June 20, 2011

Libraires Sans Frontières

From the closure of Borders and Angus and Robertson stores across the country, to Nick Sherry's prediction that bookstores won't exist within five years (What's he the minister for again? Oh, he's the Minister for Small Business. Good to know we've got his support!), you could be forgiven for thinking that the entire book industry is entering its end times.


Which, given that I work in a bookstore and would like to continue to do so, is an issue that strikes close to my heart.

But before we write the obituary, let's get a few things straight.

Borders didn't fail because of online trading, or e-books, or anything new-fangled like that. It failed because it was a bad bookstore. I used to work there, so I feel I can say this with perfect impunity: Borders was fucking shit.

If one day some Borders supremo had decided that they should stop selling books and start selling ... say, whitegoods, or clothes, or Volkswagens, nothing about the way the business ran would change. The fact that they sold books meant nothing to the people running the company. They would argue, I'm sure, that a business is a business, and then they'd point to pie-charts to explain why books should be treated like any other commodity. But book retail is (almost) unique, and can't be treated like you're running an 'anything' store. Why not? Because --- and this is probably the most un-cynical, high-falutin', philosophical-type thing I'll ever say on this blog --- books are important. Reading is important. Learning, and growing, and discovering are all important. Books are important.

In a good bookstore there will be a surfeit of knowledgeable staff who are enthusiastic about matching the right book to a customer's needs. At Borders there was a bunch of surly kids who didn't know a damn thing. Okay, this is an exaggeration, there were many good staff at both Borders I worked at ... but it's a slighter exaggeration than it should be. I worked alongside too many people who just didn't read, and had no interest in books at all.

And there were far too few of those surly kids anyway. Even if you did want to ask a question, good luck finding somebody to ask. When looking at ways to maximise revenue, Borders would always, always think first of cutting staff. Eventually their stores (vast expanses, all) were being run by skeleton crews. There weren't enough staff to help the customers, and there weren't enough staff to keep the store neat and tidy. That's not just my anal retentive side coming out, Borders un-alphabetised shelves were a massive problem: how can you sell somebody a book you can't find? Not once, in all my time at Borders, did any manager suggest that the state of the store might be having adverse effects on the bottom line, yet it was perfectly obvious to every member of the floor-staff. A manager did, at one point, suggest that if the computer showed we had one copy of something we should tell the customer we were sold out, to save us the time of searching for a book we'd never find. Can a store that contemptuous of its customers ever survive?

So then, if you're selling fewer books, how to make up the shortfall? Immediately after they were taken over by the REDGroup (hacks and morons, I guarantee), Borders went through their entire backlist, marking up prices to RRP +10%. With the exception of the discounted new releases that they stacked up the front, every single book, CD and DVD in their stores was more expensive than it should have been. They hoped, I'm sure, that people simply wouldn't notice. Which I guess is another pretty neat illustration of the utter contempt with which they treated their customers.

As the bills mounted up, Borders stopped paying the distributors, who stopped sending books to Borders stores. Major releases were simply skipped by the entire company. Long before they officially closed, I wandered into the Borders on Lygon Street to wile away a bit of time before seeing a movie at the Nova. Dave Eggers' book Zeitoun had just come out: a major new work by a major writer. Borders didn't have it. Across the road, Readings had a pile the size of an elephant. I knew Borders was dead that day, and that was nearly two years ago. Since then, it's just been the carcass twitching.

And former colleagues of mine, take heart, it wasn't your fault. The company simply didn't have any interest in letting you be booksellers, rather than check-out chicks.

I used to work at Borders. Now I work at a bookstore. End rant. (And check it out, now I'm punning bilingually!)

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: The March by E.L. Doctorow
books to go: 103

June 17, 2011

To Have and Have Not (#104)

To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway

What I said then:

I inherited a Hemingway box-set from my sister, and this is one of the ones I've got left.

What I say now:

After I finished To Have and Have Not I did a little bit of research, looking up online reviews and stuff. And I was quite relieved to discover that this is generally considered Hemingway's weakest novel ... so I wasn't imagining things! Apparently Hemingway himself said it was written in a rush to fulfil contractual obligations with his publisher, and called it 'a pile of trash.' I don't know if I'd go so far as him, but he's in the ballpark.

During the Great Depression, Harry Morgan has for years made a living running contraband between Cuba and Florida. Now he's settling down, putting his criminal past behind him and trying to eke out a living taking rich arseholes out sport-fishing. When one of his customers stiffs him on a thousand dollar tab and leaves him penniless, Morgan agrees to take on that old cliche and do one last job.

