They don’t feel the same, these new books. No craftsmanship and loving touches, no gilt edges or risk of foxing. Progress isn’t always a good thing, is it?
When my father had this shop, there was a delicious musty air to the place. Sunbeams cut across the shelves and my brother and I used to open the Welsh bible then slam it shut, very fast, to see the dancing dust whorl up and out, sparking in the light. Father would chuckle but Mother would tut and hurry us off upstairs for bread and butter or bread and jam, but never both. It was her family bible and she’d say her ancestors could feel the slamming though their bones.
The main stock was new but Father’s favourite section was ‘Pre-Loved’ which he kept in a corner near the back of the shop. Anyone could browse the main shelves but Father insisted on hovering behind anyone looking at his special selection. Whenever he sold one of these books he would handle it with respect, giving it a dignity of its own. He would stroke the cover, open the pages and inspect the index or chapter list, then close it and smile as if he were giving away one of his children. Sometimes I thought he might find that easier.
I never intended working here to be anything other than a Saturday job, to pay for trips to the cinema and American Tan tights so I could be like the other girls. My plan was to become a nurse, maybe for children. I dreamt of working in Great Ormond Street, starting a brilliant career and escaping Sheffield bookselling in one step. I’d probably marry a handsome doctor, have two beautiful children and live a rich and fulfilling life in a London suburb. But things don’t always turn out as you intend.
Mother developed MS and only Father could do for her. On her good days he could spend hours in the shop, chatting with customers and suggesting holiday reading for them, advising on books suitable for learning new things and nodding ‘Good choice,’ to those who picked from his special shelves. When the pain got too much for her, he spent whole days beside her bed, holding her hand and reading to her from whatever book he could find that might reach her. There was no question of leaving at that point. My brother had already left for university in Bristol so it was up to me help out. And it would only be for a while, then I could go nursing.
Mother lingered for far too long. In the end it was a relief that she went. A clichéd relief that nobody was proud of, but there it was. Then the big chains started eyeing us up for a takeover, so I couldn’t leave Father to deal with it alone. By then we’d modernized and even had some of our books on tables that customers could walk round all four sides of. The offers were good and I think Father would have sold up had Mother still needed him. With her gone he had nothing else to fill his day so we refused the initial amount and the two increases after that. We heard later that they had made offers on another shop close by and when they accepted, they decided to leave us alone.
Business got harder and harder and when Father retired I put in a little coffee shop. Only a few small tables and chairs that looked much more stylish than they were comfortable, so people didn’t stay too long reading the stock instead of buying it. I secured a small franchise agreement with a national coffee chain and we started doing takeouts which have been more popular than anything else we’ve tried. I think it’s being just past the bus stop and that new office complex opening just up the road. Rents are cheaper at this end of town.
Now I have to decide what to do next to keep us going. I’ve gone more specialized so that people looking for particular books will come to us and we have a growing reputation for political books. By that I mean left-wing books, I wouldn’t have any right-wing nonsense in here. I might have to get it in especially for my customers I suppose. You can’t turn things down these days. And I’ve expanded Father’s special collection into rare and antiquarian books of all kinds. My own favourites are first editions of early female writers but they don’t come through my hands very often.
Now people come in and ask about electronic books. I’ve looked into stocking e-readers but the mark-up isn’t good. You can get them in supermarkets these days and we couldn’t stock the range for customers to choose between more than one or two. I think it’s the e-books themselves we need to move into. I’m going to put links up on our website but it takes such a long time to load up each individual title. I don’t have the web design team of a large chain so I’m starting with the newest releases.
Father still comes in sometimes but he has to be fetched in by his helpers. I sit him at a table closest to his favourite shelf and he points at a volume that catches his eye. I fetch it and he opens it, checking the index and stroking the page. He slams the pages shut and dust dances in the light. I wonder if Mother can feel it in her bones.