Little girl (pointing to a cupboard under one of the bookcases): ‘Can you get to Narnia through there?’
Me: ‘Unfortunately, I don’t think you can.’
Little girl: ‘Oh. Our wardrobe at home doesn’t work for getting to Narnia, either.’
Little girl: ‘No. Dad says it’s because mum bought it at IKEA.’
From ‘More Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops‘ by Jen Campbell
I maintain that children say the best things in bookshops – from the young girl who declared books to be her ‘quiet place,’ to the boy who told me I should hire a dragon to guard the bookshop when I’m not around. Recommending books to children and watching them fall in love with reading is the best part of my job. Sure, sometimes they try and climb the bookcases, too; they’re not perfect, but I’ll let them off because their passion for discovering new things is infectious.
I’ve worked in bookselling for nine years, since getting a part-time job when I was studying for my degree. The Edinburgh Bookshop in the heart of Bruntsfield specialises in children’s fiction and, when I worked there, we had a bookshop dog called Teaga – a giant Leonberger who looked like Nana from Peter Pan. Sometimes the children would try and ride her like a pony (and we’d have to run to poor Teaga’s rescue) but mostly they stroked her in awe, got her to sit down and calmly read books to her. Teaga dutifully listened – a dog full of stories.
I’ve worked in both new and antiquarian bookselling over the years and I hear from customers time and time again: ‘Kids don’t read these days, do they?’ To which I always want to laugh. If you haven’t already noticed, we seem to be a bit pessimistic in the book trade (‘The book is dead!’ ‘The publishing world is over!’ ‘Bookshops are doomed!’). When I researched my most recent book, The Bookshop Book, I discovered that a bookseller in Florence had declared the book trade dead in the water in the 1500s due to the invention of the printing press, but in actual fact we’re doing just fine: children are reading and UK sales of children’s books in 2014 were up eleven percent on the previous year.
And it’s little wonder, really. Stories are the foundation of what makes us human. We’re the only known species to make up tales to bring us together as communities. When we don’t understand something around us, we’ll make it up – whether that’s right or wrong – and when we’re young everything is new, everything is exciting and our imagination knows no bounds. I was in Sweden last week on book tour and spoke with several young bookshop customers there. One, a young boy of maybe seven or eight, told me ‘When I grow up, I’m going to be a Viking warrior, with a robot unicorn who writes books about tigers… on rollerskates.’ And why the heck not? Another beckoned me over and whispered: ‘I’ve written a book’ and when I asked her what it was about, she uttered wise words known by authors all around the world: ‘I don’t know. It’s in my head. I haven’t read it yet.’
Like many bookworms, I spent a lot of time in both libraries and bookshops as a child and I’ve always thought of them as safe places. I’d hide out in the children’s corner of Hill’s in Sunderland scouring through the Animal Ark books and I’d check out Lynne Reid Banks’ novels from the library for the dozenth time, too. Now, whenever I travel to a new town, one of the first things I do is locate the nearest bookshop and work my way around from there. I’ve been asked many times why bookshops are such wonderful places, and why – when we find a good one – we are drawn back to it again and again. I could write a whole book on the subject but, for me, when it comes down to it: bookshops are portals. In a world where the internet, as wonderful as it is, can offer us anything we know we want, a good bookshop shows us what we didn’t know we wanted. They are the curated physical mindspace of the person who owns it; you can hop from shelf to shelf, from story to story and lose yourself in worlds you never knew existed. Children are aware of this and I see it every single day.
When it comes to antiquarian bookshops, too, let’s not forget the grown up children who come in looking for lost parts of their childhood. Books they remember holding at ten years old, fifty years ago, that probably had a red cover and possibly, maybe, perhaps had a flower on the first page and the word ‘elf’ in the title. I spend a lot of my time as an antiquarian bookseller piecing together memories, tracking down stories and why? Because books when we’re young become such an important part of us that we want them back when we are older. We want to hold them, and quite possibly smell them (there’s a scientific reason books smell so good, you know, but that’s another story) and we want to re-experience that escapism we had as a child. Perhaps it’s a bit of a Neverland syndrome. Somewhere in our memories the books we read when we were younger are still there, still chatting away with our younger selves. Some parts of us never grow up and we’re never too old for a good story.
Perhaps one of my favourite moments as a bookseller is one where a ten-year-old girl called Imogen and her father were browsing through the shelves for half an hour. Suddenly Imogen looked up and said ‘Dad, where’s Henry?’ at which point I blinked in disbelief. What parent doesn’t notice for a full half hour that their son isn’t with them? However, it turned out that Henry was not Imogen’s brother – he was her hamster. She’d brought him along with her in her pocket and now couldn’t find him. We spent a slightly manic twenty minutes hunting through the shelves, desperately trying to find him, knowing it was an impossible task and that Henry was probably destined to wander the overflowing shelves forever before being somewhat unceremoniously squished under a pile of old children’s annuals. Poor Henry. But, after nearly giving up, Imogen gave a squeal of surprise – Henry hadn’t made a bid for freedom after all. He’d nibbled at the lining of her pocket, buried deeper into her coat and was very happily asleep, completely unaware of the utter chaos around him.
“Maybe I’ll write a book about that one day,” Imogen grinned, holding a sleepy Henry in one hand and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr tightly in the other.
Jen Campbell is the Sunday Times bestselling author of the Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops series and The Bookshop Book. She’s also an award-winning poet and short story writer. Her poetry pamphlet The Hungry Ghost Festival is published by The Rialto and she runs a Youtube channel over at youtube.com/jenvcampbell where she talks about all things books. Follow Jen on Twitter @aeroplanegirl