I had never been much of a reader. I found novels daunting, weighty, difficult to finish. Even the good ones with their catchy covers and gushing praise rarely kept me hooked for more than a few chapters. If that.
So when my flatmate at university insisted I read A Farewell to Arms, thrusting a copy of the tattered book into my hand like a grenade, I didn’t expect to start it. Let alone finish it.
A few days later, much to my surprise, I was in the literature department of the college library.
‘Have you got any more books like this?’ I asked the librarian, showing her my book.
‘Hemingway,’ she murmured unenthusiastically picking up a pencil and writing out a list: Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Twain, Kerouac, Thoreau, Updike, Mailer, Bellow, Burroughs, Vonnegut, Bukowski, Wolfe, Faulkner, Miller, McCarthy, Pynchon, Auster.
‘And they’re just the men,’ she said as she gave me the list. ‘When you’ve read those, come back and I’ll give you the really good ones. The women.’
‘Oh yes, I will,’ I replied weakly. Then disappeared off down the dusty aisles to get my books.
The next three or four weeks were spent in my room drinking coffee, smoking and reading. Lectures and labs passed me by. Food was delivered. My favourite TV programs missed. Even the girl I was seeing on the Humanities course took a back seat.
I was obsessed and yet it was only when I went back to the library to pick up my new stash that I realised all the authors were American. Explained by the fact that on my first visit I’d wandered into the American Literature department.
I said ‘Hello’ to the librarian at the desk again.
‘Finished?’ she asked.
‘I’m here for my next assignment.’
She half laughed and wrote me out another list. A longer one. ‘Here. And good luck.’
A month later I decided there seemed little point in continuing my studies. So one Friday evening I packed my bags and told my flatmate I was leaving.
‘I’m going to my brother’s in London,’ I told him. ‘If my parents phone, tell them I’m on holiday.’
When I got to the capital and explained my idea to my brother, he agreed instantly, even insisting he lent me money. Since the age of 17, he’d worked as a fashion photographer and understood the importance of feeding your soul. Listening to your inner voice and ignoring the wishes and advice of other people, your friends, and especially your parents.
After a few months of searching for premises, I opened a small oblong bookshop off The Edgware Road. I called it The Great American Bookshop.
I had two rules. The authors had to be American and every copy had to be great! I wanted the old, weird, limited, foreign, promo, signed editions. I wanted stuff you couldn’t buy anywhere else except at The Great American Bookshop. I wanted people to walk in and feel like they were walking back in time. Back into the dark soul of American culture.
And it worked. Business boomed.
I developed a knack for going to the right places at the right time, picking up great books for next to nothing. Charity shops, house clearances, auctions, book fairs, car boot sales. You name it, any place where people were getting rid of books, I was there.
Some days I could feel my hand quivering when I was near a first edition Steinbeck or a signed Updike or a rare promo Kerouac. My ability was uncanny and I soon made a name for myself flogging rare books I’d picked up for pennies. Crap I’d found in bargain bins then flogged off for a huge profit. In the 19th century, I’d have probably been hanged as a fraudster. In 2019, I was regarded as a genius.
True I wasn’t cavorting around America in a station wagon with Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy. But I wasn’t far off. Authors, actors, musicians, journalists, directors, even politicians, all came into my shop to talk about books, some even invited me out for dinner and drinks. I became known as The Book Guy, almost a minor celebrity, almost as popular as some of the authors in my shop. A remarkable turnaround for someone who was destined for a dull career as a Plant Biologist.
Then one day I put a sign above the door of the shop. It read:
Never Judge a Book by its Cover
My sales doubled and it dawned on me exactly what I was doing in this small shop in North London.
I wasn’t selling books. I was selling memorabilia. Curios. Gifts.
When my customers flicked through my precious first editions like they were browsing store catalogues. They weren’t assessing the writing or checking out the blurb on the back. They were making sure their rare piece of American culture wasn’t ripped, defaced or had pages missing.
For them the writing was irrelevant. They were just rather annoying lengthy footnotes. Even the author and title weren’t that important. Mere references to distinguish one book from another. Here in The Great American Bookshop, it was all about the book — the cover, the design, the edition, the signature. How much it was worth.
When I realised all of this, I could hardly stop laughing. It was hilarious. There I was thinking I was some high brow bookseller, some intellectual. When I was actually running a damn gift shop. All that was missing were sticks of rock, a windbreaker and a bucket and spade. If it wasn’t for the fact that I was making a packet, I’d have gone back to my studies years ago.
I didn’t. And ten years later my book/gift shop was still going strong, my ability for digging out great books undimmed. I now had a wife and a small child called Ben, but the shop and its philosophy remained the same. No fancy Penguin reprints here. Everything, just as before, had been dragged out of soggy book bins in Carlisle, Comellell, Caithness or Criccieth.
I’d even made trips to New York, Paris, LA, Stockholm, Moscow to meet other sellers and talk about books. Or more invariably talk about books for half an hour before hitting the pub to watch the football and get blind drunk. Even obsessive book hunters needed a break.
My peers were in awe of me. Drunk or sober no one could match me. I was unique, I had the Midas Touch they said. An ability to find rare books in places where before there was just stacks of Mills & Boon, John Grisham and Dan Brown.
Where this gift came from I had no idea. Certainly not my parents. They were fuddy-duddy science teachers who believed in fact and analysis. And who according to them I only found these books because statistically speaking I was bound to find a good one once in a while.
But despite them, things were good. Very good. At 30 I couldn’t have hoped for or planned anything better. Except for one thing.
As if my ego wasn’t big enough. I too wanted to write a novel.
