Nicola here. My very first Saturday job, when I was sixteen years old, was in The Grove Bookshop in Ilkley, a town in Yorkshire where I grew up. (In the old photo, the shop is on the corner on the right.) In my youth the shop was owned by an impossibly glamorous lady called Audrey who was a friend of my mother. I was so excited to be allowed to work there and to spend entire days surrounded by books, selling them, talking about them. The memory is so happy and vivid for me that I can even remember what I wore as my shop “uniform”, a kilt and my best cream and blue jumper. I’m sure I looked very professional!
Over the following years I never lost my love of books and bookshops. I even worked as a volunteer in an antiquarian bookseller’s for a couple of years before the shop closed down, much to my disappointment. It was from there that some of the most prized obscure titles on my bookshelves came including “A Book of Naval Architecture,” “Minstrels from 1250” and “The History of Beards.”
Meanwhile I had another dream job, being a writer and a historian. But the dream of the bookshop never quite went away, especially the fantasy of running my own, combining it with a tea and cake shop! Such things aren’t practical when you have book deadlines and other demands on your time, but I could dream on. Fast forward to August of this year and I was at the opening of a new bookshop in my local town of Wantage. There was a good crowd of customers, authors, and industry professionals, and after we chatted, the owner asked if I had the time or inclination to do a few hours in the shop; they were looking for someone local with good historical knowledge to supplement their team. Well! I hadn’t even thought it would be an option or if my meagre shop experience would make me sufficiently qualified for the job. However, after several days of intensive training, I was all set to go.
When I unlocked the door of the shop on my first morning it felt magical. This was all mine to share with the world – on Saturdays at least! I fondly imagined I would have hours in which to get to know all the books on the shelves, re-arrange the history section, chat to customers about recommendations, theirs as well as mine… It didn’t quite work out like that. When I had my very first customer I was so terrified that I would use the till wrongly I was frozen to the spot for what felt like at least five minutes. At one point I accidentally rang up a total of 3 million, seventy five thousand pounds for someone and whilst I’m sure we’d all like to spend that much on books, I thought that was probably wrong. Then there were the enquiries: “I’m looking for a book, I don’t know the author or title but it’s about sparrows and it’s in French…” I love a good challenge and managed to hunt it down. There were children who gleefully demolished the book displays and adults who accidentally did the same. And what about those shelves of history books? They were not so easy to sort as I’d thought. Putting books in chronological order is all very well but what about books that cover the history of one particular topic (silk, for example) or historical biography? Shouldn’t that be alphabetical by the subject of the book rather than the author? Decisions, decisions. How do book tokens work? How does the loyalty points get on to customers’ cards? And when did my mental arithmetic get so bad? So many questions… There are books to re-order and phone and email requests to fulfil. There’s no time for reading!
After a month or two I have already discovered that people love to chat when they come into the shop. They love to browse as well, of course – an elderly gentleman with a beautifully-behaved Labrador comes in every week and spends about 45 minutes looking around, and it’s not a big shop. When I commented on how patient the dog was he simply said: “She enjoys books.” And so say all of us. But the shop is also like a mini community centre where friends bump into each other and stop to catch up on news and where complete strangers swap favourite authors. There’s plenty of research that says books and reading brings people together, and plenty of books and films that demonstrate that, but it’s lovely to see it in real life too. And the shelves change all the time. Lesser known titles mingle with bestsellers. Which books get to be on the spotlight tables, or face out? It’s not just about how striking a cover looks but that does make a difference.
The children’s section is probably the most popular on a Saturday. We have some comfy benches and soft toys for the adults to snuggle up with whilst the small children choose from amongst those impossibly brilliant picture and activity books. The young adult section is amazing – the stories are so exciting! But there’s space for the classics too. It’s a whole world of stories in one relatively-small space. Perhaps that’s why it feels so magical and full of possibilities.
When the clock strikes five I turn the sign to “closed” and set about tidying up all ready for the Sunday opening. The bookshop settles down for the night and as I lock the door behind me I wonder fancifully if, when I’m gone, the characters do all emerge from the pages and mingle and chat, just like the customers do during the day.
What was your first job? Did you have a dream about following any particular career or has life taken you in a variety of different directions? And do you still have a bucket list and dreams to fulfil? Let us know!