I have some reading for you today. Writing about the old Waterstone’s in Stratford-upon-Avon has made me nostalgic, and so, in honour of that old shop that doesn’t exist anymore, I publish this extract from Have You Got that Book..? and dedicate it to all the people I worked with. Apart from tidying up some of the grammar, it has been left exactly as it was written and last edited over twenty years ago. This is taken from chapter 3; the much-loved manager of Phoenix Books is retiring and being replaced by a relative of the shop’s owners, but not many of the staff are happy with the change.
Two weeks later, Owen came into work wondering whose idea it had been to have Rodney’s leaving party the night before the new manger’s first day. Her first real visit to the shop at all, as it turned out, and she would be met by a shop full of hung-over staff with red bleary eyes and pounding heads.
The party had been raucous, to say the least. Rodney had chosen his favourite restaurant, an Italian family business that served up huge bowls of delicious pasta and the best pizzas in Robinsworth. Rodney had added to this copious bottles of Chianti and had instructed the waiters to keep the glasses full. He had then set an example by getting stupendously drunk.
“If a man can’t have a few drinks at his own retirement party, then what is the world coming to,” he roared. “Come on Milly, drink up. Susan, down in one.”
And everyone else seemed quite happy to follow him. Spirits had been low since the news that a stranger would be taking over had become known. James, of course, had been devastated, which he turned into anger that someone who didn’t know anything books or the shop would be in charge. His reaction was understandable, and the staff seemed to have taken it to heart. Much to Owen’s disapproval, Rodney was quite open in his agreement with James, which certainly didn’t help. Owen could sense a mounting wave of hysteria, despite all his best efforts to reassure everyone that the new manager had probably wanted to work in Robinsworth because it was already successful and therefore wouldn’t want to come in and change everything overnight. He wasn’t sure if anyone was listening to him though. In fact, it seemed that they were all set on drowning their sorrows and throwing caution to the wind.
Owen had drunk a fair amount himself, but had been determined that at least one of the staff would be in a fit condition to meet the new manager, and had carefully refrained at a sensible hour, keeping his glass full so Rodney couldn’t insist on refilling it. Seeing Milly sobbing into her tiramisu, he had volunteered to open up in the morning, guessing that Milly wouldn’t be fit for her usual duty. So he arrived at the shop early, with a relatively clear head.
He turned on the computers and began running the morning set-up programmes, which loaded the shop’s computer system. Then he went to make himself a cup of coffee, and took the opportunity to browse. He liked being in the shop when it was empty and silent; he felt at home, as if all the books were his, and he went around, straightening the books here, replacing stray books there. As always, he became completely absorbed, and was surprised by Milly staggering in, who had forgotten Owen’s offer to open up. Owen quickly steered her to the admin room where he left her with a cup of sweet tea and a promise that he would give her a hand later on. Just before nine, Rob and Sophie showed up, both looking a little green. Owen had never seen the quiet Sophie drink so much. She had even been singing with Rodney. She was now trying to act as normally as possible, but when she got to the children’s section, she had to sit down on a kick stool and rest her head against the shelves. Rob muttered something about paperwork and didn’t emerge from the staffroom, leaving Owen to man the till on his own. When Susan arrived at nine-thirty, Owen was almost afraid to leave her on duty at the till, she was in such a foul mood. He went up to the back to see what Rob was up to, and found that Alex had sneaked in the back, but was collapsed over his workbench in the parcel room. And just at that moment, James appeared, looking as sick as a dog, barely even saying good morning before rushing to the toilets and shutting himself in.
Owen decided there was nothing he could do except make some very strong coffee and dole out sympathy, along with gentle reminders that their new boss would be coming in some time that morning. This did little to rally them, especially James, who just shouted at Owen to leave him alone. Owen was congratulating himself on avoiding a hangover, until Rodney phoned to say he wouldn’t be in until that afternoon.
“But the new manager is coming in this morning,” protested Owen. “What am I going to say if she gets here and you’re not even here to welcome her.”
“Tell her the truth,” said Rodney. “It’s got nothing to do with her what we all did at my retirement party. If she doesn’t like it, tough.”
“But you’re meant to be showing her round,” said Owen.
“I’m sure you can cope with that,” said Rodney, and promptly hung up before Owen could say anything else.
Now Owen was faced with a real crisis. Not only did he have to rally the staff, but he also had to look after this woman who was his new boss. He knew very little about her, other than her name, which was Sarah, and that she had been working in management for a large supermarket chain. Still, it was important to make a good impression.
