All Stories, General Fiction, Short Fiction

Bookselling Blues by Nick Sweeney

I was on the Northern Line a while back, from one of the Finchleys. I was listening to loud music, a thing my doctor had warned me not to do, and yet it was drowned out by nearby conversation. You get to after East Finchley, around Highgate, and wherever, up around there, and there is nearly always this kind of decibel-creating person gets on.

I don’t mind what class people are or think they are; it’s in their voices, and is generally irrelevant. But what makes this lot always talk loud enough to hear every word? Why do they think they’ve got such interesting things to say they have to say them at the tops of those voices? And this is what makes you hate them, not really as a class – their class is incidental – but individually, as they not only cross your radar but squat down and make themselves so at home in it that you feel like a peripheral member of the audience in the space you’re occupying.

It often centres on children, and I guess this is a raw middle-class anxiety. Am I doing the right thing for my child? More importantly, can you witness me doing the right thing for my child? And hear me? If you’ve heard me, and witnessed me, then I must be doing it, mustn’t I?

You get mothers who talk very loudly to their babies, for a start. They don’t vary the talk to take into account that they’re talking to a baby. They see a poster for the British Museum, and go, “Oh darling, look, they’re holding an exhibition on Etruscan Art, darling. The Etruscans lived in what is now Italy, darling.” The baby goes, gurgle, burp. As do I, sometimes.

You get a tube equivalent of school runs, with kids who command, “Test me on my Fwench,” and their parents dutifully do. I’ve never seen the mothers sneaking glances around to check that everybody has witnessed how good their kid is at murdering French. Do they do that – would they?

You get mothers with toddlers, often mob-handed and possibly on their ways to cafés where they will drink one cappuccino or a lartay between them for three hours, while bringing their kids’ food along. The todlinistas are dressed in Benetton and exquisitely tiny Doc Martens that, because they never get any actual wear from walking, look as though they have been sculpted for expensive dolls. You probably wouldn’t notice them if the mothers didn’t keep referring, loudly, to the Benetton and exquisitely tiny Doc Martens.

An observer might think, gosh, how on earth did these perfect little beings come about? That observer might cast an eye over their occasionally-sighted fathers, who have for reasons that will never be clear, married and mated with these braying harridans, who sit there with  suffused and stupid grins on their faces as junior goes through his French or wonders at the Etruscans or sports his Benetton and exquisitely tiny Doctor Martens. “These trousers are Israeli army,” one told another, pointing to the many-pocketed and looped trews that crowned his Kickahs. I think the suggestion was that not only were those strides perfect for the urban landscape of the London tube system, and a career in IT, but that he could go and take on the whole of the Palestinian intifada armed only with those very trousers.

But anyway, where was I? Well, literally, I was on the tube a while back, from one of the Finchleys, and across from me sat a woman and her daughter. The woman had affected to dress the same as the daughter, who was about fourteen. Fourteen-ish girls can get away with crop-tops and low-waisted jeans. Women in their forties with wrinkly bellies can’t. Girls of about fourteen with perfect toes unruined by years of bad shoes can wear open-toed platform things – though of course those perfect tootsies will not last, stuck in too many of them too often. Women with horribly bent feet with broken, fungal toenails that no amount of varnish will hide, really ought not to go near them.

They were speaking English. At least, the mother was. She was going on about some shit or other, to do with some thing or other she was doing. The daughter was making monosyllables and faces. What with her being about fourteen, it seemed an adequate response. The mother then spoke about some arrangement they had made to go somewhere. She was trying to affect a casual demeanour, but it seemed clear to me that she was wound up about it. She asked earnest questions about whether the daughter had done this or that or not, had made plans to do this or that, would ensure she did this or that, all delivered in this anxious but casual way. The daughter said yes, or no, or what, or okay.

The daughter was obviously attending school; you just do, when you’re about fourteen. She was just as obviously pissed off with it. And why not? She had a look on her face that told me she wanted to be alone – only then would she reach some kind of peace. At school, she learned French. I knew this because the mother had decided to learn French too – and why not? – to help her daughter, perhaps, or just to crash the linguistic party for her own reasons.

