Shelves and Letterboxes

quarto.jpg I don’t know how supermarkets get away with constantly rearranging their stock! Last summer we wanted an expanded Scottish History section for the tourists, but changing the contents of shelves made regular customers behave as if the sky had fallen in. Used Golf was replaced by New Golf and bewildered golfers thought we were trying the hard sell. Used Golf moved to what was the Science section; scientists, directed to the erstwhile shelf for ‘Royals’, complained about shrinkage. The ‘Royals’ were banished to a cardboard box. There were no complaints. Mountaineers complained so bitterly about the high shelves they now had to reach, I had to bring their books down again. I had enjoyed the idea of mountains, UFOs, birds and planes occupying the top shelves and archaeology, prayer books and gardening the low ones.

Despite this, we had some cheering episodes. I found not one, but the two desired copies of Derek Cooper’s The Road to Mingulay for a customer. ‘Give that woman a knighthood,’ he declared in splendidly non-sexist vein. The Life and Cuisine of Elvis Presley kept me laughing without even having to open it. I sold the book on maritime law at last, to the local inventor of the Floppy Almanac. He was anxious to establish whether tide times are indeed the property of certain national governments, as they claim; some are actually hassling him for a percentage. I managed to hunt down a copy of Up Country Swahili for a customer who didn’t care that it was described as ‘thumbed’. ‘Everyone’s copy is thumbed,’ he explained. ‘You walk around all day with it in the pocket of your bush jacket.’ (Surely that couldn’t be on account of the usefulness of the imperious stream of consciousness it offers:’You have broken all the eggs. Where are your ears and eyes? Stop talking:it is just your fault! Pick up all the flowers and fruit and send them to my place.’)

But then Marion fell ill. Every bookshop needs a Marion. Whenever we want time off, Marion is there. If one assistant needs to teach creative writing for a week, another needs to mind the grandchildren or a third cripples herself in her beloved garden, Marion steps in. If a week’s flower painting or Munro bagging beckons, Marion takes over. In fact, last year we took time off to such an extent that she earned more than any of the regular staff. So we were horrified to find that Marion needed to rest. Impossible! Who would scour the charity shops when old ladies say they simply must have that obscure D.K. Broster novel? Who would painstakingly unpick all the string and wind it into a useable ball, bring in her scrap paper for notes, change the printing ribbon in the Switch machine, and provide our personalised cuttings service from the Scotsman? I had jokingly told Michelle, who had the student slot, that since the rest of us are held together with selotape and glue, there might be plenty of extra work for her. I didn’t know how true my words would prove to be. Fortunately Michelle is a resourceful young woman, rather in the Marion mould. She would bring in her own toolbox and ingeniously enhance storage areas in the shop. People used to laugh at our notice ‘Experienced Golf Balls’ – laugh, and move on; that is, until Michelle had the idea of packaging the used balls in individual, labelled bags, ‘Then they can take away the joke and give it to people without having to explain it!’ Michelle graduated, and eventually left The Quarto. When Marion started to get better, we breathed a collective sigh of relief, and I started worrying about the even larger problem of how to replace Pat, who has been ordering our new books for fifteen years, and will shortly retire, and Julie, who is moving.

In her absence, Marion missed all the excitement over the letterbox. The new European standard for the letterbox, you will be pleased to know, will not permit your relatives to mail you, a volume at a time, their volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, made redundant by the new CD-ROMs. Not because the volumes are too tall or wide, the 250 mms will easily accommodate this, but because they are too fat. They will not be able to squeeze through the miserly 38 mms allocated by the Eurocrats, who can presumably visualise nothing grosser than Paris Match or the Penguin Death in Venice. I am in possession of this arcane information because I have had a three cornered argument with the publisher and Royal Mail about whose fault it was that The Battle of Aberdeen 1644 got creased coming through my door. No sooner had I complained, than the post woman was on the doorstep miming the steps she would have taken not to get it creased, even though nobody but the residents of Flatland would have believed her. Unfortunately, the publisher sent it in an envelope protected by nothing stronger than a sticker reading ‘Books – handle with care’. I finally had to admit that my letterbox was to small to accommodate uncrinkled delivery of all but the most anorexic of publications. In a spirit of sardonic enquiry, I phoned Royal Mail to ask if there was a European Standard for letter boxes, only to find out that there was indeed one plodding its way through committees. It will be in place next year. As an ex-political leafleter, I should have asked if they were also legislating against letterboxes at floor level so that you have to kneel to use it, ones with fiendish springs that tear your skin off, and ones with fierce dogs waiting for a high protein snack in the shape of my hand.

All this got me so flustered that I sent a cheque for a golf book, made out to the author. The vendor returned it with a letter saying ‘Sadly, Major Guy Campbell is no longer with us, so can you make out the cheque to me?’ I was suitably chastened. Golf for Beginners slipped through our front door with no trouble at all.

Copyright Margaret Squires 2005.


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