In which The Author charts the migratory habits of British books
A while ago I mentioned my serendipitous discovery of Ben Aaronovitch’s books in The Works in Aberdare. The first instalment of his Peter Grant series, Rivers of London, had been mis-shelved in the History section.
On the grounds that I’ll pick up any book with the word ‘London’ in the title, I was drawn to it immediately. When I found out that it was actually a novel – and an intriguing-sounding one – I took it to the counter and pointed out the mistake to one of the girls. She laughed and said that sort of thing happened all the time.
‘We’ve got another of his books, too,’ she said. The second book in the series, Moon Over Soho, actually was in the Fiction section. They were on offer, at two for £5.00. The job was a good ‘un!
The Migratory Habits of British Books could have been a suitable title for my doctoral thesis, if only such an arcane subject existed in the Real World.
When I worked in Dillons, and later in Waterstones, rather too much of my time was spent in hunting down and repatriating fugitive books. Some of the strays could be accounted for by customers picking the books up and then just shoving them back any-bloody-where. Teachers, in particular, tended to display a worrying ignorance of the accepted running order of the British alphabet. For future reference, on their second LP (entitled simply Volume 2), The Soft Machine were happy to help out:
The rest of the roaming books, unfortunately, were entirely the fault of people who were paid to be in the shop to begin with. I often used to suggest that prospective staff members should be given a list of titles and categories as part of the standard interview procedure, and be asked to match them up. Anybody failing to score at least 70% in the exercise would be shown the door immediately.
After becoming responsible for the returns process, I quickly grew accustomed to relocating the usual suspects. I can still remember some of them.
Any book with ‘physiology’ in the title was a strong contender to find itself in the Psychology section. I can sort-of understand that one. I mean, the words have the same first letter and the same last five letters. If you’re only semi-literate and/or an Arts graduate, it’s probably very difficult to tell them apart.
Similarly, any book with the word ‘engineering’ in the title would inevitably end up hidden alongside the books on mechanics, building, surveying, HVAC, and so forth. Just for the record, that included any books on Software Engineering and a business book entitled Re-engineering the Corporation.
Any title including the word ‘market’ stood a fair chance of spending some time among the books on Marketing. As with the ‘engineering’ example, this can’t just be attributed to a plain misreading of the spine and/or cover. It’s downright stupidity in action.
Some people couldn’t tell the difference between the words ‘poetical’ and ‘political’. Books entitled The Poetical Works (like Faber’s anthology of Rupert Brooke’s verse) would frequently end up on the other side of the shop, where they would often sit for weeks until being found and shelved correctly.
A book called Wittgenstein’s Poker went astray regularly – in fact, every single time it came into stock. It’s the story of an argument between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Sir Karl Popper, which famously came to a head at the Cambridge University Moral Sciences Club in 1946. If I had a quid for every time I’d pulled it out of the books on card games and put it into the Philosophy section, I probably wouldn’t be in such dire financial straits at the moment.
The non-fiction sections were bad enough. Some people couldn’t even tell one sport from another; biographies of footballers and cricketers and golfers and rugby players would regularly turn up in the wrong place. Other people had obviously never paid any attention in history lessons; books on the Restoration would turn up before books on the Civil War, and so on.
After a while I broadened my horizons and started scouring the downstairs shelves as well. I regularly found numerous biographies and history books shelved neatly in the Fiction section; I found novels in Travel Writing; I found true crime books in Crime Fiction (and vice versa); I found children’s books in Humour (and vice versa). I once found one of the scatological and foul-mouthed Viz comic compilations stacked on the kids’ trolley. Fortunately I came across it before anyone else had chance to shelve it.
When Hodder rejacketed their famous Teach Yourself series, the uniform spine designs were a sure-fire recipe for disaster. I was amused to find Teach Yourself Beekeeping among the books on Accountancy. Needless to say, when I was repatriating it to the Gardening section, I came across Teach Yourself Bookkeeping there.
When there was only a single copy of a title in stock, and it wasn’t in the expected location, we had two possible courses of action. We could either spend all day trying to track it down for the customer, which was counter-productive on a very busy day. Alternatively, we could reluctantly abandon the search, after which we’d make our excuses and the customer would leave, usually empty-handed.
I once started keeping a checklist of disappointed customers, totting up the value of each potential sale if only we’d been able to find the book in question. At the end of the first week, it came to several hundred quid. If I were asked to sum up my experiences of the book trade in a single sentence, a motto which could be applied to the whole book trade, it would probably be this:
Careless Shelving Costs Sales
The most amusing ‘frequent flier’, though, was a spin-off from Radio 4’s perennial ‘antidote to panel games’ I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue.
There’s a regular round which used to be called ‘New Definitions’, in which the teams are invited to submit any new definitions for words which they’ve come across recently. For example, Barry Cryer recently suggested TWERK: Where Yorkshiremen go to earn a living. I’m fairly sure it was Graeme Garden who once came up with the beautiful CHINCHILLA: Air-conditioned beard. Most notoriously, my comic hero Stephen Fry, making his first appearance on the show, somehow managed to get away with the incredible COUNTRYSIDE: Killing Piers Morgan.
About ten years ago the game was retitled ‘Uxbridge English Dictionary’. Soon after, HarperCollins published a little compilation of the best definitions from the series. Jacketed in imitation of the famous Oxford Dictionaries range, it inevitably ended up in the Reference section. I once sent it back downstairs to the Humour section, with a note tucked inside:
This is a Humour title. Please have a look inside. If you don’t laugh immediately, please seek urgent medical attention – you may be dead.
Being a Non-Linear Account of the Life and Opinions of The Author, Cross-referenced and Illustrated, with Occasional Hesitations, Repetitions and Deviations.