He quickly organised some legitimate paperwork for Rob that he could sit and do in the staff room at his leisure. Alex agreed to start opening some boxes, even if it was slower than usual. He rescued Sophie from the children’s section and set her at the computer in the office to do some ordering. There wasn’t much he could do to improve Susan’s mood, but he could at least help her at the till, so he stood a chance of being there when Sarah Phoenix arrived. He apologised to Milly for not being able to help her after all, but told her to take as long as she needed and he would help her make up for lost time the day after. He left her bravely beginning to count out the previous day’s takings with fumbling fingers. James, he gave up on and left to his own devices, which seemed to be not much more than retching in the toilet, but at least he was out of the way.
All morning, Owen watched the door like a hawk, weighing up every woman in anticipation. By eleven, he was beginning to get hopeful that Rodney would make it in before she would, when a woman walked in that Owen knew instantly had to be Sarah Phoenix.
She was younger than he’d been expecting, perhaps a year or two younger than himself, which was his first surprise. The second was that she was a very attractive woman. She was wearing an expensive suit that fitted her slim figure perfectly, which was both smart and feminine. She had very blond hair, drawn back into a severe bun, but this only served to highlight her delicate face and long neck. She had a pale, clear complexion, and she seemed perfectly calm and in control as she walked up to the till.
“Sarah Phoenix,” she said briskly. “I’m here to meet Rodney Burgess.”
Owen was still getting over the surprise of her looks and was taken back by her abruptness. “Hello,” he said nervously. “I’m Owen. I’m afraid Rodney’s not here.”
“Not here?” she said sounding irritated. “But we arranged to meet today. I spoke to him yesterday about it.”
“He is coming in,” said Owen, “but he’s going to be late. He’s not feeling all that well this morning. He’ll be fine later.”
Sarah tutted. “What am I going to do now?” she muttered, and Owen saw now that she wasn’t as calm as she had first appeared. That made him feel better.
“Well, I can show you around,” he said. “I can’t go through all the business details, but I can at least give you a tour of the shop, and introduce you to the staff. They’re all looking forward to meeting you.”
“Yes, all right,” she said. “I’ll see my office first.”
“Yes, of course,” said Owen, glad to get her away from Susan, who was scowling at an old lady who was laboriously paying for her book with coppers. He quickly whisked her up to the office, knocking on the door first to warn Sophie, who had fallen asleep at the keyboard. She sat up quickly, but not quickly enough to stop Sarah seeing her. Owen introduced them, and Sophie barely said a word and scuttled away as quickly as she could.
“She’s a very quiet girl,” said Owen apologetically, “but she knows everything about children’s books. She does it brilliantly.”
Sarah was too busy looking around the office too pay much attention to him. Owen saw her looking hopefully towards the admin room, and guessed she was hoping to see the real office.
“That’s the admin room through there,” he said quickly. “It’s where Milly does all the cashing up, and the invoices.”
At least Milly had recovered enough to be polite, though Sarah paid her little attention. After scanning the admin room and seeing no further doors, she returned to the office and stared at the desks.
“Is this it?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Owen. “I’m afraid it’s all there is.” She was looking with pure revulsion at Rodney’s sagging old chair. “That’s Rodney’s,” he said. “I think he’ll be taking it with him when he leaves.”
“Good,” she said softly, putting her briefcase down on Rodney’s desk, or her desk, as it was soon to be. She was studying the other desk. “Isn’t the deputy manager in today?” she asked.
“He is, but he isn’t very well either,” said Owen awkwardly.
“Good god, what’s wrong with every body?” she snapped.
“Well, we had Rodney’s retirement party last night,” said Owen, “so everyone is a little worse for wear.”
“I see,” she said. “I wish Rodney had told me that when I called him yesterday. I could have postponed my coming. I’ve had to come all the way from Cambridge this morning.”
“I’m sure Rodney didn’t realise how bad things were going to get,” said Owen, shamefully wondering if Rodney had planned this all along. “He’s been more than a boss to most of us, he’s going to be missed a lot. It was an important occasion.”
Sarah sighed. “Well, I might as well get familiar with the shop. I presume you’re not too ill to show me round.”
“Not at all,” said Owen, although he was beginning to tire of her waspish attitude and did not relish spending the rest of the day with her. But once they got out onto the shop floor, Owen forgot all about this as he relaxed into his favourite subject, the books. He took her round the shop bay by bay, section by section, describing in great detail the arrangement of each, guiding her through the numerous nooks and crannies. She said little to interrupt him, but made him feel uneasy by scribbling copious notes in a notebook. It took them over an hour to get round, during which time they were avoided by all the others. Owen had been putting off taking her to the parcel room and staff room, but finally, he ran out of shelves and it could be avoided no more.
“This is the parcel room,” he said, leading her in. “I’m sorry, everything’s quite disorganised out here.”
