Monday, April 02, 2012

My Bookselling Life. Part One (first steps)

I started selling books to humans in 1984. I looked like this in 1984

Of course, I haven't changed a bit. But bookselling has quite considerably.
In 1984 and just about to celebrate my 6th (alright 16th) Birthday, I left school with 3 O Levels. O levels are today's equivalent of degrees, so I was clearly a genius. However, my school required that I achieve 5 O Levels to be allowed to stay on to the sixth form and turfed me out.
To say I didn't care was an understatement. I was a moody teenager, who didn't really care about very much at all. Thankfully, I had parents who did, and with their 'encouragement' I enrolled onto a Youth Training Scheme (YTS). I chose to be trained in retail and was given the option of working in one of two shops. One was a camera shop and the other was George's Bookshop in Bristol. Luckily I lived in Bristol at the time and so I chose the bookshop.
The scheme worked like this. I would be paid £25 a week and for that I would spend 3 days at college learning about retail and 2 days at George's as a sales assistant.
College was a massive eye opener. Having been to a relatively good school and just being a lazy sod, I wasn't aware that there were 16 year olds who didn't actually know what 6+5 was, or how many days in a week there were. But there I was in a classroom, a naive 16 year old, with people the same age as me who education had forgot. That lesson was the only thing that the college taught me, but it has stuck with me to this day.
The 2 days I spent at the bookshop, however, were incredible.
George's Bookshop was owned by Blackwell's and had been proudly selling books in Bristol since 1871. It was located on  Park Street and occupied 6 different locations on the street. Yes, that's right, there were 6 George's Bookshops on one street! One sold 2nd Hand, one sold Academic books, two had Art books, one was a Computer bookshop (actually this opened after I started there, but hey) and there was the glorious main bookshop at number 91. This was at the very top of the street and it was massive.
This is what it looked like in 1936 (a couple of years before I started).

This building not only held 4 floors of books, but also the unpacking department, the accounts department, the admin offices and it was also where the office of John May was. John was the managing director, who was both terrifying, creepy and lovely all at the same time. 

My first role in the shop was working in the section selling maps, foreign languages and travel (a heady mixture). My first manager was Gertrude Scanlon, who was a formidable lady in her 50's, who took me under her wing like a friendly albatross.
The travel section included an official Ordnance Survey Map Printer....
This machine took up about size of a snooker table, without the pockets, and people could come in and ask us to print off specific maps that they needed. The machine could do all scales and was very popular indeed. Being a trainee, I wasn't allowed anywhere near this machine and busied myself (when shouted at) with tidying shelves and checking what books we had.

There wasn't a computerised stock control system  in 1984. Are you mad?
No, we had stock cards. Files and files of them. Each card had the information about a book on, (Title, Author, ISBN, Publisher, Date arrived, etc), which was all handwritten by us, and it was our job to regularly go through all of these cards, checking how many copies were there.
There were drawers and drawers of these cards and this was something that took up a large part of the working day.
If something had sold we would mark the date on the card and the number of copies we thought we should order. The card would then be stuck upwards and replaced in the files, for Gertrude to check.
Should she deem that the book should be reordered the files would then be taken down to the basement, where a man in a suit sat, in the dark typing ISBN's and order quantities into what looked like a typewriter. This was in fact the cutting edge of book ordering systems and enabled books, once ordered, to be delivered to the bookshop within two weeks (sometimes as little as TEN DAYS).

It's odd to think that nowadays, people's  expectations are so high, that having to wait more than a couple of days for something seems almost unheard of. In the 1980's people were very impressed by the idea that we could get a book for them within a fortnight.

So my first months at the bookshop were great. I was still a bit naughty, and would take the occasional sickie, but they seemed to put up with me. In order to earn a bit more cash I would work Saturdays as well and my pay packet would be bulging with £37.50 a week.
We got paid weekly and we did actually get a pay packet, with cash in and everything. It was great.

After 2 months of college I had had enough of it. I wasn't learning anything, and the teachers knew this. I stopped going and took my first grown up decision of my life. I asked for a full time job at George's. I explained to Gertrude the situation and she spoke to her manager.
Staggeringly they said yes and in November 2004 I started full time employment at the bookshop. I was now earning £42.00 and life was good.

Oh yes, and I had to wear a tie.



Karl said...

Very nice. Creepy how?

SMKatz said...

Lovely post. You make it sound almost Dickensian - makes me wish I had spent the 1980's in Bristol, rather than in the North East (my town's bookshop was the second floor of WHSmiths!)

Anonymous said...

That takes me back. I worked at Georges too - I think I started as a Saturday person in '83... Do you remember John Hill who used to run the Order Department? He was my first boss. Thankfully I escaped and worked for Duncan in paperbacks for a few years before taking over the Computer Books dept at no.87 after Jean Young left... It's such a shame that the old shop at 89 Park Street was sold to Jamie Oliver last year and is now an Italian restaurant!

Anonymous said...

i was also a saturday worker in georges in the 1980s and remember you well ,you really made those times come alive again.As already said what a lovely post hope you can follow this up with some more memories.When i was there Robert lawrence ran what they called the new department Duncan was in the paperback section, Tony Turner was in the Map department and Liz Berry was manageress of the Childrens department.

spidress said...

I only lasted a year in my Saturday job at Georges (1970-71). John May kept hinting that he didn't employ me to wander off the David & Charles section looking for swanky foreign literature to read - but it fell on deaf ears. Eventually I was put in solitary confinement in an attic cubby hole sorting ancient records - but still didn't get the message and finally had to be booted out. Yes he was both creepy and gentle - but I was such a little snob at the time all I noticed was his brown suit! I don't remember anyone else's name - but there was a young bloke with dark sideburns who worked full time on the main front counter. Only thinking about it all now because I have to talk to 16 year olds about if I have anything to teach them!