Yesterday afternoon I found myself, for reasons that are too complex to go into just now, wandering around the O2 centre on Finchley Road. The last time I visited this self-proclaimed "hub of entertainment" I was in the esteemed company of Jonathan Franzen. He was in the eye of the storm that publication of the Corrections caused on both sides of the Atlantic and had just finished a signing session at the bookshop formerly known as Pan. Pan was famous for signed copies and Franzen was hot hot hot so we had plenty (hundreds!) of copies in. At some point during the signing I received a nasty paper cut, occupational hazard of bookselling, and bled all over several copies. The book had a cream cover. I was troubled. But Franzen remained cool. He inscribed my copy with the legend "For Matthew, who bled for the cause."
Franzen was reading at the O2 that evening and I was keen to attend yet had completely failed to book a ticket. When he suggested that Glenn and I accompany him to the talk in his chauffeur driven limo we did not refuse. Oh no we did not refuse. We went in the limo. We discussed books and writing. Glenn and I suffered shock and awe. In a good way. Then we listened to Franzen talk. Zadie Smith was sitting behind us with Hari Kunzru. We were all in shock and awe. In a very long winded way what I'm trying to say is that the last time I visited the O2 centre it was a memorable experience...
I entered the O2 through Sainsbury's. After silently karate chopping my way through the throng of well-fed North London folk milling about in the orange ailes I made combat with leaflet waving types at the bottom of the escalators before rising to the upper levels. Here I discovered that Books Etc was now Waterstone's. I went inside and thought I would have a look for Philip Hoare's Samuel Johnson Prize winning book Leviathan. I couldn't find it anywhere. I was without a book and was seriously thinking about buying Leviathan so I could read it that afternoon. And this is where the fun starts.
I went over to the counter and asked the chap standing there if they had "That book about Whales, the Philip Hoare one."
"Leviathan or the whale by Philip Hoare" he responded. "Yes I think so" he said "follow me."
So we set off to look on several tables then the Natural History section and finally Gardening. But there was no sign of the book.
"Is it out in paperback?" I asked.
"Yeah, we were selling it at the weekend" he replied. "I'll check the stock room."
I hung around for a few minutes. There was a computer available for customers so that if they couldn't find the book they wanted they could order it via Waterstone's.com. The situation in a nutshell - how to compete vs the Net? Where everything is available now(ish) for less than on the High Street.
The bloke was back.
"I can't see it" he said. "We do have it in hardback but it's £18.99"
"It's ok" I said, "I'll find something else."
I was actually planning to leave but right away the bloke plucked a book from the shelf and handed it to me.
"What about this?"
Wow - I was impressed. I looked at the book. The bloke mumbled a few words about it in a manner with which I am very very familiar. He tried to compress what he felt about the book into a few sentences. It was a book he obviously loved and had read. I was infected but didn't want to admit it right away.
"That I've read?"
He pulled down a book of essays by Truman Capote. Cool.
"I'll have a look at these" I said and he was gone.
George Steiner's book looked really rather interesting.
At the counter I bought the book.
"Wasn't this a Borders or something?" I asked.
"It was Books Etc and now it's Waterstone's"
"What's the difference?" I asked.
"More books..." he paused for a beat "...and new computers."
Same staff though. Great people payed a pittance for their hard work and passion. The sort of job you do after leaving Uni for a couple of years. (In Germany you need a fu**iNg degree in bookselling!)
I spent most of the rest of the day reading Grammars of Creation. First in the pub, then on the tube, then in another pub, then by the river, then on the bus. I found it hard to understand but very engaging and extremely provocative and interesting. I would never have picked it up a million billion years but for that bookseller.
And that, dear reader, (if there are any left!) is why this post is an elegy. Booksellers are dying out. We are being snuffed by the net and by a culture that knows what it wants and wants it NOW. With our passing something will be lost. And that is sad - for the likes of us (booksellers) but also for you lot. Those with minds that search and search - who value the peculiar, the found, the forgotten.
Reader, our culture has spoken. Well done to Richard Charkin and the rest of the net book agreement destroyers.
You were right. We are NOT WORTH IT...