All Change

May 7th, 2014 by admin No comments »

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Old Street Station has just undergone superficial rebranding (it’s still just a station with a dozen shops) but this station may also become the model for TfL to replace established independent businesses in other tube stations with Pop-up businesses. Our hairdresser, newsagent/printers, shoe shop, clothes shop and phone stall have all gone.  All these independent businesses are (or were) established and mature shops serving longstanding needs for their customers.

The remaining businesses in Old Street Station have more secure leases that pre-dated TfL and have been able to stay. TfL had asked the bookshop to accept a pay out, to leave and give way to another Pop-up unit as well – but we declined the offer.

The electric bike shop, business seminar company, spectacles, pressed juice, and marshmallow Pop-ups are the first replacements; the newcomers are allegedly paying up to four times the existing rents. The Pop-up shop managers that I have talked to are essentially running marketing exercises, using passengers of Old Street Station to gauge reaction to their products. They’re relatively inexperienced if not completely new to the marketplace and so are enthusiastic to learn from their brief visits and  seem to think that the existing shopkeepers and general public are universally excited by their arrival.

There has been an expensive design makeover of the subway tunnels and shop fronts at the same time. TfL are rumoured to have paid in the region of £1,000 per window for some of the shop graphics they’ve had installed and costly security guards are paid to patrol the station for long hours and escort homeless people away from the premises.

The overall tidying up of the infrastructure (after decades of neglect) has been welcomed by everyone, passengers and shopkeepers alike.  But what do the regular commuters and station users really think about losing day to day facilities and supplies in exchange for a sort of rolling exhibition of luxury products (bicycles costing tens of thousands of pounds each!)? Is it merely an inconvenience that you may no longer be able to buy a last minute print-out from a memory stick or have a mobile phone sorted out, have a haircut or buy some new shoes or clothes? Old Street Station’s previous  reputation  as a useful shopping centre in an area of sandwich and coffee chain stores will be knocked back.

If  TfL were to close down their ticket offices too,  to lease them out to Amazon for collection lockers or similar commercial ends, then our tube stations would take on an altogether less useful and more questionable role in passengers’ daily lives.

I would always welcome change for the common good; but wonder who these changes are going to effect and who they are going to profit…

Bookseller of Silicon Roundabout

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Despatches from the London Book Fair

April 14th, 2014 by admin No comments »

The bunting is down, the boxes packed. The face muscles of the publishing world can relax for another year.

All of us at Camden Lock Books went along to the fair on different days. Jason was there on the first morning and came back with the question: with only 1000 bookshops left in the UK, what do all these people do?

Fair point I thought, when I went on Thursday. It was certainly busy. I found it heartening that whilst cultural commentators left right and centre are prophesying a bookopalypse there are still a dizzying number of people doing… well, something.

I heard two talks by YA author Malorie Blackman and she was also positive about the future of publishing. She spoke of how writers have had to respond to a increased pressure from readers for immediacy, caused – in part – by growing up on a diet rich in multimedia. She also said that with the increased focus by the American film industry on YA books (and focus I mean piles and piles of cash), it has become more difficult for British writers to break through. She said that we shouldn’t worry though and that the funding is still there – provided that you are writing about vampires, werewolves or the end of the world.

As a side note I was really pleased to hear an author speak who has such strong and clear ethical convictions. They permeate her writing in a way that is neither onerous or preachy. You can just tell that she cares.

I also saw a talk by an affable chap from the digital team of Hodder that was encouraging in the sense that their non book products are still being imagined as supplements to books. For example it was the 15th Anniversary of David Almond’s Skellig last year and Hodder created a fancy all-singing all-dancing ebook, but it was released alongside a gift hardback. So make of that what you will.

My abiding impressions were of bewilderment and exhaustion. How did everyone else find it? Get in touch here or on our facebook wall.

SF

Bookseller of Silicon Roundabout

You know you’re a bibliophile when…

April 3rd, 2014 by admin 1 comment »

When I was seven years old I almost knocked myself out.

Not particularly unusual. I was a clumsy and absent-minded child and my early life was a string of near catastrophes. My poor mum was constantly snatching me out from under the wheels of articulated lorries and putting out fires in my hair. And I have three brothers god help her.

But on that day I was being particularly careless. It was world book day and we’d had a fair at school. We’d all got those £1 book vouchers – the perfect foil for manipulating your parents into buying you a new book.

I chose Captain Underpants. For the uninitiated, it’s a brilliant book about two cheeky chappies who hypnotize their headteacher – causing him to strip down to his y-fronts and prance around like shit superman. It’s hilarious.

