Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Erudite space

It must rank as my favourite shop in town. And they're looking for people to work in it! Payscales are purely Imaginary, but in this case that's not the point.

I picked up a form and took it home to fill in. It took me days to get round to it: after all, what possible skills could a lapsed astrophysicist with a sideline in environmental campaigning bring to bear for working in a bookshop? Two weeks later I returned the form, with something vaguely convincing filling in the blank space. Then nothing happened, and I forgot all about it.

Until about a month after that, when a voice with a gentle Edinburgh accent arrived on the answerphone asking if I was still interested. I returned the call and fixed up a visit.

The funny thing about shops is the contrast between what you see on the orderly, presentable floor-space, and what lurks beyond. It's not unlike Backstage at the theatre, and in this case there are two whole floors of it. A dumb-waiter links them with the shop area, landing discreetly behind a revolving display of witty postcards ("Why should I tidy my room when the world is such a mess?"). In an office piled high with brightly-coloured former displays, shelves of incongruous objects (flower-pots, weighing-scales, lampshades...) and stacks of recycling-type boxes lurching under their weight of donated books, we arranged my shifts. I was to come back the following Tuesday morning.

The most straightforward thing to do is stock the shelves. Starting with "Politics", "Philosophy", "Business and Economics", "Science", "Sociology"... the weird thing about this is how many of the books turned out to be familiar to me: I'd either read them, seen them cited in books I'd read, read something else by the same author, or heard of them as classics of their kind. Perhaps it was just beginners' luck. Then there are entire shelves on "How To..." just about everything from tracing your ancestors, through winning at Bridge, to origami, knitting and boatbuilding. I seem to be the most agile person who comes in on either Monday or Tuesday so a lot of the shelf-stocking falls to me.

The following week they let me loose on the till.

The best bit is, nobody ever has to come in and browse secondhand books: it's not like, for example, shopping for food or clothes, which can be a bit of a treadmill: eat, work, get latest fashion, repeat... Here, by contrast, is a shop full of people who have only come in because they are genuinely interested in what we have to offer. Which, you could say, is the chance of stepping off the ordinary path, even if just for a short while, and into the wide, Imaginary dimension beyond.

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