Philip Moss swaps leather for literature as his dream of becoming a bookseller comes true at the Bath Guildhall Christmas Market.
This is without the doubt the most difficult column of the year to write. For the whole year, I attend game fairs and country or county shows and I know what I’m dealing with. Then, at the end of November, the whole show thing undergoes a complete change with the 18 days of trading madness otherwise known as Bath Guildhall Christmas Market. Back-to-back trading days are difficult even when there are only two of them; eighteen of them is like an Arctic survival course, though this year the weather was unseasonably warm. Trading something about which you have no clear idea makes matters even more difficult, as I was soon to find out.
I like to think of myself as a well-organised sort of person, so when in August the Guildhall Market Supremo, Mike Watts, was kind enough to drop a polite hint about a full-time leather stall opening up in the covered market, I did absolutely nothing – until the next thing to do, according to the list on the back of my packet of 20 B&H filter-tipped, was ‘Set up for Bath’. This was ten days before the market was due to open.
I also like to think of myself as a sort of unrecognised improvisatory genius. The type of individual who, no matter how big the shower of shit heading towards him, can come out relatively unstained and smelling of roses. I decided that direct action was needed – and fast. I drove to Bath in my three-hundred-pound four-wheel-drive mid-life crisis, and found the full-time leather seller, Bath Leather Goods, without difficulty. A short, polite conversation clarified in my mind that Sark, the owner, seemed unwilling – not unreasonably – to take an eighteen-day holiday during the peak period of Christmas shopping season. My mind raced. Perhaps good, old-fashioned threat and intimidation might do the trick? I decided not to pursue this course of action for three principal reasons:
Sark was wearing a Parachute Regiment T-shirt. Mine was from Hello Kitty.
Mass, to contradict Newton, is not everything. Even though Sark was barely half my size, it was obvious that cider, lying around on a sofa watching DVDs and shouting at terriers or, if they were unavailable, passers-by, had played almost no part in the development of his physique.
Perhaps most telling of all was point three: A grown man with a wedgie is not a good look.
Accordingly, we negotiated my complete and abject surrender and I dashed off to find something else with which to fill the space.
Ever since watching Black Books on Channel 4, I’ve had a hankering to have a go at running a bookstall. I mentioned this once to Paul at Coch-Y-Bonddu Books. Whether he thought I was joking or not, he obviously found the idea hilarious. Even to this day, whenever he sees me he breaks into a cheerful gale of laughter, slightly too high-pitched for comfort.
A couple of days later, I was sobbing into my next door neighbour’s cider about my troubles.
“Yeah, all right then. We’ll give that a go. We’ll put a bookstall there,” said Andy.
“And we’ll even staff it for you,” added his charming partner Rachel.
Previous to this, I also liked to think of myself as an observant sort of bloke, but the fact that my next door neighbours run a large books-by-mail business with a stock measured in millions of volumes had quite simply passed me by. Yet a swift phone call later to Mike Watts and the Hey Everyone (www.heyeveryone.com) bookstall at Bath Guildhall Christmas Market was born.
Hell, I even wore a jacket and tie for the first day – just the first day.
To be honest, I had little to do. The lovely nymphs Fran and Vicki were much more au fait with the electronic till, or ‘EPOS’, as, moving with times, I came to know it. See Gun Trade News passim for the ruses and wiles of the buying public at Bath, but there was no challenge too, er… challenging for the girls. They handled even the most awkward customers – many of whom I knew – with charm and efficiency. Hey Everyone was extremely kind and even bought a stock of my book, Flogging The Field, for the stand, all of which sold.
Local authors called in from time to time to do signings for the buying public. All were extremely gregarious and clubbable (in a good sense). How the Christmas spirit fairly overflowed, with books like Sean McGlynn’s excellent Kill Them All: Cathars and Carnage in the Albigensian Crusade and Gordon Lowe’s gruesome yet compelling The Acid Bath Murders: The Trials and Liquidations of John Haigh. Then there was Beastly Bath, a collection of quotes telling us what the literati down the ages didn’t like about Bath and is illustrated in a wonderfully grotesque manner by cartoonist Perry Harris. Hardly very Christmassy, I’ll admit, but the Bath punters loved them. I thought Flogging The Field might be a bit strong for some during the festive season but, compared with the material in these three works, my own efforts looked positively tame.
Children’s author, Caroline Green, deserves a special mention. She writes and illustrates her own children’s books. Outselling nearly all the other authors combined, once she got talking to either a young reader or the parents, they rarely escaped without buying at least three books, sometimes more. The other authors gaped in astonishment at her impressive sales technique. I took notes.
I didn’t even have to restock the stand. This was done in the small hours of the morning by two spectral figures known as Slav and Josh. They arrived in the dead of night, restocked the shelves, took out the empties which, obviously, Fran and Vicki had left all over the stand, did a bit of hoovering and then, well before sunrise, disappeared to wherever they go during the hours of daylight. I’d like to make clear here and now that this is as far as the vampire analogy is going on this occasion. Both Slav and Josh cast reflections in a mirror and I have never seen either of them express any interest in consuming blood, unless black pudding counts. Just because he’s called Slav doesn’t mean he’s from Transylvania. In fact, he’s from Hereford, if you must know. And Josh? Come on, people! You must be getting desperate. Who’s ever heard of a vampire called Josh. Still, I’m pleased we’ve had this talk and the opportunity to clear the air.
There was one spooky thing, though. Four days before the end of the show, a large cardboard box appeared on the stand containing a metric tonne of children’s books. It reminded me of the big piece of slate in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like the apes in the film, I was afraid to touch this weird manifestation that took up most of the stand, but was soon barged out of the way the bargain-hunting punters of Bath. A book for two pounds; three for a fiver. I watched one woman and her friend sort through nearly every book in the box, taking well over an hour to do this before deciding against a buy!
Similarly, the girls had wrapped some books in Christmas paper as decorations for the stand. We had no desire to sell these but after the thirty-third request for a lucky dip we thought, “Why not?” The punter paid her two pounds and eagerly unwrapped her purchase to reveal the perfect Christmas book: Working With Sheet Metal: A Technical Guide. Needless to say, she was thrilled… sort of.