I have interviewed many would-be booksellers… and appointed quite a few. Candidates often have a misconception of what bookselling is about. Every bookshop manager will have experienced that sinking feeling when an enthusiastic prospect earnestly says, ‘I love books.’ Most bookshop-lovers will have had at least one experience of waiting patiently for service while the bookseller sits back from the till, absorbed in a good read. I’m not knocking booksellers, though – far from it. I’ve known very many excellent ones and one or two who could be described only as geniuses. Yet, without exception, however much they have loved books, their passion has been for serving real people from all walks of life, often by providing the book that is being sought, but also frequently by suggesting one that the customer would never have found without their expert skill and intuition. Good bookselling is all about caring for the customer.
I’m digressing a little, however, because I meant to begin by saying that the popular perception of a bookshop is probably that it is a quiet haven of peace where nothing much happens, a place in which to relax and browse and take a little time out from the humdrum demands of everyday life. And this is how it should be; I know many bookshops that can create such an ambience and I’d be proud to own one myself.
However, as with any other organisation or enterprise, within the inner life of bookshops is concealed – and sometimes, unfortunately, revealed – a maelstrom of human emotions and behaviour. I think that it is likely that there is more intrigue going on in bookshops than in any other kind of retail business, because most booksellers are well-educated and well-read and excel at being creative with their time. Mostly, this wealth of ideas and inspiration is channelled into supporting the shop and making it unique. Very much more rarely, it assumes a deviant quality.
Theft is a despicable crime. It isn’t much written about by crime writers, perhaps because it isn’t ‘glamorous’ enough. Persistent theft from a bookshop will kill it as surely as acute oak decline will fell a mighty tree. The reason for this is that bookshops operate on wafer-thin margins. Therefore activity that persistently undermines the profit of the shop will not only hasten it towards closure, but also demoralise the staff. In most bookshop chains, the staff (not paid a fortune in the first place) are disqualified from receiving bonuses if so-called ‘shrinkage’ reaches a certain figure – usually three-quarters of one percent of turnover. Some book theft is casual and opportunist; some is highly-organised. One of the bookshops in East London that came under my aegis suffered for months from the carried-out-to-order stealing of the textbooks that supported certain courses at the local university.
Of course, there are sophisticated systems available which help to reduce the risk of theft, but it is surprising how wily some thieves can be. A bookseller in another of ‘my’ shops apprehended a man who was wearing a specially-adapted overcoat that could hold twelve average-sized volumes at a time. He was spotted spending an undue amount of time riding the lift, where he had gone to rip out the security tags.
Some bookshop theft, the saddest kind, is ‘internal’, i.e. carried out by one of the members of staff. I hasten to add that it is comparatively rare, but when it happens it is the most difficult kind to discover, because the perpetrator is familiar with the shop’s systems and routines. The largest bookshop that came within my remit, one that turned over millions of pounds a year, had been suffering from serious shrinkage for some time when we decided to fit tiny security cameras over some of the tills. We quickly discovered that one of the cashiers had been operating an elaborate scam. (I won’t say what it was, as it would still work now, if someone were prepared to try it again.) She was brought to the manager’s office, told that the police would be called and asked if she wanted anyone to be with her when they arrived. She asked for her husband and he was summoned.
I had thought that perhaps he had been her partner in crime, but when he arrived he was genuinely stunned to discover that his wife was a thief. The police had yet to turn up. We waited rather tensely. I asked her if there was anything else that she wanted to tell us.
To my utter astonishment, she said that there was. There has been a handful of occasions in my life when I have been truly gobsmacked, rendered speechless, shocked to the core, whatever the appropriate term is. This was certainly one of them. The shop was adjacent to a large university and an intranet had recently been set up to allow academics to place orders and ask for advice without having to leave their desks. The woman standing in front of me now confessed that she had been using this facility in order to run a brothel. Most (but not all) of the clients worked at the university. Perhaps at this point I should pause to say that I am not exaggerating a word of this and, when an investigation was carried out, all of the details that she gave proved to be true.
The intranet was closed down immediately, though, on police advice, no further action was taken about the ‘business’ that it had been used to support, because the complications, notably the risk of implicating innocent people, were too great. The bookseller was charged with grand larceny (far too aristocratic a name for such a tawdry crime) and, because she had stolen a large amount of money over many months, received a custodial sentence.
I still think of this quite often. She was a pretty, vivacious young woman who had a presentable husband, himself with a very good job. It came out in court that she was not in debt and enjoyed good health and a comfortable lifestyle. Why did she do it? Why did she expend her considerable intelligence on working out two quite ingenious ways of making money illegally (one of which directly harmed her colleagues), instead of concentrating on developing her career or retraining if she felt dissatisfied with it? Perversely, perhaps, there was something about her that stirred pity in me, too. Did she survive prison well? Was her husband waiting for her when she came out? Did she succeed in rebuilding her life? I shall never know the answers.
Finally, before you worry that I have taken to cutting up my own novels, this one was a stray proof. I was asserting an author’s editorial privilege.