My novel Have You Got That Book..? is set in a bookshop called Phoenix Books, but I will absolutely admit that it was based on the bookshop I was working in. While Phoenix books was located in a fictional suburb on the far outskirts of London, my bookshop was Waterstone’s in Stratford-upon-Avon, and I lifted nearly everything from real life to create the novel, from the lay-out of the shop and the day-to-day business of the job to the type of people who worked there – minus the drama, of course.
Rereading the novel has brought back lots of happy memories, particularly of how the place looked. Since I wrote it, Waterstone’s in Stratford-upon-Avon has changed location, to a bright, modern and much more suitable venue, which I thoroughly appreciated when I worked there and still love going in. But before then, it was in an old building that had been inadequately repurposed for a bookshop. It had once been two shops, but so many of the internal walls remained that the two parts never joined together very well. It had an eccentric lay-out, with dark corners, tight passage ways and unexpected areas, all made even more cramped by the display tables and extra shelving units that were crammed into every available space. The shelves weren’t uneven, as such, but they were all different and looked mismatched. Books frequently went missing, because there were so many places they could have been stashed. The shop was long and thin, with no natural light at the far end – in power cuts, we had to close because it was too dark to see, even during the day. There was no back entrance, so all deliveries had to go through the shop – very tricky when when the shop was full of customers, and made even more difficult by the change in floor levels accessed by a step in the middle of the shop. For many years, there was no air-conditioning or heating, so the summers were too hot and the winters too cold. There were two back rooms – one small office, where the managers, the cashier and the admin clerk worked, and another room which operated as kitchen, staff room, unpacking area and stock room. Sometimes it got so full of deliveries that we had to climb through the piles of boxes. It opened straight out on the shop floor, so customers would stick their heads in and ask us questions when we were eating our lunch. But despite all these challenges, we loved our crazy, quirky shop. What it lacked in convenience, it made up for in character. Customers liked the old-world feel of the place, tourists and locals alike. The only other place in town that sold books was WHSmith, so we prized our reputation as the ‘real bookshop’, and we certainly did beat them when it came to range and stock. We were open until eight o’clock in the evening, despite the fact that we were the only shop in town to do so. And we held the most amazing literary events, hosting authors regularly for talks and signings, drawing large audiences from a very long mailing list. Moving all the heavy furniture to fit in audiences of sometimes up to a hundred was exhausting and difficult, but somehow we managed.
I chanced upon the job by accident. I had been in Stratford studying Shakespeare (of course!) and the course was coming to an end. I didn’t want to leave, so when I saw that Waterstone’s were advertising for full-time staff, I jumped at it. That’s when I realised that I had always wanted to work in a bookshop. When I got the job, I also realised that this could be a long-term career. The other staff were people just like me – young, mostly university-educated book-lovers, dedicated and passionate about bookselling. Over the years, I worked with many different people, but we all had that in common. We read vociferously, and swapped books and recommendations all the time. I can’t remember who read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone first, but by the time the second book came out a year later, we all had and were passing around the proof copy of The Chamber of Secrets that Bloomsbury had sent to me. We loved the proofs and there was some stiff competition to get your hands on the best ones, along with the posters and marketing materials that the publishers sent. We became really good friends with the publisher’s reps that came in; they, like us, loved their books and the process of subbing new publications could take hours. We would all get excited over new books and gave far too much of our wages back to the company in sales, even with the generous staff discount. We worked together to find lost books and laughed together at the most ridiculous customers – I really did once get asked if Anne Frank had written anything else besides the diary. There was so much more to the job than stacking shelves and serving at the till; we all ordered stock for our own sections, and got the chance to do window displays, promotions and planning events, as well as being trained to do the back room stuff like counting the cash, unpacking and returning the books that hadn’t sold. But best of all, there was always a great team spirit. Despite the physical challenges, or maybe because of them, we worked really well together and kept the shop running relatively smoothly and successfully. I made some very great friends during my years there, and though none of them inspired the characters for my novel, they were the first people to read it.
I ended up working for Waterstone’s for eleven years, and only left because I was about to have my second child and chose to be a stay-at-home mum instead. It’s now been fifteen years since I worked there, and the company and the book trade have been through massive changes. I’m sure some of the things we used to get up to are no longer deemed acceptable. But whenever I go into any branch of Waterstone’s, I feel at home there, and want to say the staff “I am one of you.” If I lived in a town with a branch, I am certain I’d be back working there. And of course, if I ever get published and get the opportunity to do my own author events, it goes without saying that I will always say yes to a Waterstone’s.
The photographs you see in this post were old even before I started working there. Judging by the books, they were taken around 1987/88, which I believe is when the shop first opened. We found them during a clear-up, and no-one working there at the time remembered them being taken. They seem to have been taken professionally for promotional purposes. The exterior shot shows the shop as having two doors, which had been changed by the time I got there. The interior shot shows the front of the shop, and gives a very good impression of what the whole shop was like. These days, Front of Store in any branch of Waterstone’s is a beautifully presented display space for new titles and special offers – back then, customers walked directly into this jumbled mess. But as you can see, huge amounts of stock and the chance of finding absolutely anything – a real book-lover’s paradise!