Martin Latham on the Alchemy of Bookselling

Posted on 2nd September 2020 by Anna Orhanen

As entertaining as it is erudite, The Bookseller's Tale by Waterstones' very own Martin Latham, the manager of our Canterbury store, is a captivating perusal of bibliophilia, readers and the bookselling profession through the prism of his 36-year career. In this exclusive piece, Latham reflects on the role of the bookshop in our time, and how special the encounters in these spaces of unihibited discovery can be.

The Alchemical Bookshop 

My wife just bought an ironing board for £70. The previous one, I confessed after she subjected me to a frankly Stasi-level interrogation, had indeed broken because of me letting it slide down the cellar stairs on its own after use, repeatedly. This broken veteran of a board had only cost £20. What did we get for £70? A ratchet which remembered your ideal ironing height, and wheels on the front bracket, enabling me in future years, upon putting the device away, to feel like one of those crucifixion re-enacters with their wheelie-crucifixes.

One of the lovely things about the bookselling sector of retail is that such crazy expenditure is not possible. Booksellers have been selling stories for millennia and – a hard thing to explain to an alien I think – for the last 500 years we have sold a piece of tech, the printed book, which has not really changed, at all. It is even having a resurgence, as the aesthetic desire to touch, feel and smell books reasserts itself and the 2D e-reader loses its novelty-glamour.

I have been selling books for 36 years, and even when I became a manager I kept my desk on the shopfloor to keep talking with customers. Now, having been out of a bookshop for months, I appreciate those conversations more than ever. 

An editor at one of the big four publishing conglomerates tells me that he has only read books from his company over the last several years. Poor man. Booksellers, on the other hand, see the full panoply of publishing. Thanks to customers and a sort of cultural osmosis, we get a whiff of the next Ferrante or colouring book craze. My art buyer Paul once insisted on putting odd little postcard books on display. They sold well; this was way before Instagram and Facebook. Now, instead of saying “who is this Banksy bloke anyway isn’t graffiti illegal anyway”, I wish I had bulk bought those now-rare books. Manga was the same, ordered by Japanese students and puzzling the book classifiers, I remember giving it three shelves. Now I have twenty shelves of it and a major British Library exhibition celebrated it in 2019.

Only today, as a customer bought Solaris by Stanislav Lem and I airily said it was meant to be wonderful, she said “oh yes, I’m getting this for a friend, I read it years ago but d’you agree Fiasco by him is much better?”. I did not have the guts to confess I only knew Solaris from the Clooney movie, not even the Tarkovsky original, but I quickly bought Fiasco after she left, and am now an apostle of the Polish sci-fi writer who has sold 30 million books and was admired by HG Wells and Philip K Dick.

Another customer was surprised I had never heard of Uwe Johnson, ‘the Sage of Sheppey’, a Berliner of, in the 1960’s, Gunter Grass-level eminence who turned his back on literary circles to live out his life on the poverty-stricken Isle of Sheppey. Now we always stock the epic he wrote there, which is published by The New York Review of Books. It comes in a satisfying slipcase, the paper is smooth and the book flops open and stays open. Customers are very alive to such book physicality. Women especially very often smell, hug or kiss a book after purchasing it (often all three), behaviour which, the women I have asked tell me, they are not drawn to after the apparently more sensual purchase of clothes.

When customers stop at the bookshop threshold, inhale and breathe out slowly, it’s not just the printed-book smell they are enjoying, it’s a psychological threshold they are marking. They are about to enjoy serendipitous browsing, a sort of unmoored drift. Virginia Woolf likened it to losing the carapace of self. As Malcolm Gladwell says, he has to ‘dick around’ on the web but for him, regular bookshop browsing matches better the ‘randomised thinking’ of the morphing brain. Chomsky, Descartes, Keats, Newton, Jung, the list of ground-breakers who used bookshop browsing as a sort of essential university is long. One night, after I had been around an 1875 Sailing ship in Chatham which had steam engines, but went faster by wind, I had a dream in which my bookshop was like the ship, and browsers loved the wind in its sails. Serendipity is the wind that drives and will forever drive bookshops. Algorithms are reductive, past-based, and they are no way to break what Blake called ‘the mind forg’d manacles’.

The new courses we plot in bookshops usually revive childhood aspirations. Time and again I have been told about a comfort book which, almost to a comical degree, predicts an adult’s predilections. Similarly individuated tastes can be served by a bookshop. What I am saying in a cumbersome way is, we can buy escapist stories and even escape that heavy feeling that we should be reading worthy doorstep-thick books. Georgette Heyer and Enid Blyton, Terry Pratchett and The Princess Bride are all great books not on worthy English Lit. courses, but that’s because academia hasn’t cottoned on to the fact that all great writers from Chaucer to AS Byatt, loved, really loved, tales of the fabulous. Good bookshops will offer you the Booker shortlist, but serve as well someone in the mould of Umberto Eco, who preferred Spiderman to Tolkien, or Dylan Thomas, who loved Westerns.

Booksellers even seem to be part of such stories themselves. They are sometimes as eclectic and seemingly-possessed-of-cosmic-secrets as Peter Falk at the start of the film of Michael Ende’s Never-Ending Story. People open up to booksellers, on all sorts of levels, and that, on a good day, is a chakra-opening thing for all concerned. It helps that the walls are coffered with stories. The folk musicians I recently started to host in my bookshop raved about the acoustics; that lack of tinny echo adds to the otherworldly atmosphere. 

Sitting in bed writing this late at night all is quiet. I am excited about tomorrow, when I will go and unlock the doors again, and meet customers who, particularly in these times, are gratefully enjoying what they, like me, took a little bit for granted earlier in 2020. I hope for a bit of the mindfulness which shopkeepers had in medieval Istanbul; on opening up they said a couplet of praise to Allah and wished for encounters which would be profitable both financially and at a spiritual level.

I hosted a bookshop event once with Paulo Coelho, about his worldwide bestseller The Alchemist. He began the talk by telling everyone about the elaborate directions I had sent him, which ended with our three back doors, their various doorbells and two mobile numbers to call or text. After standing in the winter night for a while puzzling over the final stage of entry instructions, he tried the door handle. It opened. He was in a warm bookshop. Tomorrow or the next day, you too can ‘do a Paulo’. They’re open.


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