Tuesday 18 December 2012

ShopGirl meets 'Bookshop Girl' - Jen Campbell

Jen Campbell in Watermark Books

I met Jen Campbell at a book-signing in Watermark Books in Kings Cross Station. I’m always excited to meet fellow shop people and exchange retail stories. I was also eager to meet her because like mine, her book started out as a blog, and blog-to-book stories happen to be one of my favourites!

I knew it was going to be good but I didn’t expect to be on the Tube in the middle of rush hour, crushed between arms and legs, reading it with a big grin on my face. It’s hilarious. HILARIOUS. It reminded me so much of working in my own shop; all the random requests and bizarre assumptions. I loved it and would recommend it as a great Christmas present for anyone who can read!


Customer: What’s your name?
Bookseller: Jen.
Customer: Hmmm. I don’t like that name. Is it ok if I call you something else?

Customer: Do you have this children’s book I’ve heard about? It’s supposed to be very good. It’s called “Lionel Richie and the Wardrobe.”


When did you start writing your blog and how did it become a book?

After a particularly strange day in May 2011, I started putting few examples of ‘weird things...’ up on my blog. They were never supposed to become a book, so what happened next was a wonderful surprise. The posts were very popular - the links were thrown around twitter by bookshops and publishers who found them funny. Neil Gaiman tweeted about them, and then blogged about them, which opened them up to a much wider audience, one of whom was Hugh, who works at Constable and Robinson. Hugh called me at the bookshop asking if I’d like to make a book of ‘Weird Things...’. Half an hour later he was standing in front of me in the bookshop. It was all very surreal. I’d just got an agent for my fiction, so Hugh and my agent had a chat, contracts were drawn up and I got on with writing it. It all happened rather quickly!

People have this silly idea that working in a bookshop is relaxing! Did you ever have time to blog/write in the shop?

Oh, if I had a pound for every time someone said to me ‘I’d love to work in a bookshop; you get to read all day!’ Very much not the case. There’s only ever one person in our bookshop (most of the time that person is me). I have to open up, deal with the buying and selling of books (I work in an antiquarian bookshop), assist customers who are in the shop/customers on the phone (sometimes both at once!); then there’s cataloguing the stock, researching for buyers, repairing books, doing the stocktake, internet orders, answering emails... the list goes on and on. There’s always a lot to do.

What’s the weirdest non-book request you’ve ever been asked?

Oh, if we sell iPod chargers, lottery tickets, Christmas trees...

I thought people only haggled at markets and chandelier shops, but no so! What was your cheekiest haggler? How do you deal with them?

The cheekiest - not even a haggle - was someone who wanted to take the dust jacket from a first edition we had, as they didn’t have a dust jacket on their own copy. He didn’t want to pay for it; he just wanted it, and wasn’t very pleased when I declined!

I read you have a section in your bookshop for toddlers. How do you avoid colossal damage being done to the shop and all your books?

I keep a beady eye on them. Obviously we want children to look at the books, but they can get a bit over-excited. Usually the parents are vigilant, but not always. The latter was more the case in Edinburgh (where I worked before moving to London, in a new independent bookshop). There was a boy who ripped the head off ‘the tiger who came to tea’ and whose parent really didn’t care, children who would climb bookshelves, and there were even parents who would leave their toddlers in the shop and disappear to Tesco next door to do their food shopping. It can be a bit stressful, but it keeps us on our toes!

What book have you found yourself mostly recommending this month?

The difficulty with an antiquarian bookshop is I can’t recommend the same book again and again as we only have one copy of a particular edition. But, for Christmas, lovely old editions of Alice, Orlando the Marmalade Cat, some signed Doctor Who books, and beautiful editions of fairy tales illustrated by Dulac, Arthur Rackham etc.

In life, outside of our older books, the books I’ve been recommending have been The Age of Miracles - Karen Thompson-Walker, Sweet Home - Carys Bray, New World Fairy Tales - Cassandra Parkin and Swimming Home - Deborah Levy. Poetry-wise, I’ve been recommending One Eye’d Leigh - Katharine Kilalea, A Body Made of You - Melissa Lee-Houghton and Tomorrow We Will Live Here - Ryan Van Winkle.

If you weren’t a bookseller, what would you be doing?

Erm... this question makes me panicky! Ha. Well, I’d be a writer (which is my other job, anyway), though that wouldn’t pay all the bills. Hmm. Perhaps I’d be an English Literature lecturer... I don’t know. I can’t really imagine not being a bookseller.

My local stationers says Kindles will never replace books, and that he's selling more paper than ever. Other people believe digital books will replace books in the next ten - twenty years. What's your opinion on the matter? Do you fear for your bookshop?

I fear for our bookshop but not really because of Kindle - because of the massive rise in the number of charity shops and because of huge discounts on books in supermarkets and on Amazon.

Re. e-readers: at the moment I think that there’s a definite split in the market. A lot of e-readers are bought as presents and are never used; a lot of people have been converted; some people say that they have an e-reader but still buy the paperback versions of the books they love. It’s so hard to predict. I don’t own an e-reader myself, and I hate that Amazon have the monopoly on the market. I completely understand the practicality of an e-reader; it’s just not for me (but I’m a bookseller; I would say that!). I love the smell of a book, the feel of it, and the actual event of going to a bookshop to look for a book to read; it’s about the whole experience as far as I’m concerned. Also, I read a lot of poetry and I think that loses something in translation from paperback to e-book.

What I think will happen is that e-books will continue to grow in popularity and, perhaps, the market may eventually end up being e-books and hardbacks. Physical books are going to become more and more about how they look; they will be gifts, beautiful objects to treasure. I love my paperbacks and I want them to stay, though, so I’ll have my fingers crossed for that. What I don’t want is the price of e-books to fall to an unsustainable level - which in some cases they are doing, and I hope the pirating of e-books is controlled as well as it can be. Ultimately I still want books to be valued, and seen as things that are worth paying money for. So many people work their socks off for a book to be produced, and it’s hard enough for writers to make a living as it is.

I’ve heard another book is on the horizon. Tell us more!

Indeed! I’ve just finished writing it. 'More Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops' will be published April 2013. We’re just finalising the cover at the moment, and then the lovely Brothers McLeod will illustrate it, as they did for the first volume.

In other writing, my poetry pamphlet ‘The Hungry Ghost Festival’ is published by The Rialto (that came out in July), and I’ve just finished writing my first full-length poetry collection called ‘the day we ran away from the circus,’ which we’ll be submitting to publishers in the new year. I’m also working on a novel. So, lots of different things. I’m looking forward to having a little bit of a break over Christmas, - reading lots of books, eating lots of cheese and having a glass or two of mulled wine. Oh yes. I hope you all have a lovely Christmas, too!

Jen’s Blog
Jen on Twitter 
Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops Facebook Page


Customer: Do you have a book that has a list of aphrodisiacs? I’ve got a date on Friday.

1 comment:

pierre l said...

Many thanks for this great article. I read the book some time ago and loved it. The picture is very nice too.