is not a bus stop or a room for browsers.... Now that this has got out to the press, all and sundry know how it works, so it won't be the same. But I'll continue to ask for it--I'm not bowing to pressure."


He even has supporters. In the Guardian, Stephen Moss wrote: "Mr. Bloom is one of the last, honorable remnants of this dying breed. Secondhand bookshops have been decimated by the Internet.... As for the rudeness, it goes with the territory. Secondhand booksellers are natural misanthropes. If you don't buy a book, you are wasting their time; if you do a buy a book, you are stealing one of their friends. Either way, they will hate you, so enjoy the miserable experience.... Book lovers are life haters--and Mr. Bloom is a hero, not a villain, keeping an ancient tradition alive."

We've all encountered the classic bookish curmudgeon. In my case, she was a librarian in the small Vermont town where I grew up who seemed to despise kids (I don't think it was just me.) and was forever ushering us back out onto the street when we lingered too long in the children's book room. Hers was a determined, if ultimately futile, attempt to derail my need to read.

During my long tenure on the sales floor, I tried to be a gracious and welcoming bookseller, though I suspect there's just a little Steve Bloom buried deep inside many of us. "Curmudgeon" is not an infrequent word used to describe folks in our profession. As recently as last summer, the New York Times noted that the Strand's "employees are known for being 'curmudgeonly' but also clever, even cool."

And last year, Jim Toole of Capitol Hill Books was labeled "D.C.'s most curmudgeonly store owner" by the Washingtonian in an interview where he explained his extensive set of rules for customers. Asked if patrons generally obeyed, he replied: "Either that or they go home. People either have to follow the orderly processes here, or they're asked to leave. What am I supposed to do, sit here as the owner of the bookstore and put up with some miscreant? The customer isn't always right. I am. People don't like that. They think I should be groveling--I don't grovel."

For our 2009 special April Fool's Day edition, I imagined a hyper-curmudgeonly bookseller who professed an "intriguing new concept for increasing sales at the retail level--smashmouth, trash-talking, in-your-face handselling.... Instead of the traditional, cooperative, conversational, low-impact approach to bookselling, he began taking the fight directly to his opposition. 'Essentially, I make them eat their words,' Wilkins said. 'We don't let them out of the bookstore until they've bought books.' "

As a model curmudgeon, however, Bernard Black still reigns supreme:

Bernard: What do they want from me? Why can't they leave me alone? I mean, what do they want from me?
Manny: They want to buy books.
B: Yeah, but why me? Why do they come to me?
M: Well, because you sell books.
B: Yeah, I know...

Words to live by? Um... maybe not.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2920


Living the Bookseller's Dream in Wigtown

Many (most?) book people have had "the dream." They imagine what it would be like to own a quiet little bookshop in a quaint town and have the time to indulge in long conversations with patrons that went beyond handselling. Maybe they could spend quality time exploring the shop's bookshelves for lost treasures or just leisurely tidying up. They might sip tea and read an old book for a quiet hour. Although I was a bookseller for almost 15 years in a big indie, even I fantasized occasionally about that other, simpler booklife.

But Fred Powell, owner of Main Street Books in Frostburg, Md., and his wife Kathy are actually living the dream this month. Shortly after the holidays, they arrived in Wigtown, Scotland's National Book Town, to assume temporary proprietorship of the Open Book, a unique Air BnB option that offers a "bookshop holiday/residency experience" running a used bookshop.

Sponsored by the Wigtown Festival, the program allows guests to "play-bookshop for a week or two. We'll give you your very own bookshop, and apartment above, supported by a team of friendly volunteers and bookshop sellers to make your trip as lovely as possible.... Residents will be expected to carry out all the normal duties of a bookseller including: opening/closing the shop during normal working hours, welcoming visitors, selling books, staffing, stocking, creating awesome window displays and basically putting your own stamp on the shop."

But why, you may wonder, would a professional bookseller be tempted to pay for the privilege of being... an amateur bookseller?

