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Bookselling for illiterates

Waterstone's used to be known for it's well-read staff. Not any more

29 January 2011

10:00 AM

29 January 2011

10:00 AM

Books, we are continually told, particularly by people who rarely read them, are going the way of the dodo. The shops that sell them are closing at an alarming rate, as the dreaded Kindle takes over, and public libraries are being encouraged to turn themselves into noisy ‘resource centres’, designed to attract the feckless young.

One might think that the places continuing to sell such glorious, old-fashioned things would be eager to put their best foot forward. So a post-Christmas visit to the biggest bookshop in Europe, as Waterstone’s in Piccadilly likes to call itself, was an eye-opener.

It’s a shop that evokes happy memories. I have been buying books there for years, including a complete set of Proust, which is not so much a purchase as an investment for life. The fiction list is less quirky than it was, but it remains a good place to browse and buy. At least I thought it was, until I met the duffers.
The first duffer was anonymous. On a shelf of ‘staff picks’, he or she had recommended Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh, as ‘her most evocative novel’. It takes exceptional ignorance not to know that the greatest writer of English prose in the last century was a man, but it was an ignorance that the second duffer, a shop assistant whom I invited to comment on this absurdity, did his best to match.

‘Doesn’t that strike you as odd?’ I asked, pointing to the offending card. He gave a blank look. ‘There’s a rather embarrassing mistake.’

‘I’ve never read Brideshead Revisited,’ he replied.

‘No, but you must have heard of Evelyn Waugh.’ Silence. This time, a puzzled look. ‘He was a great writer, and it is a he. You work in a bookshop. You should know such things.’

The look turned to befuddlement. Presently (an adverb Waugh loved to use) there came a sigh of exasperation, as though it was I, not the card-scribbler, who had committed an indiscretion.

Once, Waterstone’s employed only men and women who had degrees in English Literature. That is not the case now, as a press spokesman pointed out when I raised the case of the two duffers. Company policy was ‘more inclusive’, she said, which seems fair enough. George Orwell worked in a bookshop (he wrote a lovely essay about it), and he didn’t have a degree.

Yet this strange interlude left me eager to pick up the scent. So the next day I visited Waterstone’s in Notting Hill Gate to see if there were clangers among their staff picks. By Jove, there were. Ghostwritten, a novel by David Mitchell, was considered by ‘Nick’ to be ‘fantasically written’, and ‘Ali’ had this to say of Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity: ‘a brilliant book, its gripping, moves fast and very enjoyable’. Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, wrote ‘James’, was ‘inspired by Gaugin’. By now the curiosity had turned into a kind of lust. Surely the Northumberland Avenue branch would salvage company honour? No; more torment. As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner, was a ‘classics’ of ‘american’ (lower case a) literature. Saul Bellow was a ‘thought provoking US authors’. A volume of Thucydides was offered as ‘an overview and analysis of the early 20th century’.

Punch-drunk, as though I had gone 15 rounds with messrs Webster and Fowler, I staggered back to Piccadilly to check whether Waugh had changed sex, but he was still a she. Looking more closely at the shelves of recommended books, I noticed that, as with the families of the Old Testament, error had begat error. Nancy Mitford’s Love In A Cold Climate was, apparently, ‘entierly original… irresistable’, and The Beautiful and Damned brought forth the finest tribute of all: ‘If Fitz­gerald did not existed, it would have been necessary to invent him.’

As I studied this list of approved books, it was impossible to ignore the foghorn-voiced assistant at the counter, who was addressing the room in a manner that brought to mind Michael Heath’s Great Bores of the World: ‘I really like books that are relevant… y’know, books that reach out to the wider world, that have a social meaning… I think you’ll like this one.’ At least he didn’t say ‘mate’. Defeated utterly, I left with my book token in my pocket.

Waterstone’s have done good work in the past, and they will have to do good work in the future: for many readers, they are the only bookseller in the high street. But surely it is not beyond them to employ people who are comfortable with English, written or spoken; and surely they can find staff who know that the novelist who brought so much distinction to our language was not a lady but a man.

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