As he said this, Alex knocked over a stack of books. With a loud curse, he set to picking them up, until he saw Owen and Sarah standing in the door. He quickly straightened up with a friendly grin.
“This is Alex,” said Owen. “He’s responsible for goods in.”
“And not usually so cack-handedly,” said Alex apologetically, holding out his hand. “Pleased to meet you.”
For the first time, Sarah smiled. “It’s alright, I think I know what the problem is,” she said. “Perhaps you could show me how things work in here?”
Owen left Alex to it and nipped into the staffroom, to find James and Rob sitting there, drinking coffee and eating cakes.
“Are you two still here?” he hissed at them.
“Excuse me, we’re having our break,” said James defensively.
“Break!” said Owen. “You haven’t done anything all morning.”
“Well you didn’t expect me to be there to greet her, did you?” snapped James.
“Yes, I did, and so did she,” said Owen. “How do you suppose it looks to her, if her deputy manager is too hung-over to even say hello?”
“That’s just tough,” said James. “If she wants to get on with me, then she has to realise that she’s not going to tell me what to do.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, she’s only been in the shop a couple of hours,” said Owen. “She hasn’t asked you to do anything yet. It’s me that’s asking you to at least be civil. You do have to work with her, remember.”
It had been a close call between James staying on as deputy manager, and handing in his notice in disgust. At his most angry, he had been determined not to work for an outsider who had no right to a job that should have been his. Owen had finally persuaded him that he loved the shop too much to leave. He had resorted to using Rodney’s argument that James would be needed to see that it stayed on the straight and narrow. The result was that James had decided to stay, but with such a stubborn attitude that Owen wondered if he would last the month out.
“If she wants to be civil,” said James, “then she can come to me.”
“Fine,” snapped Owen. “Rob, you’ve been in here all morning. At least go and relieve Susan from the till so she can have a break. And come and say hello to Sarah.”
Sulkily, Rob finished his cake and followed Owen out into the parcel room, where Sarah was now chatting to Alex. She looked much different when she was smiling, which she was doing now. Owen guessed that the main reason for this change was Alex, which amused him but was not a surprise. Most women who visited the parcel room ended up flirting with Alex, falling prey to his good looks, muscular figure and warm smile. Alex was friendly with everyone, and yet while he made everyone feel welcome and at ease, he was immune to any further attentions. Owen knew Alex was devoted to his girlfriend, Deb, who he had been living with three years, and in no danger of having his head turned. He wondered how long it would take Sarah to work this out. She hadn’t been very nice to him so far, but he didn’t want to see her make a fool of herself, especially not with James waiting for her to put a foot wrong.
He quickly introduced her to Rob, who became suddenly much keener to say a few words now that he had seen Sarah, but Owen hurried him down to the till. If Susan didn’t get regular breaks, she was even grouchier than usual.
“So, is there anyone else to meet, besides Rodney,” asked Sarah.
“There’s Susan, who’ll be up in a minute,” said Owen. “And there’s James.”
“The deputy manager?” she asked. Then she looked towards the staffroom. “Is he in there?”
“Yes,” said Owen. “That’s the staff room. It’s not very big, or very comfortable, but it’s all we’ve got. Rodney used to talk about an extension, but I don’t think it was ever possible.”
Owen knew he was rambling on the take the edge off the forthcoming confrontation. Sarah marched unhesitatingly into the staffroom, where James was caught in an unfortunate moment of having a mouthful of cream cake. In a flustered moment, his courteous sensibilities over-rode his rebellious streak, and he stood up politely.
“You must be James,” said Sarah curtly. “How’s your head?”
“It’s fine, thank you,” said James in surprise. He held out his hand, and they shook hands very briefly.
“I think you and I need to talk,” she said, looking around the staffroom as she talked. “Maybe if Rodney ever shows up today, you could join us. There’s a lot I need to go through with you.”
“Yes there is,” said James, his bitterness not faltering for long. “I would be quite glad to show you how things are done around here. There’s no need to wait for Rodney, I can show you everything.”
“I’d rather wait,” she said dismissively. “I think I’ll go and get some lunch.”
Owen followed her back to the office, partly ashamed at James’s behaviour, partly angry at her rudeness. At least he could get away from her now, if she was going out. But when she reached the office, she sat down at James’s desk and rested her head in her hand, and he saw once more that she was not as tough as she made out.
“Don’t mind James,” he said. “Do you know he also applied to be manager?”
“Yes, I was informed,” said Sarah, lifting her head. “I was also informed that he probably would have got the job if it wasn’t for me. But I did get this job fair and square. I was interviewed just the same as him.”
