Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Bookstores in the good old days

Amanda had a post on Mad Genius Club today complaining about the book-unfriendly layout of a new Barnes and Noble and speculating that the chain's troubles may be as simple as the fact that they're more interested in selling gifts, doodads, Nooks, coffee, and music than in books.

She may be right... but her complaint revived memories of some notoriously customer-unfriendly bookstores of the past that survived despite the habit of beating their customers over the head if they tried to find a book and redoubling the beatings if we actually tried to buy said book.

Time was when I never went to Paris for longer than one night without a good browse at Shakespeare & Company, even though buying anything meant navigating through a multi-stop checkout path which they kept trying to explain to me in TGV (Tres Grande Vitesse, like the trains) French. I read French sort of okay, though slowly. I can say stuff in French if I've been in France for a couple of days, so it starts coming back, and as long as it's nothing too complicated. I cannot understand a native speaker of French in full spate; they might as well be saying "Oh la la la la la la la!" (Which, I was charmed to discover, French sports announcers really do say when something exciting happens in the soccer game.)

Anyway... moving on to English bookstores... the Foyle's at Charing Cross Road was an obligatory London stop. I spent many happy hours browsing in obscure departments... and some less happy hours looking for specific books and trying to pay for my finds. To begin with, there was the three-line checkout system, which to the best of my memory plagued Shakespeare & Co., Waterstone's, Foyle's, and probably every other bookstore on that side of the Atlantic. Under this system you stand in line once to hand over your book and receive a slip of paper bearing the price. At the second window (which is probably at the other end of the store, if not on a different floor as well) you fork over the price tag and the requisite cash, and receive in return something like a cloakroom ticket. If you can find the line for handing over cloakroom tickets, and stand in it long enough, you will eventually receive your book. Probably neatly wrapped in brown paper which you will wound the sales staff's feelings by ripping off so that you can read the book. It never occurred to them you would want to do that!

Then there was the time I found a forgotten book of reproduction maps of Georgian London in a corner on the fourth floor. There was no price printed on the flyleaf and any price sticker had long since shriveled and fallen off. There was a bit of a scene at the first window in the payment sequence, with a clerk refusing to sell me the book because he couldn't figure out how much to charge, and me clutching the maps and saying between my teeth, "Make me an offer." Somehow, I have no idea how, I got out of there with that book and its companion volumes (Elizabethan and Regency London, IIRC); suggesting that the Foyle's of that day still had some vague philosophy about pleasing the customer, even if they weren't very good at implementing it.

But my most searing memory concerns the time I was up in London for the day from the Dorsetshire village where we were staying, having been commissioned by my husband to get him more naval fiction by an author whose name he had carefully written out for me. The book he liked so much had been in paperback, so I charged happily into the serried ranks of paperback novels...

... and discovered that Foyle's arranged their paperback fiction not alphabetically by author, like every other bookstore in the known world, but alphabetically by publisher. Why? Because it made life easier for the stock clerks who had to unpack boxes of incoming books. And no, they had no way of cross-referencing to find out who published a given author, at least not one they were willing to share with a stray American.

And yet all these businesses survived.

It's really hard to depress the desire of book addicts to buy books. Publishers and booksellers have been working really hard on this problem for a long time. I hope they're grateful to Amazon for relieving them of their burden.


  1. Oh my god you've captured the horror that was Foyle's to perfection. Though to be fair, not as funny though, about twenty years ago it became easier to buy books there.

    I take it for granted that I have access to bookstores, after all I live in London, but the truth again is sad. I hardly ever go down Charing Cross Road anymore. What secondhand bookstores that remain are no longer dens of delight, but icons of a past where the customer was a nuisance. One who came to buy the precious's.

    The only bookshop I now go to regularly is Forbidden Planet, and the book section while expansive is only a part of a greater whole selling merchandise. But there again I'm getting old, and becoming more of a curmudgeon when it comes to life and what pleases me.

    1. And it's probably been twenty years since I visited Foyle's. Our last ten years of pleasure travel took us to other parts of the world, and now I don't travel. A pity - I'd have enjoyed seeing what Foyle's is like when they're actually trying to sell books.

      Those Charing Cross Road used bookstores are probably less rewarding to browse in now as more and more forgotten books become available again, thanks to reprints and Amazon. I was actually rather put out to discover that one of my treasured finds from there is available as an e-book now. Must be the Gollum in me; I rather liked thinking I was the only person who owned The Kafirs of the Hindu Kush.


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