Friday 6 February 2009

Remembrance of things past.

It wasn’t always like this. Sitting in a nice warm office, tapping away at a PC, insouciantly dispatching books all over the civilised world and Milton Keynes. Once upon a time, before the Web was spun, I had to really earn my living. The hard way.

So let’s wind back ten years or so. Please find to follow: A Day in the Life of an Itinerant Bookseller.

Typically, it’s 8-30 on a damp Saturday morning, and I’m behind my regular pitch in Horsham Market Square outside the Old(e) Town Hall, trying to recover from both a five-o’clock start and the physical effort of heaving the worst part of a ton of assorted literature out of the van and lumping it onto a 70 foot run of stall space; then unpacking and arranging the lot into an attractive display. At least the pitches there are covered, which helps.

I must be a masochist. Books are uncompromisingly heavy. I usually carry about 30 banana boxes full plus some magazines, ephemera, prints, and sheet music, And not forgetting the kit – collapsible shelves, a trolley, lights, point-of-sale display stuff, wet weather protection, and so on. It’s a toss-up as to which will collapse first, my back or the van springs. Sadly, only one of these resources is renewable.

From an itinerant trader’s point of view, in addition to the Olympic Qualifying Standard weightlifting requirement, the main drawback with books as stock-in-trade is that to optimise sales they need displaying by subject, but in order to optimise precious van space they need to travel by size. This means that they all have to be re-sorted and re-arranged at each end of every day. It can take me the best part of two hours to unload and to set out the stall, although funnily enough I can usually whistle through the reverse process in half that time. Maybe I sell more than I think I do.

So I’m soaking up a coffee and a bacon butty, bent on getting what’s left of my breath back and waiting till the pump stops banging away like a steam hammer on Viagra and settles back into its normal comfortable fibrillating apology for a beat.

A few early birds cluster round the stall. I concentrate on fortifying the inner dealer and leave them to browse at their leisure and to approach me only when and if they want to. One can’t hard-sell books – the gung-ho “Have I gotta volume here for you Guvnor” approach will send the average browser scurrying off like a frightened meerkat. And my early birds buy a lot of worms, dropping in on me every week as they do, grubby fivers at the ready. I can usually reckon to have taken the exes and to be into profit after the first three or four customers.

A disembodied ‘Excuse me’ materialises, seemingly out of nowhere. I glance up, and manage to work out that it’s emanating from a plastic mac and rain hood about twenty feet to my right, lurking in front of the Bargain Basement end of the display. And it’s a plastic mac and rain hood sort of a voice. The sort that wears old-fashioned National Health specs with one side bit Sellotaped on, and keeps its ready cash in one of those squeeze-open leather pouch thingies.

“I’m looking for a book”.

Now – there are several possible snappy ripostes to this exposition of the overwhelmingly obvious, ranging from “When and where did you last see it?” through “A particular example perchance, or will any one do?” to “Sorry, this is a fruit and veg stall – we don’t do books.”

But he gave every appearance of having had a sense of humour bypass, so I swallowed all of these and raised an enquiring eyebrow. He sidled along the front of the stall and muttered, almost whispered, into my face. Gottim in one, specs-wise.

“It’s called ‘Journeys by Foot and on Horseback to Deserted Lepers in Siberia.’“ [Honest – I’m not making this up!]

By Katherine somebody, I think he said – by the time he’d got to the end of the title I was so mesmerised that I failed to take proper note of the author’s name.

I resisted an almost overwhelming temptation to enquire as to whether he'd like the hardback or paperback version. and shook my head, weakly.

"Catchy title. Can't say as I've ever had a copy, though. Not that I’ve noticed." And I’d have noticed. But I kept my professional smile pasted on, without letting it disintegrate into the fit of the giggles that I could feel gestating.

"Published in about 1880. It's out of print." He volunteered, disappointed, but helpful to a fault.

No! It never is! Fancy that! Stroll on! This tome must have been out of print for almost as long as a First Folio or a Gutenberg Bible. And probably sold almost as many copies.

