The first thing that greeted me last Saturday morning was a gentleman attentive to our opening procedures. He dutifully watched as the postcards were hung up, the maps placed on display and the doors thrown open to the weekend visitors. Unnerving as this observation can sometimes be, it was this time ominously followed by ‘now, I know you don’t have a tourist information…’.

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Hailing from Denver, Colorado, his desires were much the same as many of the 19 million visitors who come to the Lake District each year… he wanted some advice about how to spend his day. Usually the pressures of customer footfall restrict this kind of interaction to a few brief minutes but on this occasion we had twenty minutes discussing the merits and inclines of the various Lakeland passes he favoured visiting. Always wary of suggesting these roads to novices, a measure of confidence emerged when we found out he had already happily tried the Kirkstone pass. Much of this conversation was spent staring at unfolded map and sharing a sense of what might lay in store. Those twenty minutes passed and he departed without purchase but happily bound for the sunshine of North Cumbria.

Not long afterwards, a local regular popped by to thank us for an order we had got hold of. Conversation dwelt on the local and international celebrity visitors we receive in the Lakes, but took an abrupt turn to recall a visit to the village by the actor Bernard Miles. Puzzled by this reference to celebrity, and unfamiliar with Miles’ oeuvre I was urged to investigate a 1960s film called The Specialist about a man who specialised in outdoor privy construction.

Before I could really process the turns the day was taking an elderly lady was counting out change to buy a postcard, briefly pausing to consider what was in her purse. Buried amongst the coins was a substance that resisted categorisation. Held to the light, it was clearly not the five pence we were both hoping for. Pausing for thought she uttered, I sensed more to herself than me:

‘I don’t know what that is? Maybe I’ll smoke it later and find out.’

Next through the door was a gentleman who had grown up in the village and wanted to talk about his new project. It turns out he is behind a new CD which sets Wordsworth’s poetry to music. This seemed to add comfortably to our array of audiobooks and so it’s now happily adorning one of the CD spinners.

A crossover of fortune meant that the next two people in the shop were an excellent match. One was a German visitor on the coast-to-coast walk and weighed down, wanting to gift us the German translation of Paul Auster’s 4321 to give to anyone interested. The second was a German-speaking local who really wanted to keep up her language skills with a compelling read. Job done. Also incredibly helpful, as casually pitching a giveaway of the German translation of Auster to any interested party was really going to add to the workload.

The usual procession of directions to the church, the nearest postbox, the buses to Keswick, the Co-Op, the lake and the gingerbread shop overlapped with a steady increase in book sales. At one point I believe my uttering the word ‘revivify’ was called into question and generally held as useful for future scrabble games. Trying to hold firm to our true purpose, the most fun and lively interactions followed in recommending and talking about books. Sometimes these are walking tours around the table and shelves displaying the latest books. Lively reads like A Gentleman in Moscow, Reservoir 13 and A Honeybee Heart has Five Openings are riding high in our esteem but customer insights can be really profound too. We’re lucky enough to see upwards of four hundred people a day in our small shop space, and many of these are voracious readers. Hearing what they value is an counterweight to the industry news we receive, as dimly recalled novels are polished and brought out of memory to challenge what we have on offer. The same goes for that much sought after walking guide, or memoir. Publishers could garner much from pitching up and listening to readers on a midsummer’s day after those same readers have made their annual pilgrimage to the shop to weigh up the latest titles against their own high readerly standards.

Those recommendations send us to read works we’d never otherwise encounter. Our village book group does a similar thing, which this summer has tackled Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, Emile Zola’s Therese Raquin, Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows and promises William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom in September.

Suffice to say after a long day of bookish reveries, directions and phone calls from service providers wanting to know what we did exactly (hold on, you rang us?), it was time to retire to the large bookheaps of home. This is where we take hints from our twitter followers on what we should be listening to (currently American “harp innovator” Mary Lattimore) and inevitably, in Wordsworthian style, gathering the days reminiscences that “flash upon that inward eye” we weigh up the most important insights. Suffice to say our guest for the weekend, a visiting American academic, was treated to a communal screening of the 1966 short ‘The Specialist’ and we’re now all much more up to speed with the dynamics of outdoor privy building.

–Will Smith

 

 

 

 

 

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