Saturday, 13 November 2010
When I visit a bookshop, you are unlikely to see me again for at least an hour or two. During that time I will have stalked along my favourite shelves and scrutinised dozens of potential purchases before finally reemerging with arms full of fresh new books ready to take their place on my shelves back home.
Buying from a good bookshop is a unique experience. Every book is different. Two books may be placed next to each other, but they might have very little in common and it takes time to choose the right one. I like watching people as they browse, and most people I have seen fall into three distinct groups.
These people look angry as they scour the shelves, frustratedly hunting for the perfect book while being painfully aware of their precious time ticking away. They huff and grumble with every book they slide back into place, treating book hunting as a battle to be won, and once they have made their choice they stride off to the counter with a victorious strut.
Others - me included - like to float and drift, selecting books, carrying a few with them and seeing how they feel. Clouds stay away from the cold 'chart section' and settle in the far-flung corners where (as every good book browser knows) the best stories are usually found. They sink into the worlds they sample as they wander and can linger there for hours at a time.
The Guided Missile
Then there are the guided missiles. These shoppers enter the shop at speed with a list gripped tightly in their hand. They are on a mission. Nothing will distract them from that mission, and if they can recruit an unsuspecting shop assistant to help them locate the targets on their list, so much the better. These shoppers are advocates of the snatch and grab technique. They thrive upon the neat alphabetical nature of modern bookshops and choose their purchases with precision. If a title is not written on their list, it does not go in the bag. No substitutions, no alternatives. Within five minutes their work there is done and the assistant is left looking slightly ruffled and windswept as if a tornado has just blown through the shop.
There are many other types out there, but spend five minutes in any bookshop and you will see one of these three. It is almost guaranteed.
Many people buy their books online these days and bookshops everywhere are becoming emptier and quieter. Smaller shops have been forced to close their doors. Traditional booksellers are a dying breed and it will be a shame if these havens are one day lost for good in the age of digital e-books and online shopping.
Where is the fun in that?
Bookshops are a perfect melting pot of people from all walks of life: from the teenager in the Star Wars t-shirt to the businesswoman buying a book on dog training and the kitchen wizard stocking up on cookery books.
Next time you are browsing along the shelves, take a look at the people nearby and ask yourself, would your paths have crossed anywhere else? Every face is a story, every shopper is helping that little bookshop stay alive, and each one of them is different.
Enjoy your bookshop, however often you use it, and in the meantime ask yourself...
Which kind of book shopper are you?