Powell recently told me he "first learned of the Open Book from a story I read in Shelf Awareness probably two years ago. A recently retired man in publishing wrote about his stay in the book shop. I investigated the idea with Kathy, my wife, and my bookstore staff--who are running my store in Frostburg while I run the Open Book in Wigtown. With both my wife's academic calendar--she teaches in the Social Work Department at Frostburg State University--and the book store schedule, January 2017 looked to be the best time to come to Scotland. I think I signed up for this adventure about a year and a half ahead of my arrival."

The Wigtown Book Festival organization owns and stocks the bookshop with second-hand titles and guests provide the labor. "You sign on for your week or two through Airbnb," Powell noted. "You do pay for staying in the upstairs apartment but it is minimal. I was responsible for all the arrangements to arrive in Wigtown from flights, rental car and hotel. We came early and spent five days in Edinburgh and two days along the coast in Ayr and Stranraer before our arrival in Scotland's Book Town. All together I will be away from my store for almost a month."

He noted that upon arrival, they were met by a festival volunteer who showed them the shop and apartment. "There are no rules of operation," Powell said. "We set our own hours and days for opening. In our first week--open for four days--we had 49 customers and sold 18 books. Mysteries and gardening titles made up the majority of the sales. Most of our day is spent in conversation with customers as we tell them the story of how we came to be in this used book shop in South West Scotland and they tell us about themselves. Wigtown is a village of 1,000 residents, so you start to recognize faces very quickly from the bookshop or from the local cafe. Just this minute, a local dropped off some shortbread to go with our coffee and thanked us for being 'the brave people who came to Wigtown in January.' "

My earlier question--Why would a professional bookseller be tempted to pay for the privilege of being an amateur bookseller?--was answered eloquently by Powell: "My motivation for coming to the Open Book is twofold. One is to spend time in a country where the common language for both me and the Scots is books. Secondly, I am at a point in my bookselling career--having just celebrated my store's 27th anniversary--that I need to get excited about the book world again and start learning new ideas to bring back to my store in Western Maryland. In just the first week, both of my motivations are being met."

At the end of our exchange, Powell did precisely what any self-respecting bookseller would do. He recommended a book: Three Things You Need to Know About Rockets: A Real-Life Scottish Fairy Tale, Jessica Fox's 2013 memoir chronicling her journey from being a NASA employee in Los Angeles to moving to Scotland and living in a used bookshop.


Words to live by: On the Open Book's blog, Kathy Powell's first post (January 3) noted that the "flat is very spacious and the book shop well stocked. We were planning on opening tomorrow at 10 a.m. for after-holiday sales, but we already had our first customers today while we were getting settled in the shop. Our first sale was one mystery book for £1.5. Bookselling is not bookselling is not bookselling! Every shop is different and all customers are not alike."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2916


Have You Heard? Have You Seen? Have You Read?

John Berger (photo: Ji-Elle)

These questions are an integral part of my New Year's resolution. They look forward. They engage. They prompt both replies and infinite follow-up "Have you...?" questions from others.

Why these in particular? Maybe because the second day of 2017 began so badly, with news of John Berger's death. His writing and art have been in my life for a long, long time. In November, I'd written a column to celebrate his 90th birthday. Just after Christmas, I watched the new documentary film The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger. He had an extraordinary life by any measure, but his death still hit me hard.

On Monday, Simon McBurney, the actor, director and founder of British theater company Complicite, tweeted: "Listener, grinder of lenses, poet, painter, seer. My Guide. Philosopher. Friend. John Berger left us this morning. Now you are everywhere."

In a 2014 BBC Radio interview, McBurney spoke of how Berger's And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos had influenced his theatrical work with ideas of connection, memory, narrative and mortality, noting that Berger "digs in the vulnerable earth of human experience, and joins the fragments he uncovers with an eye as sure as an astronomer, a gesture as gentle as a carpenter."