At this point, it's pretty entertaining. Hemingway does a good, economical job of introducing us to Morgan, a man who's fed up and out of his depth, and forcing him to plunge back into a life of crime. It could be the start of a decent little thriller. But, after agreeing to ferry a dozen Chinese from Cuba to the U.S., Morgan turns from a hapless dupe into a stone-cold psycho. He throttles the leader of the Chinese, dumps the rest overboard, and steals their money. For no reason. It runs absolutely counter to the character we've been introduced to, and makes me lose any interest whatsoever in Morgan's fate. This being a Hemingway novel, he eventually gets what's coming to him, but from throttling-Mr-Sing on, it is absolutely impossible to invest any emotion in Harry Morgan, or anything that happens to him. I was reading it to finish it, not for any pleasure.

Hemingway also does something bizarre with the last third of the book: suddenly, after Morgan and Morgan alone has been the focus for the first two-thirds, Hemingway starts tossing in secondary, and tertiary, and quaternary (look it up!) characters by the armful. He's the literary equivalent of Bernard Black making wine, only not nearly as much fun. We're suddenly introduced to a whole new set of rich arseholes (the equivalent, I suppose, of the rich arsehole who screwed over Morgan at the beginning) and asked to care about their insipid affairs, decaying marriages and inevitable suicides. It's really strange, and utterly pointless.

The writing itself is quite good (though I could have done without the random swinging between first and third person), but it can't make up for a plot composed almost entirely of holes. I've still got For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Sun Also Rises to come; I hope they're better than this.

Cheers, JC.

about to read: The March by E.L. Doctorow
books to go: 103

June 13, 2011

The Light of Day (#105)

The Light of Day by Graham Swift

What I said then: 

An incredibly dreary looking book about an inmate in a women’s prison.
What I say now:

I had it wrong. Sarah, the inmate in the women's prison is barely in the book at all; she is actually more of a MacGuffin. I wasn't wrong about the dreariness, though ...

The Light of Day is the story of George, a private detective who, over the course of a day in which he briefly visits Sarah in prison (she's a former client), thinks back over his life. The structural similarities to Cat's Eye are very marked, and it's possibly because I loved Atwood's novel so much that Swift's left me a bit cold.

George, our narrator, tells his story in an incredibly roundabout fashion which, for the first fifty or a hundred pages, often left me confused as to what was going on, and to whom. Swift, via George, tells multiple strands of his story all at once, interweaving them --- which would be fine, except he often jumps between them with no warning and doesn't give the reader any way of figuring out where we're at now. Sometimes he'd only spend a single paragraph in whatever time and place he was writing about, and sometimes it was only a sentence!

If you're going to faff about with confused timelines, then you've got to give the reader a bit of a hand keeping up. Swift refuses, so I was often forced to backtrack and re-read because the 'she' I thought he was writing about turned out to be a different 'she' altogether. Also not helping was the fact that the four major women in George's life all have incredibly dull, ordinary names: Helen; Sarah; Rachel and Rita. Their boring names, coupled with the fickle jumping about in time, meant I was well into the book before I could remember which was his ex, which was his daughter, which was his former lover and secretary, and which was his former client who murdered her husband who he's now in love with, who's in prison. Based on those descriptions I just gave, it really shouldn't have been tough to remember who was who!

Given the way it was structured, I thought that the George of the novel's present would, through thinking about his past, come to some realisation about himself, or figure something out, or learn something. But he never did. George narrates his whole story, but the telling of it doesn't change him in any way; he's already got everything straight in his own mind. How he is at the start of the book, is exactly how he is at the book's close, which made the novel feel kind of insubstantial. Why is George telling the story of his life, if it's not going to change him? Why write about a character who has all the answers?

One thing I did enjoy about the book was the way that it used the crime/thriller genre to subvert my expectations. Because George is a private detective and because one of the strands of the narrative details how Sarah came to be in prison, you're led to expect some kind of revelation or twist. Swift pulls a swifty by satisfying that expectation in a completely unexpected, un-genre-y way. Saying any more, of course, would be to spoil it, but it was the one moment while reading the book that I thought I was feeling what the author wanted me to (unless he actually wanted me to be swinging between bored and frustrated for most of it ... which I doubt).

Cheers, JC.

about to read: To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway
books to go: 104