So hilarious in fact that I couldn’t put it down. Not even to walk home from school.  So there I was, merrily minding my own business, when out of nowhere appears this lamppost. Right there on the side of the road, totally unexpected. And before I know it I’m seeing stars. I was initially furious but on reflection I mellowed; it did prevent me from wandering out into the road after all.

So next time someone bumps into you on a tube platform or a crowded street because they’ve got their nose buried in a book, just remember…

It’s me. I’m that guy.

SF

What’s you earliest inspiration or memory about your love of reading? Share them with us in the comments or on twitter (#babybibliophile)

Top 40 books by Nobel literary and peace laureates

March 20th, 2014 by admin No comments »

1/Alice Munro (2013) – Selected stories (£9.99)

2/Mario Vargas Llosa (2010) – Feast of the Goat (£8.99)

3/Doris Lessing (2007) – The Grass is Singing (£8.99)

4/Orhan Pamuk (2006) – My Name is Red (£8.99)

5/Orhan Pamuk (2006) The White Castle (£8.00)

6/Harold Pinter (2005) – The Birthday Party (£9.99)

7/J.M. Coetzee (2003) – Disgrace (£8.99)

8/Imre Kertesz (2002) – Kaddish for an Unborn Child (£8.99)

9/V.S. Naipaul (2001) – A House for Mr Biswas (£10.99)

10/Jose Saramago (1998) – Blindness (£8.99)

11/Dario Fo (1997) – Accidental Death of an Anarchist (£8.99)

12/Seamus Heaney (1995) – Death of a Naturalist (£9.99)

13/Kenzeburo Oe (1994) – Silent Cry (£8.99)

14/Toni Morrison (1993) – Song of Solomon (£8.99)

15/Derek Walcott (1992) – Selected Poems (£16.99)

16/Nadine Gordimer (1991) – No Time Like the Present (£8.99)

17/Naguib Mahfouz (1988) – Palace Walk (£9.99)

18/William Golding (1983) – Lord of the Flies (£7.99)

18/Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1982) – 100 Years of Solitude (£8.99)

20/Saul Bellow (1976) – Herzog (£9.99)

21/Pablo Neruda (1971) – Selected Poems (£9.95)

22/Alexandr Solzhenitsyn (1970) – One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (£7.99)

23/Samuel Beckett (1969) – Complete Dramatic Works (£17.99)

24/Jean-Paul Sartre (1964) – Nausea (£9.99)

25/John Steinbeck (1962) – The Grapes of Wrath (£9.99)

26/Boris Pasternak (1958) – Doctor Zhivago (£8.99)

27/Albert Camus (1957) – The Outsider (£7.99)

28/Ernest Hemmingway (1954) – The Old Man and the Sea (£5.99)

29/Ernest Hemmingway (1954) For Whom the Bell Tolls (£6.99)

30/William Faulkner (1949) – The Sound and the Fury (£8.99)

31/T.S. Eliot (1948) – The Wasteland and Other Poems (£9.99)

32/Herman Hesse (1946) – Siddhartha (£9.99)

33/Thomas Mann (1929) – The Magic Mountain (£9.99)

34/William Butler Yeats (1923) – Collected Poems (£10.99)

35/Knut Hamsun (1920) – Hunger (£10)

36/Rudyard Kipling (1907) – Kim (£7.99)

Nobel peace laureates’ books

37/Liu Xiaobo (2010) – No Enemies, No Hatred (£13.95)

38/Barack Obama (2009) – Dreams from My Father (£9.99)

39/Nelson Mandela (1993) – The Long Walk to Freedom (£14.99)

40/Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama (1989) – A Profound Mind (£8.99)

 

 

 

Starving writers

March 5th, 2014 by admin No comments »

Someone once told me that a novelist who began his career in the 90s gave him the following piece of advice: ‘If ever you make back your advance on a book, fire your agent’.

That it is coming more difficult to survive as a writer – as a novelist in particular – is a common complaint. We have been hearing a lot about how publishers has been getting progressively more ruthless about dropping their midlist writers, how advances are shrinking, and how a first book is now make or break.

Robert McCrum wrote an article about it this weekend in the Observer, profiling a handful of authors who have had bestselling books in the past but are now struggling to make ends meet.

Some of this he puts down to the financial crisis, but a large part of it he attributes to effect that the digital revolution – combined with the neo-liberalist agenda of the big tech companies – has had on copyright. He says that before the year 2000 people who produced a creative product could expect to receive a reasonable financial reward for their endeavours. Now digital dissemination has made this impossible.