This particular new year demands a sensory adjustment. As it happens, I just had one. On Wednesday night, I saw McBurney's extraordinary new play The Encounter on Broadway. In his New York Times review, Ben Brantley wrote: "The great privilege of being there, in person, to witness The Encounter comes from seeing a performer, in the sweaty flesh, and a team of technicians working hard to put on a show that somehow transcends what they're doing in plain view.... Let yourself go, if you dare, and you enter a world beyond borders of regimented thoughts and senses, one in which the ear sees more than the eye."

I can't begin to capture the magical blend of visual and aural effects McBurney employs to re-imagine Petru Popescu's nonfiction book Amazon Beaming, which recounts the adventures (much too tame a word) of Loren McIntyre, an American photographer who became lost in a remote area of Brazilian rainforest in 1969 and experienced a life-altering encounter with the Mayoruna tribe. (To note that the audience wore headphones during the performance is just a hint at the immersive nature of McBurney's staging of the tale.)

Have you seen it? Have you heard it? Have you read it?

Maybe those are just questions that lead to this one: Have you read A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel by British artist Tom Philips? This book has been following me around for awhile. I've written about it several times, including a brief Tin House essay in 2004, and a 2012 Shelf column after the fifth edition of this ever-evolving art/fiction/poetry/time travel project was published. 

Next week, the sixth and final edition of A Humument will be released by Thames and Hudson here. I'll buy that one, too, and shelve it next to my volumes two, four and five. They are as similar and unique as siblings.

For the past 50 years, Phillips has been acquiring used copies of W.H. Mallock's overheated Victorian novel A Human Document and "treating" the pages with his art while leaving selected words from the original text exposed. In the process, he has become Mallock's consummate and all-consuming reader by creating an illustrated narrative in verse that merges the contemporary with the 19th century.

Have you heard that Phillips was recently named to the panel of judges for the 2017 Man Booker Prize, along with Colin Thubron, Sarah Hall, Lila Azam Zanganeh and chair Baroness Lola Young? The Guardian introduced Phillips as "a polymath who has painted Iris Murdoch, collaborated with film-maker Peter Greenway on a TV series based on Dante's Inferno and designed album covers for Brian Eno and King Crimson--[He] made his literary name with collage works, beginning with his cult 1970 classic, A Humument."

I think he's an excellent choice. A love for words and literature infuses his art ("After Henry James," "Curriculum Vitae," "Samuel Beckett," "A TV Dante"). Phillips, who read English Literature and Anglo Saxon at St Catherine's College, Oxford, has observed that he loves "the smell of a library and the feel of books. Most of all I love the serendipity and the aleatory quirks of browsing.... Every book, however unpromising, will turn out to have its day."

Have you heard (and seen) him discuss A Humument in a recent video?

Writing about the new edition, Allison Meier noted: "Yet one of the last challenges of this edition related to Mallock himself. Phillips finally tracked down an image of his grave, and it's his name carved in its stone that concludes the ultimate edition of A Humument. Over the tomb wind these concluding words that give tribute to their long posthumous collaboration: 'by whose/ bones my bones/ my best,/ perpetuate/ your grave in mine fused/ page/ for/ page.' "

Which leads me back to John Berger. "Now you are everywhere," McBurney wrote on Monday. And from the stage of the Golden Theatre Wednesday night, he whispered in our ears, with the telepathic voice of a Mayurama headman, "Some of us are friends."

Good words... for a new year. As I said at the beginning, I've decided to "celebrate" the start of 2017 with questions instead of resolutions. Have you heard Kamasi Washington's album The Epic? Have you seen Jim Jarmusch's film Paterson? Have you read Will Schwalbe's Books for Living?

Go ahead, ask me questions.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2911


Digital Ghost of a Bookseller's Christmas Past

Dec. 17, 2005
6 p.m.: Still standing, but I wobbled occasionally today. Just heard a customer say: "I want to get a book for my uncle. Have you read this (holds up copy of Bad Dog)? He doesn't have a dog, but..."

Dec. 23, 2016
I posted the previous entry on my then year-old blog, Fresh Eyes: A Booksellers Journal, during my final holiday season rush as a full-time bookseller at the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vt. As that Christmas week began, I had decided to chronicle life on the hectic sales floor with a series of entries headlined "Where the Holidays Take Me: Counting Down."