"Yerss - well, it would be, I s'pose. The interesting ones always are."

He informed me that he’d been searching for the book for years, which snippet of autobiographical passementerie left me less than surprised, and insisted on my taking his phone number in case I found a copy. I probably still have it somewhere, in the unlikely event that this esoteric literary chef d’oeuvre should turn up. Details on a postcard, please, but don’t all rush.

He then went back to browsing through the morning’s offerings, culled a couple of cheap paperbacks from the Bargain Basement, handed over his 75p in coppers and 5p coin, (notch up another one, for the purse,) and continued on his way.

Meanwhile, there are by now more than a dozen potential nice little earners, heads down along the length of the stall. Time to play Spot the Customer. A fascinating game, this. Size up the browsers, and mark down, before talking to them, which ones will actually part with money. After years of practice, I can reckon to score in the high nineties, although just occasionally I do get it spectacularly wrong.

Four or five beards. For some reason they nearly always buy, do beards. Possibly both books and beards are a comfort thing. Or maybe chaps who don’t spend time shaving have more for reading. (The other dead cert customer, and easily the most productive, is your middle-aged, middle-class woman. But it’s a bit early for them – you rarely sight one before about 10-30. )

There’s a cheap suit, aluminium briefcase and rimless glasses. He’s meticulously conning every page of every book on the stall. He’ll be there for an hour or more, but won’t buy a thing – his type never do. So why bother? If he just wants a good read he’d be much more comfortable in the Library, especially on a miserable morning like this. Another one of Life’s Minor Mysteries, like (for instance) why does Tooting Bec Tube Station always have a freezing gale blowing through it, even if outdoors it’s 75 in the shade and dead calm, or why don’t banks and credit card companies put a wider signature strip on the backs of their cards, for all us flash Leos with bold handwriting .

But he helps keep the stall looking busy, so I leave him carry on undisturbed.

Omigod. Here’s my favourite anorak. Mid to late sixties – thin face – sharp red nose - graying sandy hair – clothes by Millet’s out of Oxfam – and almost certainly a retired pedagogue of the Grammar or Minor Public School calibre. Classics, at a guess. He tips up every week, and not only does he part with money, but he often brings me a couple of carriers full of his surplus-to-requirements, often including some rare out-of-print stuff which he sells me for sod-all and change. I must ask him about the Deserted Lepers – it’s just the sort of thing he’s likely to have.

Anyway - he’s a nice bloke, a good customer, and up for a considerable slice of my attention. The downside is that [a] he automatically assumes that I’ve read and can discuss every book on the stall, no matter how abstruse, and [b] given a smidgin of a chance, he can and will bore for England.

I wave him a cheery Good Morning and edge down to the other end of the stall, leaving him to browse undisturbed. I don’t feel up to a half-hour debate on the relative merits or otherwise of the Oxfordian and Baconian Heresies, or on whose translation of the Iliad is truer to the original.

Although we’d done that one the previous week, as it happens, and believe me, ploughing up my ‘O’ Level Greek after 45 fallow years had proved a strain. Then we’d conversed for a while on the subject of whether Alvin Toffler’s ‘Future Shock’ still stood up given 30-odd years of hindsight.

(For the record, we ended up awarding Alexander Pope an alpha, and Alvin a beta-minus.)

A couple of old dears, complete with shopping trolleys and Daily Mirror opinions, are rummaging through my sole box of fiction. You’ll only get money out of them in the unlikely event that you’ve got a Catherine Cookson, a Barbara Taylor Bradford, or something else of that genre they haven’t read. As long as it’s in paperback, nice and thick, and under a quid. And as long as you can tell them what it’s about – God forbid they should take any risks.

No luck today, anyway. They drift off, chattering noisily.

