The Prince and the Bear

quarto.jpg What can events in America do to a small shop in St Andrews? Quite a lot, as it happens. The Royal and Ancient autumn medal was on and more than twenty American members stayed away. I had only left the US from Newark at 10 p.m. on 10 September 2001 myself. Supposed to catch a flight from Boston on the 12th, my American customer of longest standing, who bought books from me in 1971, was trapped in America, while my most ebullient American customer was trapped in St Andrews for an extra week. ‘How dare you go to the States when I’m coming here, what were you doing that was so important?’ I told him that I had gone to learn how to deal with bears. A friend from way back had phoned in April ‘No excuses, I’ve seen those farm animals on bonfires, you won’t be able to hike anywhere and you won’t have anything to eat, this is the year for the great visit.’ A friend of hers had opened an English language bookshop near the Spanish Steps in Rome and we had talked shop. Another friend took us hiking amongst the Tetons and we had talked bears. ‘The thing to remember is neither of you want this encounter. You look at the ground, not in his eyes: he takes that as a challenge. Then you say ‘Bear, I didn’t mean to trespass on your territory, I’m backing down.’ Then take a coupla steps back.’ By the time he, as the bear, had charged and I was lying spread-eagled on the floor so the bear couldn’t turn me over, I was distinctly less keen on the walk but I did feel that I had gained some useful tips about dealing with the bear-hugs from His Ebullience.

Students who look as if they could be Muslims seem far more nervous. A girl hastily turned over an international relations book with the title Justice and Violence when she saw I might notice it. The police are everywhere, not because of events on 11 September but because of the William factor. I was setting out early one Sunday morning and fell over a policeman checking the flower boxes outside my front door for bombs. All the inside information I have on Prince William can be written on the head of a pin but since people keep asking me questions, here is all I know.

I have a £5 bet with a customer that he will not enter the Quarto in the four years he is here. Marion and Maureen gave an interview to the Baltimore Sun in which they repeatedly denied that they would ever say anything about him, even for money. The Baltimore Sun did not mention this. I gave a vox pop interview to Die Welt about him (i.e. said nothing) without realising I had. Die Welt did not mention this. His detectives are alleged to wear corduroy trousers on the grounds that they have been watching Brideshead Revisited and think that is what junior staff wear. In freshers’ week someone bought all three remaining secondhand copies of the set text that William has to read. While shopping at Safeways I saw a car with on it.

That should give a tabloid newspaper at least six months’ fuel for speculation, if they are not speculating on his marriage prospects: rather ridiculous as the age group they should be interrogating is probably nearer my granddaughter’s. She has no ambitions to be a Princess but last time she was here she had a shot at running the Quarto. I must say that I am quite impressed with the Scottish education system if it can produce ten-year-olds who can work out the change from £20.00 for £13.95 in their heads instantly, and who can shelve Somerset Maugham in the correct place in the novels. The Switch machine was cool rather than terrifying. The only thing that terrified her was the possibility that the customers might ask her a question and it might not be the sort she can cope with as quickly as in the game ‘Tell Me’: (Q. ‘Name something beginning with ‘O’ that you can do that an animal can’t.’ A. ‘Own a Pokemon card.’) The customers, however, seemed to take it in their stride to find her sitting behind the desk while I shelved books, and asked her if we had any Homer. Her primary school has not come around to The Odyssey, so I was relieved to discover that she isn’t quite ready to take over – yet.

Another customer asked if we had copies of Womens’ Golf. I recognised her, a few years older, from the cover. She follows the example of Henry Cotton in buying back second hand copies of their own books to supply the demand of the people who write and ask if they have a spare copy. Does Martin Amis keep copies of The Rachel Papers (now out of print) for that purpose? I doubt it. Customers often tell me that they have written to the publisher to get an out of print book and are surprised to find that they have not held a few back from the booksellers (who are, after all, their best customers) to sell direct to members of the public. It never occurred to me to write to the head office of Marks and Spencer to ask for that black and white sweater that was the only garment my son would wear to school aged eight. How stupid of me. Instead, I got my husband’s knitting auntie to replicate it.

Perhaps she could knit up copies of Women’s Golf, albeit not fast enough to supply the demands of customers from the bus tours who congregate just before their bus is about to leave and all need serving simultaneously. One American told me that he had to ‘rejoin his tour within a short period of time’. I wondered why he couldn’t just say ‘I must go soon’. But to my own ears I sounded very hypocritical – I have always argued for words as a solution to problems. The more words the better. I set about assembling a new window display featuring titles such as Scars Upon My Heart, Lonesome City, New York Times, Tourists and Post-cards from God. The order seemed to mean something at the time.

Copyright Margaret Squires 2005.


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