I always loved books so it made sense that my first job was in a bookshop. It was my first full time job and of course it was the best job in the world. I remember the interview as if it were yesterday. I instantly hit it off with the manager who was a bouncy ball of a man: kind, humorous and enthusiastic. In no time at all I found myself within what can only be described as a new family unit with him as the dad, the assistant manager an older brother and the other newfound siblings soon became playmates and confidants.
It wasn’t a big bookshop, it was the paperback branch of Heffers in Cambridge on the corner of St Andrew’s Street. Sadly it is no longer there.
For two years I gorged on books and tried everything: classics, crime, science fiction, biographies, horror and even a book on stocks and shares. We were allowed to borrow books which led to me reading up to seven at a time. Sections were assigned to us and we became responsible for stock checking and choosing new books from agents.
I have been lucky enough to work in many places with some wonderful people but this job stands out in my memory as where I had the most fun and one I found particularly enjoyable. I would cycle to the shop whatever the weather, come hell or high water and even during a hurricane, nothing would keep me away from work. Well, apart from one time when desperate to watch a Wimbledon match I made more of a slight cold than I actually had and wagged the day off. I lived to regret it as that was the one day in those two years that Clive James (the world famous Australian broadcaster, journalist and writer) decided to pop in and I had been dying to meet him. The assistant manager reassured me that I would not have enjoyed the experience as Mr James came in to complain that his books weren’t displayed in the window and was grumpy about it. Nevertheless I was disappointed and it taught me karma comes when you skip work. I never did it again.
I did however, find myself face to face with the rather condescending Jeffrey Archer one lunchtime. Alone in the shop I was forced to excuse the fact we didn’t have a copy of Under Milkwood by Dylan Thomas, he made his displeasure known “I can’t believe you haven’t got one in stock!” I squirmed under his glare. To comfort me, Neil (the comedian in our bookshop family) later suggested I should have retorted “I can’t believe you’d go with a prostitute Jeffrey but there you go…” I would never have had the nerve to answer back like that in those days and according to reports Mr Archer would have strongly denied it anyway. Later I learned from an article Mr Archer had a new year reading list and of course Under Milkwood was on it. Shame we let him down but I’m sure the main store on Trinity Street would easily have found him a copy.
Other celebrities would also drift in and out. Peter Cook left me gobsmacked with his extravagant mink coat and half a dozen floosies accompanying him. My brother used to listen to Derek and Clive Live which fascinated me as a child as I knew it was naughty and rude as well as funny, so to see him in the flesh taught me what ‘being starstruck’ actually felt like. I didn’t dare go to say hello but stared in awe from the balcony above.
I loved being assigned to work on the till. We did it in pairs. Selling provided a real buzz, especially at Christmas when the shop became super busy and we’d have long queues. One of us would ring up sales on an old cash register while the other would pack the books or look up titles for customers on a micro fiche (yes this was a long time ago). I remember finding Neil lying flat out on the floor one morning next to the cash register. Apparently he was trying to recover from a hangover. He lived on baked potatoes, a bookseller’s salary was never much and I felt grateful I still had the comfort of living at home. While I contributed to my upkeep, I still had money to go out and after a couple of wage packets I managed to treat myself to a pair of black leather boots I’d had my eye on for ages. The rest of my money was spent on books, either for myself or for my family. It felt wonderful to be able to treat them.
None of us particularly enjoyed stock taking but being a necessary evil we all had to engage in it and if we finished our section early, we’d go and help someone else with theirs. The manager tried to make it as fair as possible. Hairy Richard the hippy, the laziest of us all, amused us one time with his cry of “finished!” Having completed his section, he had zoned out on the bit where we were supposed to help each other but was quickly corrected. “No, you haven’t finished,” came the amused but collective reply.
Redheaded Barbara was a vegetarian, the first I ever met. She threw a party one time and I remember being astounded at the variety of dishes she produced. They were delicious and I still regret I didn’t become a vegetarian from that day on. Jane, a pretty and vivacious young student (bound for Oxford I believe) told us all about her uncle (or cousin, I can’t quite recall) Jeremy Irons who she adored. Patrick told us stories of his grandparent’s tempestuous marriage. We were young and had no idea that old people fought and locked each other in cupboards so we were agog.