I notice another regular approaching. And I almost wish she wasn’t. Regular or approaching. New Woman. Mid thirties, power dressed, Attitude. She prowls up and down the length of the stall, barking into her mobile, shoving all obstacles, human or otherwise, out of her way, grabbing book after hapless book, invariably the newest, shiniest or best condition examples, from my carefully organised display or even out of her fellow-reader’s hands, cracking them open, scanning a page, sniffing, and tossing each rejected volume higgledy-piggledy back onto the stall.

She does buy, and isn’t fazed by price –she’ll happily lash out £15 - £20 on a book if it interests her, (or, and more likely, if it goes with her d├ęcor or her self-image) but whereas the transaction, indeed the relationship, between reader and bookseller is normally a gentle one, this Rottweiler bitch will attempt to make a confrontation out of anything. Worse, she invades the noiseless tenor of my ways and sours my mood, wrecks my display and endangers my crunchiest stock.

A few minutes later, having pillaged along the entire length of the stall, leaving chaos reigning in her wake, she reaches me, several glossy coffee table books wedged under her mobile-wielding arm. I brace myself for the inevitable haggling session, to which I have no particular objection as a rule, but today her timing isn’t that good. There are several customers within earshot, and unlike predatory antiques hunters, most book-buyers don’t expect to beat you down, and stump up the marked price like lambs, bless ‘em. The last thing I want is her giving them ideas.

She slings a capacious briefcase-stroke-handbag onto the stall, hoicks a book out of it with her unencumbered hand, and waves it under my nose, temporarily breaking the flow of her mobile diatribe.

“You sold me this last week.” No I didn’t – she chose it and bought it entirely without my aid and assistance.

“I paid you £14.50 for it….” No she didn’t – it was priced @ £14.50, but she beat me down to about a tenner on a Byzantine deal involving several volumes, some unframed prints she wanted for her new office, the picture framing bloke on the pitch opposite, and something belonging to Steph, the girl on the up-market repro stall behind mine. I took her money and we divvied it out later.

“…. and it’s absolute bloody rubbish” . No it isn’t – it’s a universally recognised benchmark work on the subject, if a tad technical, which can be a drawback if one only buys books because one thinks the pretty graphics on the covers might impress one’s friends or clients, and one has to have absorbed enough of the contents to ginger up the small talk or fend off questions.

“It’s total crap. Easily the worst book I’ve ever read. And so what are you going to do about it?” And without waiting for a reply, continues giving the poor bugger on the other end of her phone a hard time.

“I’m not going to do anything about it, sweetheart.” (I always do the term of endearment number on her type – it really pisses them off.) “I’m sorry you didn’t like it, but I only flog ‘em, I don’t write ‘em.”

She sniffs the scent of battle, which demands her undivided attention, so she snarls “I’ll Speak to You Later, and I Bloody Well Want Answers!!” into the phone, hangs up, and eyeballs me.

“That’s not damn well good enough. I have rights here. I want my money back.”

This calls for some quick thinking. As far as rights go, she hasn’t got any. After 40 years dealing with the General Public, God Bless ‘em, I know all about rights, theirs and mine. And she’s a pain in the butt. But OK, a pain in the butt that has been known to drop next week’s Tesco’s tribute into my lap. So while she has no right to a refund, and no chance of getting one even if she had, in truth I’ve no particular objection to taking the book back and giving her a credit against future purchases, even though the handsome dust jacket is by now on the missing list, the spine’s cracked, and by the state of the wretched thing she’s been reading it in the bath.

Beckoning to her to follow. I walk along to the end of the stall, out of earshot of other potential and more innocent sources of income. “Let’s have a look at what you’ve picked out, and I’ll see if I can do anything.”

We go through her selection. Adds up to £65. On a straight haggle she’d reckon to get the lot for a level £50, and I’d be more than happy with that, so she wouldn’t get much more than a pro-forma argument. But let’s try it on a bit, for the hell of it. I can always submit gracefully, and blush all the way to the bank. I fire the opening shot.

