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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Why I don't use book shops much

I usually buy books online. I tend to get scolded at dinner parties for the damage I'm thereby doing to my friendly neighbourhood bookstore. I fear that bookstores, friendly or otherwise, may be damaging themselves without help from me. On Radio Four this morning I heard an extract from a book called "The Junior Officers Reading Club". Having your book read on Radio Four is the publishing equivalent of a Radio One record of the week and therefore you'd expect the trade to be at least slightly poised.

Finding myself in the King's Road this afternoon I went into a branch of one of Britain's biggest book retailers, a place I might reasonably expect to find such a book. I enquired on the ground floor. Years working on the other side of the counter have taught me how to be a good customer. My presentation goes like this. "They're reading a book on Radio Four this week. [I'll confess, I half anticipated that I wouldn't have to go any further than this. I was wrong. ] It's called something like The Junior Officers Reading Club." There's a slight flicker of recognition on his face but he has to look it up on their computer system (which probably means he's looking on Amazon). He tells me it's downstairs in History. Obvious place, really, for a book about serving in the army in contemporary Afghanistan. The tyranny of categories kicks in, which is half the problem for book retailers, as it is for record retailers. You don't just have to work out where it is. You have to work out where they think it is which is based on what they think it is. These are not problems for you and Google.

I go down to History unaccompanied. If I'd asked after the Bovril in my local Sainsbury the assistant would have taken me to it. That's how they roll. Seemingly this does not apply to the spending of £16.99. I look – and bear in mind I'm a world-class looker – on the table where the big-selling military books are displayed. No sign. I ask another assistant. I've been sent down from upstairs etc etc. Again there's that faint gleam of recognition from him. I'm starting to wonder if they coach that gleam. He looks on the system which assures him that the book is present in the store. He takes me over to the place where it is assigned to live. He looks without success. He goes back to the desk to check whether it's actually been "put out" (because there's a whole world of difference between in-stock and on-sale). As he does so I look down and see the book. One copy, which means either there have been lots of sales and the staff haven't noticed or they have ordered one copy which suggests their buying could be keener.

Then I thank him. How English am I? What am I thanking him for? He didn't know what I was after or help me find it. In fact most of my time in the shop I was dealing with the difficulties of being in the shop. In a shop they've often hidden what you want behind lots of things they think you want. It's a bit like going to the office. Most of the time in the office you're dealing with problems that only arise because you're in the office. On the occasions I complain in a shop I invariably end up saying "you are confusing your problems with mine. If you hadn't introduced a system to make your life easier you might be making my life easier." Anyway, I bought the book. More fool me. I should have just ordered it on Amazon. It would probably have been home ahead of me.

A few years ago I did a presentation at a meeting of the Institute of PRs. Don't laugh. I concluded by saying that in the near future all providers of information would be replaced by just two things. One was Google, an unparalleled way of pulling information towards you. The other was what I like to call the House Hippie. House Hippies know everything. They are Google with skin. When I worked in retail there were a few House Hippies. They were often terrible with customers but they knew more about the stock than the most sophisticated retrieval system. If something was a Radio Four book they bloody well knew. I stand by what I said, particularly when it applies to PRs, who seem to recruit a remarkable number of people who have a passion for anything but communication. They long ago stopped informing people of anything. In this maybe they are just recognising the reality of the world against which I came up this afternoon. Any information of any interest you find out yourself. The only people worth consulting are experts. And if a shop has a range of stock which is so wide that the staff can't be expert in it, they mustn't be surprised if we go to the digital shelf and help ourselves.

(This over-long post was written in a hospital corridor waiting for a family member's x-ray to come back. Slight fracture.)