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The Path Not Taken

The questionable joys of running a bookshop.

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

It’s the mid-eighties and I’m in my mid-thirties, looking down into the garret that had once been my bedroom. I’m not having an out-of-body experience, but a cup of coffee in the café of Canterbury’s new Waterstone’s.The building dwarfs the one on the other side of the street where my parents ran The Pilgrims Bookshop for over twenty years. ‘Pilgrims’ never sported an apostrophe but ‘Waterstone’s’ did: there was only one Tim Waterstone, and in those days each branch was definitely his.

Our premises went back nearly three centuries and had once been part of the city’s Assembly Rooms. Tradition claimed that Jane Austen had attended a ball there, so had once danced through our living room. What finer tutelary spirit could you ask for a bookshop?

My parents took it over in the late fifties after the winds of change had blown us back home from what was then the Gold Coast. I was born in Accra in 1952 — as was the novelist William Boyd. My African adventure was limited to catching ringworm and promptly passing it on to my mother. Boyd’s parents moved to Nigeria and stayed long enough to supply him with the material for his first, hilarious, novel, A Good Man in Africa. By this stage he had also published An Ice-Cream War and Stars and Bars to rapturous acclaim. My literary career was rather less sparkly, but I was keeping my head above water (just) as a freelance writer and broadcaster, and had had a few poems published in some of the right places.

And as I sipped my coffee I was feeling rather smug. My parents had wanted me to take over the thriving business they had built up when they retired. But now it was overshadowed by this bookselling Goliath, I could congratulate myself for walking away from the fray. I’d have been crushed by the sheer volume of stock, the two-for-one offers, the convenience of the café (and also the basement conveniences).

But in the years before Tim Waterstone was sacked by WHSmith and decided to invest his severance pay in his own chain of shops, most booksellers were independents and the future looked bright. Bright enough for my parents to assume their only child would succeed them. They even made me a partner.

Not that I was seen much in the shop, lacking my mother’s natural rapport with the general public. This may have had something to do with the large gin that magically appeared by the till on the stroke of twelve (the advantage of living above the shop), but I doubt it. Mum talked easily to anyone she met, from complete strangers, to, on occasion, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Dr Michael Ramsey was an avid scholar and bibliophile. He was also an imposing figure, tall, with a shock of snow-white hair and beetling eyebrows, likened by some to an Old Testament prophet (or even to God Almighty Himself). He often strolled the few hundred yards from the cathedral to the bookshop, and would announce his presence by standing in the doorway and raising his right hand in pontifical blessing.

This could be uncomfortable for ordinary customers, looking for a travel guide or filleting the racy new paperbacks for smut. My mother registered the shifting unease this moment of benediction caused. She was also pretty sure that the prelate went through our History section jotting down titles that he then ordered – at a generous discount – from the SPCK bookshop in the cathedral precincts. There wasn’t anything she could do about his browsing duplicity— then, as now, Archbishop or Amazon purchaser, the customer has to be assumed innocent. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t have a word about the blessing — which she did, asking him politely but firmly to desist.

I wasn’t there when it happened, and would have died of embarrassment if I had been. But it must have taken courage (Dutch or otherwise), and I’m proud of her now. As I am of my father, who worked long hours in his office down the road, wading through the extraordinary amount of paperwork bookselling entailed in those pre-computer days, sustained only by his pipe and a bottle of scotch.

While the senior partners worked extremely hard, I kept a low profile, skulking in a pokey but companionable back room, opening the piles of parcels that arrived daily, trying to match the right bits of paper to each order, and then packing the books up to be transferred to the shop.

But such menial tasks were hardly the preparation I needed to pull my weight, and Dad had grandiose schemes to send me to Switzerland where bookselling was regarded more as a profession than a gentlemanly pursuit.

All I had to do was learn to speak German.