Now, 11 years later, I'm feeling a little nostalgic. There are, I suspect, two primary catalysts for this. Last June, I celebrated my 10th year as an editor at Shelf Awareness, and in September I attended a dinner marking the Northshire's 40th anniversary. As I considered what I might write about for the final column of 2016, I kept coming back to those two signature events. That led me to explore ancient online archives in search of what I might have been thinking during Christmas week 2005, as I transitioned out of one job and into, after a few stumbles, my new home at Shelf Awareness.

Northshire Bookstore: Inspiration for Every Age was published in September by Shires Press to commemorate the bookshop's 40th anniversary. A considerably younger version of this column's author is pictured above.

And I did find something. In the spirit of the season, here are a few excerpts from my own Digital Ghost of Bookseller Christmas Past:

Dec. 16, 2005
3:13 p.m.: The snow is still falling, but many brave souls have fired up the ol' SUVs and braved their way down the mountain to the bookshop. I don't sense true gifting desperation yet. Because Christmas falls on a Sunday this year, there is still a kind of delusional confidence exhibited by shoppers today because they think they have more time left than they actually do. I suspect the shopping window will be narrow this afternoon and will close with a thud when darkness descends in an hour or so. This town has a medieval relationship with the night. The streets empty as the skies darken.

Dec. 17, 2005
1 p.m.: Wow. three-and-a-half hours have flashed by since my last entry. Guess it's busy, huh? It's hard not to be amazed at the STUFF people buy for holiday gifts. Books, sure, but also games and calendars and toys (TOYS! in fact, heaps and mountains of toys) and neckties and computer games and DVDs and CDs and... Well, let's just say the feeding frenzy is at optimum level today thus far. I sometimes think that my time here has turned Christmas into a spectator sport for me. You can only watch so much of this (with full realization that it's what keeps this store in business) without questioning your own approach to what George Carlin calls, and I paraphrase, this great old pagan holiday.

Dec. 21, 2005
7:28 p.m.: I'm back home after a full shift at the bookstore, which seems like a minor miracle given how sick I was a couple of days ago. We were VERRRRYYY busy today, the genuine holiday gift madness kicking in full steam. I never stopped moving from one task to another, my colleagues reminding me again and again about my "lame duck" status. Funny.

Dec. 22, 2005
8 a.m.: I will be a Northshire Bookstore frontline bookseller for three more days. People ask me what I'm going to call myself in my new venture, Fresh Eyes Now. It's a logical question. For a while, I used the dreaded word "consultant," but lately I've been reverting to a more accurate description: "Bookseller." That is what I will be in my new life. It's probably what I will be until I croak.... During my years at this bookshop, I've had no personal goal bigger than to elevate the visibility of the frontline bookseller, and I was doing this long, long before I ever considered writing about it in a venue like this blog...

Dec. 23, 2005
Wow! Details tomorrow.

Dec. 24, 2005
4:30 p.m.: It's over. We won.

Dec. 25, 2005
Christmas morning. The day after my last day as a full-time frontline bookseller at the Northshire. It's been an incredibly busy week, the pace increasing dramatically as the weekend approached and reaching hyper-warp drive proportions yesterday. So many people buying so much stuff (some of the stuff even included books, thankfully) and heaping these piles of stuff on one of our eight checkout counters....

I need a week to heal and rest, so this will be my last post until the new year. Thanks to everyone who has been so supportive of the blog and my new venture, Fresh Eyes Now. Despite my Scrooge-like relationship with the season (forged from more than 30 years of retail experience), I do hope your holidays are safe and joyful, and I'll see you next year.

Dec. 23, 2016
...and to all a good night.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2907


A Christmas Carol: The Book... 'to Begin With'

Marley was dead: to begin with.

