I was talking to someone the other day who used to work at a very large, very beautiful, very well-respected independent bookshop, which was taken over in the not-so-distant-past by a rather well-known chain. He quit a couple of weeks ago.
‘Why did you leave?’ I asked, risking a question that I always hate being asked about my old job in publishing.
He explained that when the chain took over it became increasingly hard for their shop to have any say about which books were ordered in. And when one can’t get a book that one wants to sell into the shop then one begins to feel somewhat worthless as a bookseller.
‘Fine,’ I said. ‘But that all happened a couple of years ago. What finally made you crack? What was the last straw?’
His voice dropped to somewhere just above a whisper. ‘Merchandising. They wanted to sell book-related products, not just books.’
Every other bookseller who I’ve mentioned this too has had exactly the same reaction as me.
<Gasp> ‘No. Merchandising? For books?’ <Gasp, again> ‘No. That’s just not right.’
Why do we all feel so strongly about it? What’s wrong with merchandising?
I actually feel rather positive about film merchandising. I used to decorate my bedroom walls with film posters. It was the perfect teenage way to convey to parents that, ‘It’s not fair and you don’t understand me and I like watching films in French not the middle-class rubbish on the telly that you watch.’
But books … it just feels wrong. They seem too old-fashioned to be commercially exploited like that.
I think good book merchandising works precisely because it chimes with that old-fashioned, rather insular image that goes with books. Who can possibly not feel fond of the Penguin Classics mugs? Perfect for making a cup of tea … to enjoy whilst reading one’s book. And the other items that come trussed up in Penguin Classic livery are just as appropriate: tea towels, deckchairs, pencils, bookbags, espresso cups.
With the exception of the espresso cups (and I bet those haven’t been as successful as the others), these are all perfect classic English accessories. ‘I shall just set a deckchair out on the lawn to read on, with a splendid cup of tea.’ I’m sure that Wodehouse has written something similar. Note that they do pencils, not biros; bookbags, not ipod/ebook covers; tea towels not dishwasher tablets. It’s all very quaint, very old-fashioned. It hardly feels as vulgar as merchandising.
I suppose the most obvious place for book merchandising is in the children’s section. The child likes the Gruffalo, so why not get him the soft toy? Because soft toys are invariably not as beautiful, subtle, lifelike as the character on the page. Compare the two:
Or what about Beatrix Potter?
Frankly if I had a child, I’d rather it just read the books. Books are beautiful objects. They’re not just vehicles for information, packaging for stories. Children’s books in particular are a pleasure to look at, to pick out the details, to note the expressions of a favourite character. A talented illustrator should not be equated with a gauche grinning thing sowed together in a sweatshop in China.
And then there are the more grown-up books. I suppose a poster of a beautiful old iconic book cover wouldn’t be such a bad thing. This one of Mrs Dalloway, for instance, is quite smart.
Merchandising for commercial fiction is just about conceivable, although rather vile. Perhaps they could sell Carrie necklaces or clutch bags alongside The Carrie Diaries – the new book from Candace Bushnell, who invented Sex and the City. I’m sure that a table of chocolate treats next to a table of chick lit – perhaps the wrappers could mimic the book covers – would do well. But really, it’s a bookshop, not a newsagent. And when one can buy books in places like Tesco’s and HMV, surely it’s doubly important to have places that resist this supermarketing homogenisation, shops that are just for books.
And then merchandising swiftly reaches the realm of the ridiculous. Imagine trying to do it for travel books. Would you sell malaria pills and mosquito nets? Torches and penknifes? What about passport covers and moneybelts?
For history books, you could have fake swords, paste jewellery, tins of spam … for gardening, trowels and pots and bags of seeds … photography, well why not sell cameras?
Soon a once-glorious bookshop would be reduced to some kind of kooky department store. It would be hard to find the books amongst all the other paraphernalia.
So perhaps that’s the fear. Books cover such an incredibly wide range of subjects that if you were to open the Pandora’s merchandising box, a swarm of monsters much larger, uglier and more various than you could possibly have imagined would jump out. So please, let’s stick to books in bookshops. And perhaps the occasional bookish mug.