Is Running a Book Shop good for a writer?

Running a book shop must be every writer’s dream, or at least to be let loose in one to freely enjoy its spoils. It was certainly one of mine. Sitting behind the counter reading the latest hot sellers, or re-reading all those favourite Georgette Heyer and Jean Plaidy novels was surely an essential part of any bookseller’s life, wasn’t it, if I was to successfully advise customers? I could run my shop, mind my children, and work on my novel in between customers. Of such stuff are dreams made.

It didn't quite work out that way. It was true that at the end of a busy day, in the wee small hours, I could still be found scribbling away, although rarely did I send anything out. Something was happening to me. But something wasn’t quite right. This was the moment I was going to discover the secret of all these famous authors and emulate them so that I could turn into one myself. I gobbled up such delights as Scruples, Hollywood Wives, Lace, The Thorn Birds, Love Story, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, The French Lieutenant's Woman. I was like a food addict let loose in a chocolate shop.

These authors were sending out a powerful message. They had brilliant, original ideas, a way with words which proved their skill with prose, their characters lived on in my mind, the stories were compulsive, the settings fabulous and far removed from anything I could relate to in my humble life. How could I ever dream up anything half so good? Why would anyone wish to read anything I wrote? I was intimidated by their greatness, and terrified of copying these masters.
I put my pen away.

Ten years were to go by in this way. The children, and the book shop, grew surprisingly well. We had Richard Adams (Watership Down) come to our small shop in the English Lake District for a signing of Plague Dogs, and sold well over 100 copies. We became school and library suppliers, I gave talks, ran book clubs, and soon became absorbed in reading masses of book catalogues instead of bestsellers, and each night painstakingly wrote out the orders by hand in those pre-computer days. Not to mention unpacking, checking, making up the orders and getting them delivered on time. Those magical days of reading behind the counter were now a nostalgic memory.

As was any writing of my own.

Most of all I helped customers to find just the book they wanted to read, by an author they couldn’t remember but the book had a girl and a child on the jacket. they wanted the War and Peace that was on the telly and not that big thick Penguin edition; and whatever that story was that had been read on Radio Four the other afternoon. It was fun, it was challenging, it taught me a great deal about the publishing industry, about books and people, but left me no time to write. Not that it mattered any more, as my confidence had entirely drained away, and I knew in my heart that I could never join these luminaries that graced our shelves. Maybe I’d get back to that when I was a better writer. Sadly, it didn’t cross my mind that I never would achieve that blissful state if I didn’t practise my craft.

It wasn't until after I'd sold the buisness that I began to take my writing seriously, and yes, I did find that having spent those years in the book trade did help me in many ways. I was aware of what book buyers were looking for, what was commercial, how genres worked, but the craft of turning out a good story cannot be learnt. You can either do that or you can't. So how did I get started? How did I find the confidence? Well, it was an ill wind that blew me some good. I'll tell you more about that next time.

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