Tagging along with a teaching friend who was ostensibly looking for stationary a good chunk of Sunday afternoon was spent in our local branch of B*****s. After fortifying cups of coffee and associated gossip I hit the shelves in search of something excitingly shiny and new. A job interview on Saturday has made me optimistic about future budgeting, regardless of outcome the occasion seemed worth celebrating and I thought a book would be nice...
Specifically I was looking for Barbara Pym’s ‘Some Tame Gazelle’, Muriel Spark’s ‘The Comforters’ or Frank Baker’s ‘Miss Hargreaves’, indeed almost any of the Bloomsbury Group range would have done. All new books, none present. Then I looked for ‘Tarka the Otter’, recently reissued by penguin modern classics, avoided in the past because I assumed the otter died, but apparently the ending is ambiguous enough to be hopeful - so it’s on my list, but was not in stock.
Whilst nobody was looking I browsed along paranormal romance trying to remember when this became a genre that deserved its own section. I found myself in front of a book rejoicing in the title ‘Mr Darcy, Vampyre’ and decided I was very much in the wrong place. In the end I bought nothing, the whole experience was deeply disconcerting – if a major retailer fails to take the money I want to spend its doing something badly wrong.
Fortunately I have plenty to read at home, I spent the evening very happily with ‘The Talisman Ring’ (for the umpteenth time) but I find it very hard to understand why nothing I wanted was available. Generally when I come away from a bookshop empty handed it’s because I want something very specific and possibly obscure, or have no clear idea of what I’m after, but not when I have a longish list of recently published titles from major houses.
This experience illustrates everything that seems wrong to me about bookselling today. Mountains of unsold, heavily discounted Dan Brown and Jamie Oliver demonstrate just how much faith is placed in a few big names to turn a profit, but can they do it? It’s impossible to avoid either author at the moment; they’re in every supermarket never mind bookshop and cheap with it. By Thursday when the Christmas books come out finding a tempting paperback beyond the massed legions of celebrity biography will become even more of a challenge, but why?