Brats in a bookshop

Ian Norrie writes in The Oldie

In retrospect, given my W C Fields tendencies, it astonishes me that I was able to maintain a children's section for all of my 30 years plus of bookselling in Hampstead. And not just a section, but one quarter of the total floor space, which, considered in terms of unfinished lollies, empty crisp packets, discarded Smartie containers, buggies and twin-prams meeting head on, plus fouled carpet, amounted to Balkanisation of my entire emporium.

What we called “the children's section” was the middle segment of three linked units, so the conflict frequently spread into both the hardback and the paperback shops. And conflict often it was. The widest publicity I ever achieved resulted from my encounter with a woman whose brat was creating mayhem among the Puffins. We had words. She left, with her odious child wailing in her wake. At once I requested a colleague to write out a large notice to be fixed on the door stating: “CHILDREN OF PROGRESSIVE PARENTS ADMITTED ONLY ON LEADS”.

Quite soon this attracted a Daily Mirror journalist, who wrote an article about the appalling behaviour of children in shops, which was printed beside an illustration of our notice. Hampstead mums didn’t take that lying down. In the following week’s Ham and High the woman I had encountered wrote an angry letter, so angry that she didn’t check that she had misquoted me. Her published objection was to my stating “PARENTS OF PROGRESSIVE CHILDREN ADMITTED ONLY ON LEADS”. Were they, she asked, to be treated as dogs? The notice received further coverage in the media and became permanently enshrined in David Piper’s The Companion Guide to London.

Despite this (or because of it), our children's department continued to be well supported. One bestseller was Teach Your Baby to Read (boxed set of book and kit), astutely judged by publisher Tom Maschler, who lived amongst us, to be ideal for Hampstead. It surprised me that Tom didn’t follow up this success with another package, The Infant’s Teach Yourself to Harass Parents. That would have set a wind raging in the Hampstead willows.

Many years earlier I had attempted to boost sales of children's books by inviting the young to list six of their favourite stories, one of which, I promised, would be featured in a window display alongside their name. That was in the late 1950s. There were lots of entries, and the only difficulty lay in deciding whom to couple with Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, which most had chosen. It was interesting that no child chose a title by Enid Blyton, who was at the time as ubiquitous as J K Rowling is now. We didn’t stock her books because, in NW3, there was no call for them, although one boy had to be persuaded by his mother not to include her on his list. He is now a canon of the Church of England.

One reason why I believed in maintaining a large children's section was because I had observed that, sometimes, even the vilest of brats grows into a decently behaved, literate, book-buying adult. Actuarially, I reckoned I was on to a good thing, so it was worth suffering the ongoing agro, provoked as much by mums as by their offspring. No hen was ever more protective of her chicks than a late 20th-century mother defending her child against an angry bookseller.

And why shouldn’t I have been cross when stock was dragged across the floor under the muddy wheels of a pushchair and decorated with chocolate fingerprints? Yet still they came, bless them. Once I found an abandoned moving object, clad in bulbous blue plastic, drumming its feet on the floor. I raised it in one hand and cried, “Does anyone own this?” I waited, fearful that it was a deliberate act of rejection by some wretched single parent. I trembled at the prospect of having to take the creature home with me because the police won’t accept anything left on private property as lost property. Suddenly it shot towards the door and was removed. Quite likely, at our next encounter, by then a mature young man, it would ask politely: “Do you have a copy of Martin Amis’s Dead Babies?”

I found more bearable the rush we experienced every July when teachers from private schools flocked in with pupils eager to select prizes. Many of them ignored the children's department. They were no longer kids. I used to be on hand to invoice the school with what had been chosen. For one lad, it might be The World Atlas of Wine, for another, The Joy of Sex. It was not for me to question how appropriate such books might seem to the Chairman of Governors handing them out on Speech Day. I was but a trader in the marketplace.

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