There is always much talk about the Market. You can read about it in the Bookseller, and my publishers wag their heads about it a lot; but as a writer, you seldom get a sniff of it. I decided to change all that and booked a stall in Ludlow Market.

So there I was on my first day, loaded down with books and trepidation, dragging a trolley of boxes through the drizzle heading towards my allotted slot in the Square. There were no handshakes from managing directors or encouraging smiles from editors.

My fellow traders were busy setting up and showed little interest as I dumped my boxes and spread out some white sheets to cover the grubby wooden stall tables. My neighbour was a young man in his late twenties with a scrubby red beard, about the same age as my son. His stall – handbags, scarves, jewellery – was already set up. The handbags were arranged by colour, and the scarves were each knotted carefully in the same way. I introduced myself. ‘Andy,’ said Andy, not very interested, and went back to putting the finishing touches to his display.

The market is full of unspoken rules. You don’t ask for help setting up. If your boxes are too heavy, that’s your problem, buy a trolley. If your new bulldog clips to secure the weatherproof sheets are too stiff, swap them for old ones with the muscular young man selling pet food beside you. He’ll be happy to get new for old, you get to save face, and your books stay dry if it rains. Never ask for change. Only amateurs run out of pound coins and five-pound notes.

I decided to try selling books as a market trader fifteen years ago. I took out (compulsory) public liability insurance in case one of my hardback books somehow caused someone irreparable brain damage. And bought in stock from various publishers at different discounts. Then I set out for Ludlow, my nearest town, famous for its black and white Tudor buildings, local delicatessens and restaurants, and well-heeled, literate inhabitants. The market manager at that time was John Turgoose, a huge man with dark blonde hair, blue eyes and a direct manner. He looked like a Viking, and Turgoose is a Viking name. (I asked him once if he had ever tried to trace the history of his family. ‘No’, he said.)

Earlier, when I was still at the planning phase, I went to the market and sought out John. He was easy to find in the crowd, being head and shoulders above everyone else. I held his indifferent gaze and laid out my proposal. I had a range of over 200 titles at any one time. This meant I could pile my stall (roughly 4’ x 10’) high. Piling high is what works. Also I had a unique selling point. I was the author, so I could sign and dedicate every book I sold. I undoubtedly looked like Lady Penelope to him, and I don’t suppose he believed for a moment that I would stick it out. But some part of him must have liked the idea of a potential J. K. Rowling in his market, and he said he would give me a trial.

A good market manager will make sure that there is an enticing cross-section of stalls. This is partly so the public gets a fair choice, and partly so fights, with actual fists, don’t break out between traders selling the same stuff. In Ludlow there were no more than two junk-jewellery stalls, and two stalls selling pies and smoked fish. These were kept well apart. There was one stall that sold cheese. Jean-Pierre, a Breton, ex-full-time yachtie, ex- safari-park ranger, was the only French pâtissier.

There are lots of things you learn about standing behind a stall all day. First, only pain freaks do it. Very soon I got myself a high barstool to take the weight off my feet. In the winter I wore heat pads under five layers of clothes. Fingerless gloves had to be made of cashmere, so you didn’t have to take them off when you picked up your pen to sign a book.

You also learn patience. In a market, you cannot hide behind a book or a newspaper. If you don’t watch out for punters, you won’t get them — some stallholders would read all day, and wonder why they didn’t sell anything. If you want to sell books, you have to stand up, make eye contact, smile, and with an expansive hand gesture say, ‘I wrote all of these.’ If they pause for ten seconds, you have a sale.

There are, however, downsides to being stuck behind your stall. Every other day I had to listen to the personal experiences of wannabe children’s writers. There are a lot of them out there, some wistful, some downright angry. One chilly morning just before Christmas, a grey-faced man drifted near my stall. Up I stood, engaged eye contact and cheerily admitted with the expansive hand gesture to being the author of all these books. ‘So the f*** what?’ he snarled, exhaling beer.

Market traders have diverse histories, which I suppose applies to me too — after all, I was one of them. Andy, who had the stall beside me for ten years, trained as a butcher. But there wasn’t enough money in it, so he turned trader, cash only. In the early days of our acquaintance he was something of a wild man, eating huge tins of tuna fish and drinking power potions all day. I couldn’t understand his northern accent. He was suspicious of me but never rude. Then one day after about two years I reversed my old Volkswagen accurately and at high speed into a small parking spot, narrowly missing a bollard. Andy, who had been watching, was obviously impressed. ‘I don’t care about my car,’ I said by way of explanation. A big grin spread across Andy’s face. ‘I don’t care about my van, either.’ We became friends.

Three stalls down was Priscilla, ex-hospital Matron, ex-policewoman, tough and tweedy with a cut-glass accent. In the market she sold plants while her three old spaniels sat in their baskets under the table. In the morning, each trader had their own technique. Parking and unloading had to be done quickly so everybody had a chance to dump their boxes. You reversed at an angle to the pavement and parked with the boot opposite your stall if you were on an outside row. This left the maximum space for other unloaders. Woe betide anyone who left their car parallel to the pavement, taking up three spaces. Priscilla, who had the quickest temper I have ever witnessed in a public place, would leap out from behind her stall. Foul oaths would pour down on the transgressor. Sometimes the oaths were heatedly exchanged. Sometimes the transgressor drove off. It was always entertaining.

I was selling children’s books, and children’s books trigger memories. Very often both men and women told me their own stories. One day an old lady who looked like a porcelain doll stopped in front of me. She was dressed from head to toe in faux tiger fur, with a matching hat, holding a cane with a polished ebony tiger head. She told me how she had believed she was a tiger in spirit ever since she had been a little girl. Did I have a book for her? I did. It was called Imagine You Are a Tiger with a beautiful illustration of a tiger on the cover. She bought every copy.

Another day a woman stopped in front of my stall wearing sunglasses and the sort of the expensive clothes and haircut that could only come from Knightsbridge. She had, it emerged, two grandchildren, and she wanted to buy them a special present because their father, who was married to her daughter, had walked out on his family two weeks before and hadn’t been heard of since. How would the children cope, not knowing why they didn’t have a father? Her daughter had told them he had gone on holiday. The woman never took off her sunglasses. As she spoke, tears poured down her cheeks. After about twenty minutes she sighed as if her heart was breaking, chose two books, asked me to sign them, thanked me and walked away.

Beside me, Andy looked up. ‘Takes all sorts,’ he said simply. ‘Have a cup of tea.’

Karen Wallace was born in Canada. She came to England around the time Elvis Presley got famous. Raspberries on the Yangtze was shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Fiction prize in 2001. Her most recent books are Alice Goes to Hollywood and Alfie Takes Action.

18-05-2020

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