It is one of my favorite opening lines in literature, though I hadn't read the classic holiday season tale by Charles Dickens in years, perhaps decades. Recently, however, I was inspired to revisit his world by 1) the publication last month of the fascinating A Christmas Carol: The Original Manuscript Edition (Norton), with a foreword by Colm Tóibín; and 2) a visit to the Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan last week, where the treasure itself--the one-of-a-kind manuscript--is displayed every year in Pierpont Morgan's paradisiacal library.

I'll admit, however, that my bookseller's soul was also touched (perhaps just a little Scrooge-like) when I learned about the Dickensian path this unique document took to reach its hallowed place under glass, near a monumental fireplace tastefully decorated with green garland and red ribbon. In his introduction to the new facsimile edition, Declan Kiely chronicles the book's journey to its recent meeting with me (well, not quite that detailed) as I sat for a long time on a cushioned bench, communing (not too strong a word, as it turned out) with an open book, its legacy and its ghosts.

After the printers had done their work in 1843, Dickens arranged for the loose manuscript pages to be bound in red morocco as a gift for his solicitor, friend and creditor Thomas Mitton. Five years after the author's death, in 1875, Mitton sold the manuscript for £50 (about $62) to Francis Harvey, a London bookseller who quickly found an eager buyer in Henry George Churchill, a private collector. Churchill decided to sell it in 1882 to a bookseller in Birmingham, where "crowds reportedly gathered there for an opportunity to view the manuscript before it was sold for £200 to the London booksellers Robson and Kerslake," Kiely writes. Soon after, Stuart M. Samuel purchased it for £300 as an investment, then he sold it in 1890 to London booksellers J. Pearson & Co. for £1,000. 

And now the retail plot reaches its final chapter. Sometime before 1900, Pierpont Morgan acquired the manuscript from Pearson. After his death in 1913, he bequeathed it to J.P. Morgan Jr., who subsequently established the Morgan Library in his father's honor.

On December 12, 1923, the New York Times reported: "Among the various kinds of riches in the Morgan Library on East Thirty-sixth Street, there is, kept very carefully, a particular treasure. It is not very old and it is not at all beautiful, but it is a very significant possession, for which its owner paid a high price, and on which he sets a high value. It is written in a well-known, scratchy hand--on sheets of yellowing paper, the manuscript of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol....

"Mr. Morgan's original manuscript is, of course, a well-nigh priceless treasure. And it is so less because it is the writing of a great work by a great novelist than because it is, in its genuineness and its intimacy, something that for nearly three-quarters of a century has been part of the thought of Christmas cheer, and that throughout the English-speaking world men and women and little children have loved."

As I communed in the library, I thought about this book as both a singular art object as well as the original container for a story that has been told worldwide for nearly two centuries, spawning myriad editions, illustrations and film/TV/stage adaptations. A Christmas Carol is a fundamental tale we share again and again, hoping to learn something new, or at least to remind ourselves of an important lesson about being human that seemed so obvious when we were children.

We... tend to forget.

The Morgan displays its bound manuscript open to just a single page. This year it is the end of Stave I. After his frightening encounter with Jacob Marley's ghost and the promise of more terrors to come, Scrooge watches the specter float away to join "the mournful dirge" outside. (Apparently "dirge" was not a frightening enough word for Dickens. You can see his insertion of the adjective "mournful" on the page.) Scrooge looks out of his bedroom window and sees:

The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley's Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.

When the vision ceases, Scrooge attempts to say 'Humbug!' but stops at the first syllable. His redemptive journey has begun.

In a foreword to the facsimile edition, Colm Tóibín observes: "The word dream has been transformed, has been taken from its dark, cold, lonely, fearful place and, instead of being a watchword for frightful imaginings, filled with mockery and unbearable visions, has come to mean an opening of the self, a way of reimagining the world. And so, with that change, from nightmare to sweet reality, from miserliness to giving, from misery to merriness, Christmas came into being. Courtesy of Dickens, we live in its shadow still and on one cheery, idealized day of the year, as we force Scrooge to appear as merely a distant warning to us all, we become the happy, jolly Cratchits."

'Tis that season: to begin with.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2902

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