Hayley, a bubbly lady who was always full of fun, caused a major gap in the bookshop family when she left to work as an agent for Penguin. The bright side was that she of course still used to visit us but it was never the same again. When major characters leave any story, the dynamic changes and we really felt it for a while.
Bizarrely I ended up with a stalker. This had nothing to do with working at the bookshop but a married of father of six who lived at the end of my road took a liking to me and would way lay me on the way into work. He wasn’t particularly threatening but determined to wear me down to go out with him. He even rang me at home. “Why don’t you take your wife out?” I said. “I don’t fancy her, I fancy you,” he retorted. Bear in mind that in my early twenties I still looked about fifteen. I didn’t take it seriously at first and thought that if I continued to rebuff him he’d get bored and leave me alone. Unfortunately he didn’t get bored and stepped up his efforts. One day I looked up and he was staring at me through the window of the bookshop. This finally really freaked me out so I asked my big brother the assistant manager to speak to him. I have no idea what Mark said to the stalker but happily I never saw him again. Although I felt very grateful to Mark at the time, it wasn’t until much later on in life I realised how seriously this could have escalated. My bookshop brother saved me!
In quiet moments we’d make up stories that began ‘it was a dark and stormy night.’ Neil and the managers tended to dominate this game but it was fun to listen.
We revelled in doing impressions of each other. Apparently my only quirk was that I always ran upstairs. Not a bad one to have a I guess but I wanted to be more quirky like them. My quirks hadn’t developed fully at that point, I’m sure I’m full of them now.
The agents were characters too, I remember Toby who worked for Arrow Books coming in with a big sucker mark on his forehead. It looked a bit like a love bite but I thought who gets a love bite there? He was quick to explain. Apparently one of his children had shot a toy arrow at him and the sucker had firmly stuck to his forehead. Oh the irony, what with him working for Arrow! I still wonder if the explanation was actually true or if something else had happened but he thought this a better story. His son must have shot that arrow with some force.
And of course, there were the in jokes. One of the department managers from another store would visit from time to time and because he had a moustache and dark hair, our manager would always greet him with the line “ah, the missing Lord Lucan!” They never ever got tired of this joke and it always made me smile. I had to look up who Lord Lucan was, that made my smile fade… The other thing the manager liked to do habitually, was go over the top when someone thanked him. “No – thank you thank you!” he would say over and over again. It’s funny the things you never forget.
Every day we had fun and met extraordinary people. One day I had a conversation with a very serious man who appeared to have no sense of humour at all. When he’d gone, Neil said, “Do you know who that was?” I shrugged, I had no idea. It was Roger Law, one of the creators of Spitting Image.
But it wasn’t just the well known and superstar customers that were fascinating, everyday folk were too. People who love books are always the best kind of people to know. I can’t remember having any rude customers because most people bond quickly over books. I can’t remember ever feeling bored or at a loss. How can you, with so many books to hand?
Sadly I lost touch with my Heffers family as the years went by and I often wonder where they are now but my Internet searches have never been fruitful. Perhaps it was all a dream after all… If by some weird chance any of you read this, please get in touch, I really want to know what you’ve been up to and that you are all well and happy.
As much as I loved Heffers and my bookshop family I knew I couldn’t stay there forever, there came a time when I needed to fly the nest. After two years I decided it was time to step out of my comfort zone and I went to work for Cambridge University Press which was a big mistake. I didn’t enjoy it at all. The people were lovely but publishing academic journals held no appeal and my job was to proofread covers which took very little time so I ended up reading books all day which was nice for a while but I needed to have a job that challenged me. It wasn’t until many years later that I sat down to write a book myself but that’s another story…
If you have ever worked in a bookshop, please comment with your experiences and memories, I’d love to hear from you.
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Bookshop photo courtesy of Radek Homola – unfortunately I couldn’t find a picture of the old Heffers Paperbacks but I love this one.