Ask an independent bookseller
Yesterday, visiting Barton’s Bookshop in Leatherhead, Surrey (a place I have begun to feel very much at home), I was given a delightful little book called, ‘The Unknown Unknown: Bookshops and the delight of not getting what you wanted’ by Mark Forsyth (Author of The Etymologicon. In it, Forsyth toys with the Donald Rumsfeld quote about knowledge (‘the things we do not know we don’t know) and applies it to books: ‘The ones you’ve read, the ones you know you haven’t read (like War and Peace) and the others: the books you don’t know you don’t know.’
Such discoveries can be made in bookshops. Chains of bookshops seem determined to sell me the books I know I haven’t read and they obviously think I should have. On a recent trip to the new Foyles Flagship store, the booksellers’ ‘recommended reads’ read like an ‘A’ Level syllabus. Do you really want to leave a bookshop burdened with guilt, reminded of your inadequacies? The thing is, I have never been a Jane Austen kind of girl. With the exception of Hardy, whose writing allows me to glimpse at an England of the not too distant past, there is little that tempts me. My taste veers towards contemporary fiction, often (although certainly not exclusively) American. Even though I had decided to treat myself to a new book, I left the store empty-handed. (This would never have happened at the Southbank branch, where a visit is always a treat.)
In my experience, it is in independent bookshops that you tend to discover the books that fall into the last category: the ones you don’t know you don’t know. And it’s among the maze of shelves of a small, carefully curated shop that you’ll strike gold.
Yesterday I shamelessly eavesdropped as Peter Snell helped to find books for an emotionally immature eleven-year-old whose reading skills had catapulted him into the Young Adult category; a primary school teacher who needed material for eight-year-olds about the First World War (she also left with contact details for a man who has built a trench in his back garden); a woman looking for holiday reads for both herself and her husband. (“Tell me about some of the books he has enjoyed recently. And the ones he has hated?”) And so on. Little wonder that customers return time and time again and trust his recommendations.
So how does Peter see his role?
“As an independent bookseller I don’t even try and compete with special offers online and in supermarkets for the bestseller market. Those books are often available for less than they cost me to buy in. I see part of my role to be that of a seeker of unknown treasures. I read proofs and pre-pubs and submitted works from self-published authors, hunting out the gems that I can then hand sell with confidence to customers who come in and innocently enquire “What should I read next?”. There is so much responsibility, flattery, expectation and possibility in that simple question which helps me send readers off on fantastic voyages of discovery of the previously unknown unknowns.”
Wearing my author’s hat, mine is a different story. I suspect that my books currently fall into most people’s ‘don’t know they don’t know category’, whilst I would like to move into the ‘ones you know you haven’t read category’ and, from there, very swiftly into the ‘ones you’ve read category.’ If I could add another, it would be the ‘books you’ve read and become an evangelist for’ category.
Room for another Davis?