The maker's mind
Familiar and reliable, new and strange

The dress code for bookshops, and other ways of annoying Brian Sewell

There's an interesting exchange here on Danuta Keane's blog, which carries on the conversation which started in an earlier piece of hers, It's the Brand, stupid, about the reasons why authors shouldn't shy away from thinking of themselves as brands. I won't summarise it here, though both are well worth suppressing your purist, anti-capitalist, art-fundamentalist knee-jerk horror at the idea of branding yourself till you've read them. It's Susan Hill's post in the comment trail that caught my attention: she describes an acquaintance who bought books avidly when The Book People called regularly at her office, but then went on maternity leave. There were Richard & Judy's selections just asking to be read, but she lived in the country and was at a complete loss as to how to get hold of them. Susan steered her towards Amazon, and all was well. But it's a salutary reminder to us booky types that swathes of the population (60%, apparently) love reading, have confidence in their taste and money to spend on it, but never go near a bookshop.

It reminded me of a story that the chief book-buyer of W H Smith told me a few months back. She'd dropped in on an event in one of her branches: a prolific writer of non-fiction aimed at teenage boys was talking about his work and signing books, and he happened to mention that while his most recent books were here in Smiths, there'd be a wider range in the Waterstones at the other end of the shopping centre, or in any bookshop. Question time came, and a lad tentatively raised his hand. 'Can we wear trainers in a bookshop?' he asked.

To 99% of those reading this blog, I imagine, bookshops are a home from home. We push open the doors and retreat from the high street clatter into carpeted peacefulness. There's gentle jazz or satisfying baroque chamber music, a tempting list of fancy coffees at fancy prices, and above all a sense of delicious possibilities: riches hoped for and riches unimaginable glittering among all those millions of words, just waiting to be truffled out from the packed shelves. We steer ourselves by labels like 'Fiction A-L' and 'Reference', we know that our sporting hero's life story may not be in 'Sport' but will be in 'Biography', we can tell with a glance at the blurb whether one of a tableful of novels is our sort of thing or another the perfect present for our mother-in-law, we spot titles we've seen reviewed and classics we're about to see on TV.

But it's not like that for much (most?) of the world. Some of what I'd call the nicest bookshops do look and sound like places where you shouldn't be wearing trainers, and if you're feeling like that you're unlikely to feel brave enough to ask what you fear will be a stupid question: you know your mum likes reading books, but you've no idea what to get her for Mother's Day, you loved the Lord of the Rings movies, and apparently there's a book to go with them... Amazon has many merits, and no one will see your blushes, but finding your way through it to something you want, when you don't know how to decode covers and authors and blurbs, is not easy either. Which is why although, like Susan Hill, I make precious little royalty on books sold in Tesco or by Ted Smart's The Book People, I say three cheers for them, and for the 'Richard & Judy' displays, and the 'as seen on TV' ones, and the ones for Mother's Day, pink and stereotyped and insulting to my feminism though I may think them. For someone, somewhere, it may just be what makes a bookshop, or bookbuying in general, seem manageable.

Only the real art fascists, the ghastly Brian Sewells of the book world, believe that no one who isn't born being able to decode books and their habitats deserves to have them. The failure of the rest of us booky types is surely more in our bad faith. We fail to stretch our imaginations outwards from how the world looks to us, to how it does to others, and acknowledge that putting books where people are is just as important as luring people in to where books are.