I got the worst fail at German ‘O’ level my school had ever registered, so instead of going abroad, I read English at the newly built university up the hill, where my parents ran the campus bookshop, in which, as a partner, I had the privilege of ordering my set texts at a generous discount.

But the pretence couldn’t last forever. I finished my degree, and emboldened by winning the university poetry prize, declared my intention to teach, as that would allow me more time to write. The revelation that I wanted to write books rather than sell them, and that the books I wanted to write were poetry books, was a severe blow. Dad knew, only too well, how very few of those slim volumes ever sold. We had a spring sale in which the poetry shelf was rigorously culled. The dusty duds were wrapped in brown paper and put in the Lucky Dip basket at 2/6 a pop.

I proved hopeless at teaching, and slunk back to the ivory tower, or rather the dreaming spires of Oxford, where I frittered away the rest of my twenties failing to complete a doctorate. I did start writing and being paid for it, and made friends with real writers, one of whom introduced me to William Boyd when we met him on the pavement outside Waterstone’s.

Dad kept sucking stoically on his meerschaum and paid my many bills, doubtless wondering when – or whether – I would ever amount to anything. He died just before my first (very slim) volume was published. A few years later, my mother was proud of my weekly satirical poems in the Guardian and never missed Radio 4’s Poetry Please!, which I presented for five years. Her regard for poetry diminished in her last years. When I gave her a hefty anthology of twentieth-century poetry that I had co-edited, she sank beneath its weight as though crushed by a breeze block, sighing ‘Whoever’s going to read this?’

Now in my mid-sixties, reviewing the path not taken years after both my parents have gone, I find a different perspective. The book trade has suffered extraordinary convulsions since the millennium. The big chains became massively inflated assets, corporate trophies changing hands for ridiculous sums, and ended up swallowing each other in vicious takeovers until, like Ted Hughes’s pike, only one survived.

Tim Waterstone had cashed out when made an offer he couldn’t refuse, but later tried to buy it back. In the end he couldn’t make the numbers work. Emblematically, his distinctive apostrophe has vanished. Waterstones has become the alpha-brand. And now, of course, it faces huge pressure from the ubiquitous Amazon.

In between the stumbling feet of these warring Goliaths, nimble Davids have revived the independent bookshop, wooing book lovers with good coffee, gluten-free cakes, reading groups and author visits. Could I have found my niche among them?

Sylvia Beach, who founded Shakespeare and Company in Paris in 1919, established the spiritual home of a generation of ex-pat authors, from Hemingway, through Ezra Pound to F. Scott Fitzgerald — not forgetting James Joyce, whose Ulysses Beach devoted years to publishing. No one could compete with that, though Lawrence Ferlinghetti made a good stab at it in San Francisco with the City Lights bookstore, host and publisher to the Beat poets.

More recently, Ann Patchett co-founded Parnassus Books in Nashville because otherwise the place wouldn’t have had a bookshop. Its website is a testament to how much happiness this can bring to a community. But Patchett had made her name as a novelist before she took the plunge. How would I have felt, starting as an unknown, struggling to find time to write amidst the myriad responsibilities of running my own business? Surely building yet another ziggurat of the latest William Boyd bestseller might eventually have caused depressing comparisons with my own meagre output?

And there’s the rub. To be a writer, you have to put writing at the centre of your life. I couldn’t have achieved what I have as a full-time bookseller. I certainly wouldn’t have had the time to write my 500-page biography of the great Victorian cricketer, W. G. Grace, which, just to round the story off, led to my one meeting with Tim Waterstone in person, when I was invited to a black-tie reading which he hosted at his flagship branch in Manchester in 1998. I even have the photograph somewhere.

Simon Rae is a poet, biographer, broadcaster and novelist, who for ten years ran the country’s smallest theatre company, Top Edge Productions. He has recently turned to crime; the third Inspector Dalliance case, Hangman, is published early in 2020. He divides his time between Wales, Cheshire and Oxfordshire.

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