“ I never allow more than half price on returns, but seeing as how it’s you, I’ll take that one back and knock a tenner off this lot in exchange. Deal?“

Fortune sometimes favours chutzpah. At that moment, her mobile rang, and she recognised the imperative to impose her will on some other poor sod. “OK – done deal” she said quickly, fiddling in her purse and counting me out five new tenners and a fiver. I trousered the cash, stuffed her purchases into one of Tesco’s finest, and smiled sweetly at her as she marched off in the direction of the Carfax, firing off a further quiverful of expletives-deleted into the tender care of One-2-One. Then I re-priced the battered prodigal at £7, and put it back on the stall. With a bit of luck somebody’ll buy it, but even if they don’t, the worst way I’m three quid light on one side of the balance sheet, and the best way I’m fifteen ahead on the other. I can live with that.

A few minutes repairing the damage to the display and filling the gaps, and then it’s back to Spot-the-Punter. A couple of couples; one pair browsing the books, the other going through the sheet music.

Couples are difficult to assess – whether they buy seems to depend on which is the dominant partner – if it’s the man they’ll quite likely jolly each other into buying everything that catches their attention, but if it’s the woman they’ll talk each other out of buying anything at all except the one slim volume she might happen to want.

Don’t ask me why – I’m still reading through the History section, and haven’t got round to Psychology yet.

The first couple have kept hold of 2 or 3 fairly serious books, which is a good sign, they’re still looking, which is another, and they’re laughing, which is probably the clincher. But no – all at once they look at each other, dump their selection back onto the stall, and saunter off, arm in arm, without catching my eye. Funny – I could have sworn………

No matter. Suddenly I have a line of people clutching books and waving money, so I go into cash-and-wrap mode for a few minutes. Last in line is the sheet music couple. He’s doing the carrying, she’s doing the talking. A cultured, nicely modulated, sexy voice like blued steel dipped in honey.

“You’re asking a lot for your music – does it really fetch that much?” Uh-oh – here we go again.

“Well - yes it does – but don’t worry - I can do you a fairly good quantity discount on that lot. Let’s have a look.”

He dumps a 6 inch high pile of Classic FM’s raw material in front of me, and I riffle through it and start to work out a total. She pipes up again, interrupting the flow of my mental arithmetic.

“We’ve got boxes and boxes of music at home that we no longer need – might you be interested in buying it? “ You can see her visualising three weeks in Tuscany on what she thinks will be the proceeds.

A tricky one, this. While I do achieve good prices for old sheet music, possibly because I’m one of the few people to stock it, there are two considerations. First of all it comes in for nothing, as a bonus included with the parcels of books that I buy anyway, and secondly, I end up with far more than I can possibly sell. Even if I were to reduce the prices, I couldn’t shift any more, or worse, I’d have to carry twice as much to achieve the same turnover. So the residuum builds up in the garage, and every so often a space crisis threatens. At which point I ring one of our local schools, who are only too delighted to come and collect the surplus. Phil as travelling philanthropist. This lets me bask in the warm glow of a self-nominated Good Citizenship Award, and saves me time and money running a vanload to the tip. These two benefits not necessarily in order of significance.

So the last thing I need is to pay out hard cash, especially as they will expect some relationship between a buying and a selling price. But I can’t tell them that, because any music I manage to sell them will be clear profit, and less tonnage to carry home, so I don’t want to upset them. Fudge it, Uncle Phil.

“Well yes, in theory, but not at the moment. I bought a vanful last week from the estate of an old lady who used to play second violin for the LSO, and until I’ve shifted some of that I’ve no need for any more. But I’m here every week, so keep asking. And I’ll tell you what – I haven’t even sorted through it all yet, so tell me what you’re looking for, and I’ll try and bring you a fresh selection next week”

This seems to mollify her, for the moment. She nods, understandingly. Back to the maths. What they’ve selected comes to nearly £75, so I offer them a generous 30% discount, unasked. Stuffing bundles of notes into the back pocket is less strain on the lower lumbar than lumping boxes of notes into the back of the van, I find.

