When the Irish comedian Dylan Moran was interviewed on ABC radio last year as a precursor to his (now presumably mothballed) 2020 Australian stand-up tour, he said that what drew him to the lead role in the TV comedy Black Books was the idea of a bookshop proprietor who hates everyone who enters his establishment and doesn’t want to sell them any of his stock. The fawning ABC interviewer clearly agreed this was original absurdist theatre worthy of Camus or Beckett, but if either she or her guest had ever worked in a real bookshop, as I once did, they would know that it is very much the modus operandi of many. People who apply for jobs in bookshops tend to do so, after all, because they like reading. But you soon find out that while your work will give you ample opportunity to unpack, stack, price-gun and gift-wrap any number of books, for all but one hour of your working day, lesen ist verboten. Reading is strictly forbidden. And the fact that your customers can, by contrast, sample as much of the stock as they like without any obligation to buy – and may be provided with armchairs in which to do it – does not endear them to you. I’d only been on the floor a couple of weeks when the cheery helpfulness I’d exuded on Day One when responding to inquiries like ‘Do you have a book called Hamlet?’ had given way to muttering the name of the relevant aisle and pointing to it. And when, five minutes later, the same exhausted mother and sulking teenager returned empty-handed, it was all I could do, after leading them to the aforementioned aisle, pointing to the clearly labelled section heading, pointing to the equally clearly marked Shakespeare shelf and then extracting from it the boldly titled text in question, to stop myself saying ‘Would you like me to read this for you, too?’
You might think that the unstoppable rise of Amazon and Booktopia, especially in a time when people are fearful of leaving home, would have prompted the staff and proprietors of their independent high street competitors to be more welcoming. But this certainly hasn’t happened in the lower north shore bookshop I visited recently in search of Anthony Powell’s 12 novel series A Dance to the Music of Time. The shop in question being very small, and Powell’s magnum opus not being on any HSC syllabus, I was not surprised to find the titles absent from the three shelves dedicated to ‘Classic Fiction’ and approached the counter, ostensibly to place an order. Behind it sat the owner, an elderly red-faced harridan I have tangled with before, and whose loathing of and contempt for the general public – and especially men – is the stuff of local legend.
Recognising me as an old enemy, she tried not to acknowledge my presence, but when it became clear that I wasn’t going anywhere, and that the line behind me was becoming restive, she eventually looked up resentfully from her Saturday Paper. ‘I’d like to order a book,’ I said. ‘Author?’ she snapped. ‘Anthony Powell,’ I said, taking care to rhyme the surname with soul rather than towel, as is correct. She typed briefly. ‘There’s nothing by Anthony Pole,’ she said, triumphantly, ‘he must be out of print’. ‘I hardly think so,’ I said, ‘he’s one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century.’ ‘Well I’ve never heard of him,’ she said, and sat back in her chair as if to say ‘Game, set and match’.
Conscious that the people behind me were now listening intently – possibly in the hope of picking up tips for their own impending encounter with this dragon – I played my ace. ‘Are you sure you’re spelling his name correctly?’ I asked in a loud voice, and then enunciated the relevant letters two or three seconds apart, as if to a small child, as she typed. When her computer responded positively she could barely conceal her fury. ‘Which book do you want to order?’ she muttered, between gritted teeth. ‘Actually,’ I said, as if the thought had only just occurred, ‘I think I’ll do it online – much faster.’ Then I wandered back into the shop, and having made sure there were no cameras, moved her three copies of Dark Emu to the Modern Fiction section.
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