bookshops

Sheepless in Seattle

 

A view of Seattle

A view of Seattle

Last week I went to Seattle (on business, though it was very pleasurable) and my husband headed for Lancashire to help Priscilla and Rupert with this year’s crop of lambs, courtesy of Terence the Tup. My one regret was that I had to miss the lambs: Terence has performed particularly spectacularly this time: three of his six ladies have produced two sets of triplets and a set of quads (this, apparently, a one-in-ten-thousand eventuality). There are now thirteen lambs and still counting!

However, Seattle was wonderful. Geographically, it’s unique: an isthmus almost surrounded by sea, lake and tidal rivers. This, the proximity of mountains and the Pacific Ocean serve to make the climate fretful: although it’s mild, each day, I found, brings a series of sunshine and showers, the latter often lasting only a few minutes, but fierce until they peter out. The product: beautiful skyscapes, cloud dotted with mini rainbows to create a sort of celestial rocky road.

Seattle in the rain

Seattle in the rain

Sunday was my only free day. Following the advice of almost everyone, from business acquaintances to the man who sat next to me on the plane to various taxi drivers, I chose to spend most of it at Pike Market.

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Built in 1907, this was originally called the ‘hygienic’ market, because horses (and therefore their droppings) were banned. Architecturally, it hasn’t changed much since then. It is a warren of twisting corridors, some ending unexpectedly with huge plate glass windows that provide viewing areas across the water.

The fresh fish stands grab the visitor’s attention first: they’re dramatic, piled high with lobsters, deep sea creatures such as octopi, and the sockeye salmon for which the region is famous.

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Further into the market, there are many stalls selling what look like perfect fruit and vegetables and others with more exotic foods such as buffalo. There are vendors of local wines, honey and flowers and also quite a few ‘ordinary’ shops – I discovered a couple of booksellers – and, finally, the craft stalls. The artisanal goods were of exceptional quality, as the pictures illustrate (I bought some presents at these, so won’t describe them in detail).

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All the shopkeepers and stall holders were friendly, giving me and other prospective customers the history of how they came to be there, what their goods were made of, how they made them, and, if they were comestibles, providing samples.

In the heart of the market

In the heart of the market

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Seattle sense of humour

Seattle sense of humour

I spent most of the day in the market, but I did manage to see a little of the rest of Seattle, too, particularly the student area where my hotel was situated. I was very impressed with the university bookshop, which was sprawling and well-stocked with titles that catered for the local residents as well as students. It also had some very helpful and knowledgeable assistants. Indeed, all of the three bookshops I visited – the two in the market, one bijou, the other quirky, and the university one, which was on a different scale – were independents. Tom Hanks may have put Meg Ryan out of business with his juggernaut bookselling chain, but clearly some independent bookshops still flourish in Seattle!

On a darker note, I was saddened to see the evidence of drug addiction on Seattle’s streets. There was a young man in a filthy sleeping bag lying in one doorway of the large American Apparel shop near the university; another addict, obviously still high, accosted me and my colleagues to ask for a dollar when we left a restaurant on Monday evening. I read in the local paper that there are twice as many people being treated for heroin addiction as alcoholism in Seattle. No different from what can be seen in Britain’s big cities, particularly London, I suppose; what was different was that local people seemed to tolerate it much more. The American Apparel shop assistants, for example, did not try to move on the man in the sleeping bag.

Local law enforcement

Local law enforcement

Although Seattle is a wealthy city, deriving much of its prosperity from trade with Asia, I also saw evidence of poverty. The post office in the student quarter is a drab and cavernous building, and was staffed only by two exhausted-looking clerks, one male, one female, when I visited to buy stamps. Despite being overworked, they were both gentle and patient with their clients, none of whom appeared to be students and all of very modest means. The man spent a long time helping an old lady to send a parcel; the woman was explaining how to fill in a form to a middle-aged man who had learning difficulties. It struck me that they were serving the community in much the same way that public librarians do in the UK. They were kind – and I saw (and experienced) a great deal of kindness in Seattle.

I’ve given some impressions of Seattle: I’ve no idea what Seattle thought of me. In the market, I think I was probably a bit of a curiosity: several stall holders asked me where I came from. I told a man selling shopping bags, who was so deeply engrossed in a science fiction novel that I had to ask him three times to serve me, that I was a crime writer; he said that was cool, and asked me to sign his SF book, which I duly did, although of course having no right to do so! At the airport when I arrived, the immigration official, who was rather too chatty for me after a fifteen-hour journey, said “Gee, you sound really well-educated!” “Not really,” I answered. “It’s the accent. I’m just British.”

I left Seattle after a visit of only four days, determined to return and spend more time there. Then it was home to more work, bitterly cold winds and some equally exotic tales of sheep!

A couple of Terence's quads

A couple of Terence’s quads

The murky world of the bookshop…

Top-slicing the profit

Top-slicing the profit

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.

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