“James will appreciate that,” said Owen, surprised at her sudden openness. “He’s upset about it still, but he will get over it. And then you’ll find he’s really very good to work with.”
“We’ll see,” she said. Then she smiled at him. “You’ve been very good to me this morning. Would you maybe like to join me for lunch?”
Just a few moments before, Owen had been looking forward to a break from her. Now he found himself saying yes to joining her. Maybe it was because he had finally seen the strain behind the calm exterior she showed. He had been determined to make an effort for her, and now he thought it might not be such an effort after all.
“You’ll have to suggest somewhere,” she said. “I don’t know Robinsworth at all.”
“It won’t take long to get to know,” said Owen, and he listed a few places. Strangely enough, Sarah picked the Italian, Angelo’s, and seemed even keener to go when Owen pointed out that this was where the party had taken place. Owen didn’t usually eat out for lunch, so it was a nice change to sit in the dark restaurant with its beautiful smells of cooking and coffee. As they ordered, the waiter, recognising Owen from the previous evening, laughed and joked with him at some of the things that had gone on. Sarah listened, looking very interested, but made no comment till the waiter had gone.
“Sounds like you had quite a night,” she said.
“We did,” said Owen, then added, “but it doesn’t happen very often.”
Over lunch, Sarah quizzed him about Robinsworth.
“I see there’s also a Harrows,” she said. “It must cause some troubles.”
“Of course, but it hasn’t threatened us so far,” said Owen.
“Well, I have some ideas that might make them feel threatened,” she said enthusiastically. “There are so many things I want to do. There’s so much we can make of the shop. It’s just sitting there waiting to have its best drawn out of it.”
Owen said nothing. When they arrived back after lunch he was very relieved to find that Rodney had made it in, and was glad to hand Sarah over to him. Rodney took her into the office, where they stayed most of the afternoon, and the staff visibly relaxed. They were now full of curiosity and asked Owen many questions about what she was like and what he thought of her. James in particular demanded that Owen tell him word for word what was said. By four o’clock, they were all much more recovered and restored, but Owen felt tired and drained. Even when he sat down for a well-earned cup of coffee, James came through with a scowl that made Owen’s heart sink.
“They want coffee,” he said sulkily.
“Well take them some,” said Owen, wondering if he was going to have to do everything himself.
“I’m not taking it,” said James indignantly. “I don’t want her to think I’m just an errand-boy.”
So Owen made coffee and took it through to the office. Rodney greeted him with a big smile, which was normal, but was surprised when Sarah did too.
“Thank you Owen,” said Rodney. “Honestly Sarah, this man is a wonder. There is hardly anything he doesn’t know about books.”
“I know,” said Sarah warmly. “He showed me round earlier, and it was certainly comprehensive.”
“He knows the stock much better than I do,” said Rodney.
“But you taught me everything I know,” said Owen. “Do you take sugar Sarah?”
“No sugar, just milk,” she said. “And by the way, no-one ever calls me Sarah. Call me Sassy.”
“Sassy!” said Rodney with a grin. “Well that certainly suits you.”
She blushed slightly, but was still smiling. “It’s not the most complimentary of nick names, but it stuck some time ago,” she said. She smiled up at Owen again. “I do want everyone to feel relaxed with me.”
“And they will, they will,” said Rodney, gushing with enthusiasm, and Owen suppressed a grin to see that even he had succumbed to her attractive charms.
There was a mass of paperwork spread out over both the desks, and so Owen left them both to it. As he left the office, he bumped into James, who was lurking outside suspiciously.
“Things sound quite jolly in there,” he said, following Owen back to the staff room. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” said Owen. “They’re just going over the books. Why don’t you just go in if you’re that bothered about it. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t like to intrude,” said James bitterly. “I do think Rodney should have called me in by now.”
“James, will you stop worrying,” said Owen. “It’s her first afternoon, there’s a lot to go over. Have you ever stopped to think that maybe she feels intimidated by you.”
“Ha, I doubt it,” snapped James. “You heard the way she dismissed me.”
“She’s nervous,” continued Owen, determined to make James give her a break. “Look, if you’ll give her a chance, you’ll find out that she’s actually quite nice. She wants to get on with us all. She’s actually asked me to call her by her nickname.”
James’s eyes lit up. “What’s her nickname?” he asked eagerly.
“Apparently, it’s Sassy,” said Owen, beginning to regret he’d mentioned it, and even more so when James whooped with delight.
“Sassy!” he cried. “What a ridiculous name. If anyone called me that, I wouldn’t admit to it. Who does she think she is? Sassy indeed. I’m going to have to tell everyone this.” And off he went, leaving Owen despairing that the peaceful atmosphere that had once pervaded the shop had gone forever.