This argument might be true for film and music, but I don’t think it holds as much water when it comes to books. Yes, people are buying less (Nielsen BookScan recorded a 6.5% fall in 2013), but is that because they are stealing pirated versions instead? Digital books are certainly better controlled than digital music, and Amazon has played a big part in this (not that I’ll be queuing up to thank them).

Which takes me back to the beginning of the article. The ridiculous advances that were being paid out up until the crisis were unsustainable. They were speculative, and they were a symptom of the culture of excess which led to credit drying out.

But that doesn’t mean it’s all doom and gloom. New fiction is doing better than ever in our shop; Go Ghana Go by Taiye Selasi and The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer are both in our top 5 bestsellers at the moment. Bring on the young blood!

SF

Bookseller of Silicon Roundabout

Are indies elitist?

March 1st, 2014 by admin No comments »

I know I’m a little late to the party, but the article Eleanor Catton wrote before Christmas about literary elitism has got me thinking.

In it she makes the argument that we tend now to read books as consumers rather than as critics, and that our responses are therefore guided by consumerist expectations. We are passive, we want to be entertained and we feel cheated when the ‘product’ demands that we bring something in order that it can be enjoyed:

‘Consumerism, requiring its products to be both endlessly desirable and endlessly disposable, cannot make sense of art, which is neither — not desirable, because an encounter already is, and not disposable, because an encounter exists relationally, in space and time.’

All good stuff.

It made me wonder, if this is true, what it means for bookselling. By virtue of economic necessity many bookshops are becoming more specialised. Many areas of the market – pop-fiction being a particularly good example – are dominated by Amazon and the supermarkets. I think it would be fair to say many readers see these books as consumer commodities: they are imminently interchangeable. Publishers understand this and have become very adept at advertising these books’ contents on the cover. See a solitary silhouetted figure walking down an empty road? You know you are getting an American thriller. It’s like how when you see that big yellow ‘M’, you can already taste the Big Mac in your mouth.

Because of this interchangeability price is high up the list of readers’ selection factors. Obviously indies aren’t going to be competing on price, we don’t have the buying economies blah blah yada yada.

So we specialise. In the case of our bookshop when it comes to fiction our focus is literary. We have a large photography section. These choices of course aren’t made purely on the basis of necessity; we also choose to sell these things because we like to sell them.

Which leads me to ask, does specialisation carry with it a whiff of elitism? And does the fact that bookshops are getting more specialised mean they are getting to be elitist?

Catton’s article carries a dictionary definition of elistism as ‘the advocacy or existence of an elite’. As she notes, pretty weak. By only picking books that we think are ‘better’ you could suppose that, within the definition, we are being elitist. And by rejecting these books the mass market is making the distinction that they are – if not better – at least not interchangeable.

Now, you’re going to tell me that’s not an answer to the question. And you’d be right. I’m not entirely sure what I think. Elitism is too emotive a word, I cannot separate it from its sociological freight. But I do think it’s a question worth asking.

Whadda y’all think?

SF

Bookseller of Silicon Roundabout

Book sniffing exhibition

February 25th, 2014 by admin 1 comment »

A couple of weeks ago Jason wrote a post about an olfactory inventor extraordinaire who was aiming to bridge the gap between e-reading and real reading by adding a button to e-readers which – when pressed – would emit the perfume of used books.

Well the idea seems to be catching on. London based artist Paul Schutze is currently putting on an exhibition at Maggs Bros booksellers in Mayfair which aims to explore the differences between the digital and physical reading experiences.  The exhibit is called ‘Silent Surface’ and includes a book sprayed with a perfume modeled on the aroma of books (named ‘Libro De Tenebris’), as well as books being burned or destroyed.

The first part I get. But burning books… always a contentious issue. The smell or sight of burning pages is not something that I really associate with the experience of reading.

Bulgakov and Bradbury have had their say on the matter. What do you think?

SF

Bookseller of Silicon Roundabout

(read more about the exhibition here)

Celeb Watch

February 18th, 2014 by admin No comments »

Stars of the new Lego Movie were seen taking a break from their gruelling publicity tour this weekend, when they were snapped at a book shop in Old Street Station.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” said one shopper, “They had disguises on but I’d recognise them anywhere. I almost stood on one little fella but thankfully his bodyguard scooped him up just in time.”

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One book was of particular interest.

The film hit box offices at the beginning of this month to rave reviews and the stars have been in the news non-stop ever since.

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This famed method actor was seen preparing for his next role.

“It must be tough to be so much in the spotlight,” mused another shopper, “it’s nice to know they’re just people – like you and me.”

