A writer’s best friend
by Iqbal Ahmed
Published in The Independent on Sunday
Without independent bookshops, London would be for me what Baudelaire calls “a desert without oasis”. My love affair with bookshops began four decades ago in Srinagar. The Kashmir Bookshop, run by a long-bearded Sikh philanthropist, was the only one selling general books in our town of half a million inhabitants. One day his assistant, Ghulam Mohammed, kindly offered me a copy of a big hardback on credit. The price of the book was over a hundred rupees. It took many people a month to earn that much money. I felt indebted to Ghulam for life.
Having contributed a brief article to the LRB a year before, I received a discount card in the post when the London Review Bookshop opened in Bloomsbury in May 2003. However, I failed to seek it out for several weeks. Then one afternoon, I ventured beyond Museum Street off Great Russell Street and found the shop in a quiet side-road. I wanted a copy of The Writer’s Handbook to avail myself of the LRB discount card. They didn’t have a copy but offered to order one for me. I had worked a few years before in a chain bookshop located on the other side of the British Museum in Bloomsbury and remembered it stocking a whole pallet of The Writer’s Handbook.
I found later that my first purchase from the London Review Bookshop was useful only in facilitating rejection letters from literary agents and publishers. All of these refusals advised me to buy a copy of The Writer’s Handbook to find the names of other agents or publishers. After a while, I wanted to pulp my copy. Didn’t it occur to them that I had found their address in the very handbook they wanted me to buy? Finally, I decided to publish my own book, against the advice of friends and others who wished me well. They didn’t want to see me losing the money I’d earned through drudgery. On this account, it even took me some time to persuade a stringent freelance editor to copy-edit my work.
I knew my only bet was the independent bookshops in London, having worked in a chain bookshop for a few months. So I wrote to them a month before the book came out. Andrew Stilwell, manager of the London Review Bookshop, was the first to respond with an order. Not that he knew me then as a customer, but he wanted to support me as a small publisher. The next orders came from Daniel Webb and Gary McLaren, managers of the British Library Bookshop and the Owl Bookshop respectively. All of them repeated their orders within two weeks.
For the first few months, I pretended to be a bicycle courier delivering books to independent bookshops in London. My pretence was exposed when someone browsing in the London Review Bookshop told me, in hearing of the shop assistant, that he had bought a copy of my book a week before. After that, I started greeting the assistant in the shop. One evening while crossing Bury Place on foot, I was overwhelmed to find a copy of my book displayed in the show window of the LRB shop. I thought that Andrew Stilwell, having guessed that I had no funds for publicising my book, had decided to promote it himself. A few kind words from him soon reached other
independent bookshops in London and they started ordering books from me. It evoked a kindred spirit in many independents. Some of them asked me how I was connected to the London Review Bookshop.
I discovered an unspoken fraternity among the independent booksellers of London. When I went to deliver copies of my book to NewhamBookshop one afternoon, Vivian Archer picked up the phone and called Eastside Books for me. They were happy to stock my book on Vivian’s recommendation. Similarly, Mary in Prospero’s Books introduced me to Muswell Hill Bookshop. It took me just ten months to sell out the first edition of my book.
I was looking for an opportunity to say thank you to Andrew and his team. So I decided to hire the London Review Bookshop as a venue to launch the second edition of my book in mid-August, when, as it happens, most people are away on holiday. Andrew asked me well before the event if I was going to send invitations to the Press. I hadn’t really thought about it. He handed me his own handwritten list of contact names and warned me at the same time that nine out of ten of them wouldn’t come to the launch. He was absolutely right. Only two of the 20 people on the list attended the event. But one of them was later infinitely kind to me in her review of my work.
The staff of the London Review Bookshop obliged me by staying in the shop after 7pm to ensure my event was successful. John, the Assistant Manager, made an alluring display of my books on a table by the counter. He also arranged a bunch of lilies, curiously known as star-gazers, on the table. Among others who attended the party was Jane Lawson of Transworld Publishers. She thought it was marvellous that an independent bookshop could lend me such support.
A few weeks before Christmas that year, while distributing newspapers in the small hours of the morning to the guestrooms in the hotel where I work as a porter, I was surprised to find my book mentioned by Iain Sinclair among a broadsheet’s “Books of the Year”. I remembered that Andrew Stilwell had given a copy of the book some time ago to Sinclair, whom I admired for making London into a genre through his numerous books of psychogeography. I felt greatly encouraged to complete my next book. And soon I was to receive a cheque from Macmillan. No, not as an advance – but for the books of mine they were selling in their Pan Bookshop thanks to Caroline Sandes, who had ordered them from me.
I’ve therefore good reason to feel grateful to the Independent Bookselling sector for playing a significant part in supporting me as a new writer. That’s all the more reason to applaud their recent act of solidarity in forming an alliance that will give them added clout in this increasingly conglomerate- dominated trade.