It is no accident that chain bookshops are piled high with the latest products of well-known writers and those with a ‘hook’ (drug addict/victim/celebrity/murderer). Such books sell themselves: a branch’s stock reflects corporate policy, publishers’ marketing initiatives and media exposure; a branch shopkeeper neither expects nor is expected to offer opinions of his own. As an independent bookseller, I am temperamentally inclined to push books that chain bookshops have missed. My customers probably don’t need to know what I think of the new Martin Amis or Anne Tyler before deciding whether to buy it, but if they haven’t already made up their minds then they may prefer to be directed elsewhere. But where?
Identifying which books to go dizzy about is often haphazard. It can’t be done for more than two or three books a year or you find yourself wallowing in superlatives and you’re no help to anyone. At John Sandoe’s, our main criterion is that we have liked a book, and that we know why. The qualification is important not only so that we can justify a recommendation but also so that we know who not to recommend the book to: responding to someone else’s taste is easier with some understanding of one’s own.
Sometimes books that we have sold strongly from the start have in due course become bestsellers. Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour is an example, likewise Salley Vickers’s Miss Garnet’s Angel.
Of course I am pleased when such a book, or author, starts being talked about by everyone else, but I must also admit to a ridiculous sense of possessiveness: I remain unreasonably fond of those that, so far as I am aware, have made no impact on the wider world. A few years ago there was Kalimantaan by C. S. Godshalk, a powerful and sinister novel about Rajah Brooke of Sarawak, written from his wife’s point of view. Petrie Harbouri’s The Brothers Carburi was another success: a subtle portrayal of the r
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