SF

Bookseller of Silicon Roundabout

To see more miniature books see here, or come and visit us in the shop!

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Some thoughts on the Novel

February 15th, 2014 by admin No comments »

A customer recently told me that he can’t stand to read novels anymore because spending so much time reading newspapers has meant he finds it difficult to read unbroken lines.

Which got me to thinking: what have us booksellers been belly-aching about Amazon for? We’ve misdirected our ire. I’ve identified the true villains, and I’ve come up with the solution. It’s simple; I’ll just set fire to the newsagents. Or if not the newsagents then perhaps Rebekah Brooks… Hugh Grant would cheer me on. We could shoot a grisly sequel to Notting Hill.

But putting threats of arson and witch-burnings aside, there certainly has been a crisis of confidence in the novel as a form in the last 10 years. Take Philip Roth. He said in 2009 that novels will become a ‘cultic’ minority enthusiasm within 25 years, and it’s ‘the print that’s the problem, it’s the book, the object itself’. But we can take with a pinch of salt. Or better sugar. After all, can anyone remember the last time Roth said something that wasn’t unpalatably bitter?

People have written a lot about declining attention spans in the digital age and how this has created an apathetic attitude towards long form fiction. But then a lot of people have also been writing very long books, and a lot of people have been reading them. We have also been handing out awards for them – the Booker Prize for Eleanor Catton’s 832-page clobbering wedge The Luminaries being one example.

So what are we to make of this then? On the one hand we are being told by the likes of Jonathan Franzen that we are all going to be transformed into drivelling dirges able only to conceptualise narratives in terms of trending hashtags, and on the other hand we are reading and slapping prizes on books that make Middlemarch seem mercifully short. It’s very confusing.

First off I think that our tendency towards these long novels goes some way to put paid to Roth’s criticism of the book as an object. The physical size of these books shows that we are not as concerned with their obtrusiveness as much as has been thought.

Secondly I think the way that our television viewing habits have changed provide an illuminating analogy when it comes to thinking about our attention spans. American drama series that focus on one continuous narrative, stretched over 5 or six series, each with at least 12 hour long episodes have become more and more popular. Not only that, but instead of being released serially, entertainment companies such as Netflix are releasing these shows to viewers all at once (the second series of House of Cards which was released yesterday being a fine example). These shows are far more like novels than films, in their structure and their scope. And our hunger for them shows that we haven’t lost interest in the big stories and big characters that only a novel can tell and bring to life.

The schizophrenic tendency that Franzen has identified certainly applies to the way that we communicate with one another, which is becoming more and more telegraphic. But it’s not the death knell for the novel. Something will get it in the end, but it’s not going to be twitter. There’s appetite for stories yet.

SF

The Bookseller of Silicon Roundabout

A Man With a Button

February 10th, 2014 by Editor 3 comments »

The tall man’s goatee beard that was tied in knots reminding me of boyhood images of Blackbeard. He was in his later middle-age and wore a hipster tweed suit that struck me as somewhat incongruous. His softly spoken brogue and complimentary good manners together with his broad range of highly literate book purchases piqued my interest and respect.

When this customer gave me his cue, I was ready to engage with him. Though I really couldn’t have guessed where this was going…

He asked me to direct him to the nearby Google campus and I gave him directions; but I’d been slow to realize that he was teeing me up for a revelation.

“I am the inventor” of the button that will bring the smell of books to all future e-readers,  he explained; and,  when my mouth dropped open, he went on,  ”I am a perfumer”.

He proceeded to sing the praises of the smell of the books in Trinity College Library, Dublin; “an olfactory delight”, was his measured appraisal.

I was part spellbound by his enthusiasm, part amazed by his eccentricity, but wholly amazed that he truly foresaw a future for his book smell button.

It’s true that I had once come across an antiquarian bookseller who regularly put his beaky nose deep into the pages of any antiquarian book he was considering buying to inhale the book’s past and to inform his appraisal.

But I was finding it  almost impossible to separate the crazy notion of book sniffing from the real craze of sniffing glue, conflating  them in my mind into people buying e-readers for their addictive fix of the smell of old books.

On innumerable occasions customers have complimented me on the smell of the bookshop – it had somehow reinforced the authenticity of the place to them.  This man’s smell button was purporting to somehow reinforce the authenticity of an e-reader.

Whereas our bookshop smell genuinely arises from the mixture of new and antiquarian books, the book smell button is as artificial as is the quest to copy all the various aspects of the book using digital, electronic or mechanical means.

They are two separate artifacts. Is there any point conflating them?

The Bookseller of Silicon Roundabout