He writes me out a cheque, I start stuffing carrier bags, we get to chatting in general terms about their musical requirements, and I promise to do my best to fill them the following week. Then to let myself off the hook, purchase-wise, I suggest the school idea.. They think this a brilliant wheeze. Positive re-cycling, like a musical bottle-bank. Local Benefactors. Even more kudos than Tuscany. So everybody’s happy, except possibly Robinson Minor in Form IVa of the local Grammar, who’ll be forced to plough for hours through their largesse on whichever musical instrument his upwardly mobile parents have inflicted on him, when he’d rather be out playing footie with his mates. But he doesn’t know that yet.

Time for me to re-jig the display again.

It’s notable how rarely people bother to replace books exactly where they found them. Half end up back to front, another third upside down, half of the rest manage both, five per cent get slung back any old how, and the remaining few end up where they started. Maybe. So by now the stall looks like a tip.

The tidying up takes longer than expected, because I get cornered by the schoolmaster, who’s dug out one of Laurens van der Post’s turgid tomes. This leads us into a fascinating if somewhat one-sided discussion as to whether the theories of Madam Blavatsky can be reconciled with Rudolf Steiner’s Theosophy of the Rosicrucians, this knotty problem served with a side order of Sir James Frazer and a dollop of Radakrishnan’s Indian Philosophy. And yes – I have actually ploughed through all these, but not lately, and never again please God, so that after five minutes of this intellectual stodge my eyes are glazing over and my recall module is in overload. I’m sure the guy on the fruit and veg stall doesn’t have these problems. Although knowing Mr Chips here, he probably gets inveigled into debates on the implications of EC regulations for the straightness or otherwise of cucumbers, the social dilemmas caused by recent advances on the hybrid tomato front, and whether avocados have souls.

I escape, because somebody down the other end of the stall needs my attention, and on the way I gather up the books left on the stall by the couple who’d disappeared earlier. I don’t know why, but I didn’t re-display them, I put them round the back of the stall out of sight.

Then I bribe Steph to nip down to the caff for refills all round. This costs me a cuppa, a Danish and five minutes looking after her stall, but I don’t mind. We do it turn and turn about. Market folk are great like that – we all babysit for each other when the occasion demands it.

So I’m standing with my back to my stall, watching hers - her stock poses more of a security risk than mine, when out of the corner of my eye I notice the male half of the couple who’d done a runner. He was almost frantically searching along the length of my stall, and it wasn’t difficult to guess what he was looking for. I turned round and held up the hidden books.

“Looking for these, by any chance”.?

The relief on his face was palpable. “Thank God for that.” He grinned at me. “I thought you’d sold them, and She-Who-Must-Be-Indulged has finally made up her mind she wants ‘em. It’d have been Cold Tongue Pie at home for a week, if you had.”

Funny – she hadn’t looked that fierce. I lied a little, but only a little.

“I knew you’d be back, somehow, so I put them aside. All part of the service. That’ll be fourteen pounds fifty.” He paid up like a lamb, grinned conspiratorially at me again, and went merrily on his daily round, a happy bunny.

Oops – Bore Alert! I see my schoolmaster approaching. Evasive action needed. Quick! Where’s my mobile? I grab it, and fake what is going to be a long drawn out call, interjecting “really”s and “I see”s and suchlike into the dead instrument. He shows me a couple of books, including the van der Post, I raise 4 fingers, he gives me £4 in coin, I hand him a carrier bag, he packs his purchases into it, we wave at each other – I break off my imaginary conversation long enough to mouth “ thanks - see you next week” at him, and that’s that. Another crisis averted.

And so it goes on. By the end of the day I’ll have taken a fair bit, three-quarters of which is profit. But this is hardly Easy Street – if I take into account expenses, and the time spent buying, loading, sorting, pricing, driving to the market and back, and so on, I’m probably on less than a fiver an hour. Or looking it another way, something like a couple of quid per box per journey into and out of the van.

These days, thanks to the Internet, life is easier, especially on my elderly back, but somehow it’s nothing like as much fun. It was a tough old life, selling books in the market, but I miss it, in a funny sort of way.