I expected my wife to laugh at the prospect. ‘You, write a novel?’ I was braced for. But she was remarkably supportive. Even suggested I took some time out to write.
‘But the books!’ I countered. ‘I’ve got to keep getting the books — it never stops.’
‘We’ve got millions of books in the cellar,’ she argued. ‘Half of them you’ve never seen, all those ones people have dropped off over the years. Why don’t you go to write somewhere and I’ll sort through them. It’ll be fun. I might find some gems of my own.’
My eyes narrowed. I was unsure, I hated letting go of my books, it had been my life for ten years and I wasn’t sure how I would deal with not being involved.
But in the end, she insisted: ‘If you don’t do this now. You’ll never stop going on about it.’
She was right. So I decided to take three months out and leave my wife to run the shop. An actor friend suggested I use his holiday home in Devon to lay down my masterpiece in. No-one would bother me there especially as it was winter. So one bright morning in February I set off on my adventure into the realms of authordom.
From years of working in the shop, I felt all my cast of characters were already in place. The hard bit was going to be the story. I mean, what on earth was I going to write about? I loved reading. I loved film. I loved plot and intrigue. I loved life. But I had no real imagination of my own. Not that I thought it mattered I told myself. It was perhaps buried deep down somewhere waiting to be unleashed onto the waiting world.
When my wife came to visit me on my second weekend in Devon, I couldn’t stop talking. Asking her about the shop, what had been sold, who had been in. Even though she would visit me every two weeks to keep me sane and assess my progress, I was already feeling intensely isolated in my hidey-hole in Devon.
She filled me in with the news and gossip but I could tell she was anxious to find out about my progress with the book. And that was the bit I had been dreading. Because for two long weeks, I had done nothing. Except stare out through the window from my desk at the pie-shaped hill on the other side of the valley.
I lied and said I’d been busy making notes. She nodded understandably, but I could tell she knew I’d done bugger all.
The next two weeks were worse. I would get up early with good intentions, have a coffee, sit down at my desk, make another coffee and then look out of the window for another hour trying desperately to come up with something. Anything. A Western, a sci-fi, a crime thriller.
After my third coffee, I would make breakfast. A large breakfast that took time and effort: black pudding, poached eggs, sautéed mushrooms, bacon, sausage, fried bread, heart attack.
This I would eat while I read the paper which I had delivered each morning. Then at around 11.30, I got down to work. Real work. Now I was ready.
Only I didn’t. I ended up staring out of the window wondering how long the pie-shaped hill had been there. Had people once lived there in ancient times? Why was it there in the first place? What was it called? Maybe I should go and visit it. Get some inspiration. Anything to avoid writing this damn novel.
By the third Saturday, I decided to give myself the ‘afternoon off’ and went down the pub for lunch. The two-mile walk along the coast to the nearest village might jolt my mind into action.
But of course, it didn’t. I became a regular and a mixed grill and three or four pints every lunchtime was as far as my novel got. I mean, who was I kidding? Was I really going to write a novel? A novel as good as all The Greats I was surrounded by in London. Never in a million years. I hadn’t even written a paragraph. Yet alone a full novel. I was a charlatan. A joke. A dreamer.
On the fourth Saturday, I was awoken by knocking at my door. It was my wife and I was a wreck. She asked me what was happening and I told her.
‘Look,’ I started. ‘Just because I like A Moveable Feast. Adore Under The Volcano. Love This Side of Paradise. Fawn over Cannery Row. It doesn’t mean I can write. Or even want to write. I’m a bookseller and I love it. I’m the best there is. No one has the ability I have and the thought of sitting here month after month on my own writing a book when I could be out looking for books using my God-given gift is the worst thing I can imagine. My version of hell.’
As we drove back to London that night she asked me if I had actually written anything.
I said I had, ‘Four words.’
‘Four words,’ she laughed. ‘Is that all?’
‘Yes. Four weeks. Four words.’
‘What were they?’
I grinned. ‘Guess?’
‘The Great American Bookshop, perhaps?’ she ventured.
I was gutted. ‘How did you know that?’ I asked. ‘Did you see my monitor or something?’
She sighed and shrugged as best someone can while driving.
‘Because I know you. You were the dopey teenager who came into my library that morning asking for a list of books by American writers you’ve never even heard of. Who then reads them, gives up his course and comes to London to open an American bookshop and who within six months knows more about American literature than people who’ve studied it for decades. Then this man, no longer a clueless boy, rings me up on a whim asking for a date, saying he’s got some great books for me to read. You’re like Casanova or someone and I’m bowled over and make a three-hour train trip for a drink with someone I’ve met twice in my life in a library. And now you are asking me how I know what you are going to call your novel? Probably the first thing that comes into your head. The place you’ve been living in for the past ten years. The Great American Bookshop.’
‘Wow!’ I swooned. ‘Am I that predictable?’
‘In a word. Yes.’
‘OK smartass,’ I replied. ‘What would have happened if on that morning I had taken a turn to the right and walked into the French Literature section instead of the American one?’
She seemed to scoff at the question. ‘Well, nothing. Most likely you would have ended up reading Balzac instead of Burroughs. Married someone called Florence. Ben would have been called Bernard, Beaufort or Benedict. The Great American Bookshop would have never existed because The Great French Bookshop would have sounded ridiculous. And I would have probably married some boring academic called Carl. That’s what would have happened.’
I shook my head in disbelief. ‘Now that’s a story. Why couldn’t I have thought of that?’
She patted my leg gently. ‘Because I’m the writer and you’re the bookseller. Maybe we should keep it like that.’
She winked at me before looking back out of the window into the streaming lights of London.