J’ai mal à tete,” she declared suddenly. That is what you learn to say when you have a headache in France. Because everybody will be so interested, and offer le sympathie and l’aspirin. And pourquoi pas?

The mother made an I-have-a-headache gesture to go with her French. The daughter didn’t see the gesture. She also didn’t seem to have heard the expression.

J’ai mal à tete.” The mother said it again. I think, had a French doctor been nearby, he’d have radioed for the Mal à Tete Sans Frontières helicopter to be waiting for her at her chosen Finchley tube stop. She nudged the daughter. She made her I-have-a-headache gesture again. The daughter turned a little, and said in English, “Oh, right,” and got up somewhat nonchalantly for their stop, her Frenchly headachy mother following, only wobbling slightly on the torture shoes.

And that was the last I saw of them, until the mother came into the shop this morning. I guessed she’d be one of the people whose openings went, “I read about this book in the Guardian Review on Saturday.”

And I’d go, “Yes?”

And they’d continue, “Well, have you got it in stock?”

It was often kind of fun, a bookseller’s nightmare turned into a dream. Conversations often continued in the following way.

“What’s the name of the book?”

“It’s about a woman who lives in Vienna. She falls in love with a man who has connections to Willi Brandt.”

“Who? Oh, never mind. Who wrote it?”

“And then she moves to Bonn, to make a new life – well, she leaves her husband, actually, and her two children.”

“What is the name of the book?”

“But then she misses her children. But when she goes back to Vienna – I don’t know – I think her husband has gone to somewhere else with the children. He’s a diplomat, or something.”

“Any idea who wrote it?”

“No. But it’s supposed to be very good.”




“Do you have it?”

“I don’t know. We do have lots of books that are very good, whose titles and authors I do know.”


“And which are also very well-written. Do you know who the publisher is?”


“Which… entity published it?”

“No.” They get this look on their faces, which says, is that important? It’s followed by this hurt kind of expression. They’re very obviously sizing you up as a dimwit who can’t possibly have got a job in bookshop because… well, because you’re not a mind-reader, I suppose.

“Did you see the Guardian Review on Saturday?”


“Well, there was a review of this book in it.”

I don’t know why they bother. For a start, they seem to know the whole story already anyway. And when you finally find out what they’re after, via a Grand Inquisition worthy of whoever designed their awful shoes, and order it, and hand it over in exchange for their cash, they nearly always look disappointed, as if it’s your fault the cover isn’t what they expected. And they sometimes bring it back and complain about it.

A lot of booksellers hate this kind of thing. I won’t say I love it. But I don’t mind it.

Allright: I love it.

I want to say to the woman from the tube from one of the Finchleys, how’s your malatet? She precludes conversation by marching in and stating, “I read about this book in the Guardian Review on Saturday.”

And I raise a finger, look delighted to see her, and say, “I thought you might have…”


Nick Sweeney

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9 thoughts on “Bookselling Blues by Nick Sweeney”

  1. Well done. It (painfully) reminded me of a train ride from Reims to Paris where my wife and I were subjected to a little boy, sitting across from us with his mother, counting from one to one-hundred over and over and over again. And in French, no less.


  2. People, thank you so much for your comments. I’m glad the story is ringing a bell or two… even if it brings back a malatet. I no longer live near ‘one of the Finchleys’, but there’s not a day goes by without my trying to forget it 😉


  3. Thanks, people. I’m glad it rang a bell or two, even a jarring one, bringing on a propre malatet. I have now escaped my one-time North London gaff near ‘one of the Finchleys’… but there isn’t a decade goes by when I don’t think about it at least once.


  4. Hi Nick,
    Anyone who has ever worked with the public will relate to this.
    I have more faces than the town clock when doing so. I could look them in the eye, sympathise and be helpful. All the while I was hoping that a bus would knock them down on the way home. Some may say that is a bit excessive but it got me through a working day!
    A very tight and perceptive piece of writing.
    All the very best my friend.


  5. I remember all that from my bookselling days. Another thing customers do is order a book by the headline of the book review rather than the book’s title. And there are those who pop their head round the door and say: ‘Has my book come in yet?’
    Your name? Author’s name? Title of book? Just give me a clue.


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