A bookstore clerk confronts corpses, urinators, men with damp handkerchiefs, and a restrictive dress code. And, worst of all, authors. A short story from the author of the Booker-nominated "Hotel World."

By Ali Smith

Published May 24, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

This actually happened to me.

It was an afternoon in spring not long ago, in the mid 1990s. A man came into the bookshop where I was working. He looked like a bank clerk or an accountant or some kind of businessman; he had distinguished looking hair and was wearing a suit and tie. I straightened my shoulders. I was already in trouble at work and didn't want to get into any more trouble. He looked like he might be important.

I worked in a more old-fashioned bookshop at that time; what I was in trouble for was not wearing the right kinds of clothes. Shortly before the day I'm talking about I had gone to work wearing a sweatshirt with a designer slogan on it. It said across my back IN A DREAM YOU SAW A WAY TO SURVIVE AND YOU WERE FILLED WITH JOY. The sweatshirt had caused a major staff commotion and I had been called to the boss's office and given a dressing down (as it were), a row about always wearing trousers instead of a skirt and thirty pounds' unprecedented allowance to go and buy some proper blouses. There was a lot of anger in the staffroom about me getting money for clothes. The old members of staff, who smoked a lot, thought it was outrageous, though they already thought I was outrageous anyway for not wearing the right kinds of clothes, and the young members of staff, sitting resentful in the veil of thick cigarette smoke, thought that it was unfair and that they should get a blouse allowance too.

I was wearing one of the proper blouses the day I'm talking about. They both itched and I disliked the cowed, dulled person I felt I'd been made to become by wearing them. But I smiled at the man who'd come in. He was nothing like the man standing over there, behind him, at the shelf where The Chronicle of the Twentieth Century was kept.

The Chronicle of the Twentieth Century, until a couple of weeks before, had always been out with its pages open somewhere in the middle of the century on the lectern specially supplied to the shop by its publisher. Three of us worked on the ground floor and we had decided to remove the lectern because every day this man came in, took out his wet handkerchief and hung it over the back of the lectern while he read the Chronicle. Every day the same; he would come in, he would hang it up, read for hours then finger it to see how dry it was, fold it up, put it in his coat pocket and leave the shop.

We were always getting people acting weird in that shop. It had been a bookshop for hundreds of years, in the same old building full of hidden corners, sudden staircases, unexpected rooms. People had died in that bookshop. Old members of staff were always talking, huskily through the breathed-out smoke in the staffroom, about the day one of them found the lady lying dead among her shopping bags, her legs sticking straight out, her coat askew and a look of surprise on her face, or the day another of them found the man sitting on one of the windowsills on the third-floor stairwell staring straight ahead, dead.

We had a man who used to steal books, bring them back again after reading them, slide them on to the shelves and choose new ones to take away with him. We called him the Maniokleptic. We had a man who would fall asleep as he stood leaning against the shelves. We called him the Narcoleptic. We had a woman who would come in and pick up whatever was on the New Books table, turning the pages very fast like she was taking photographs with her eyes. We called her the Critic. We called the two old ladies who always came to any readings at the shop so they could drink the free wine Raincoat and Mrs. Stick (Mrs. Stick used a stick to walk with). I much preferred working down on the ground floor; where I'd worked first, up in a room off a staircase at the back of the second floor, we were always having to clear up after the people who urinated in True Crime, the spines of Dead by Sunset, The Yorkshire Ripper, Massacre, Crimes Against Humanity, Perfect Victim, The Faber Book of Murder dripping again under the fluorescent light. We called the urinators the Gothics.

Our name for the man with the handkerchief was Toxic. The day we took the lectern away all three of us gathered at the front desk nudging and shushing each other to see what would happen. He came in as usual. He stood where the lectern usually was. Then he came over to the counter. Barbara stared at the floor. I stared at my hands on the counter. He asked Andrea if she could point him in the direction of The Chronicle of the Twentieth Century.

Andrea blushed. She was the ground-floor sub-manager. She raised her arm and pointed it out to him in Non-Fiction. Then she said, wait. I'll show you. She took him over and found it for him. We all watched him spread the book open on the shelf at reading level, shake his wet handkerchief open and hang it off the edge of the bookshelf; it draped over the books on the shelf below. When it was dry he closed the book, put it back where it came from and left.

He was there again the day I'm talking about. He was always there. I could almost see its contents evaporating into the air, circulating throughout the shop in the ancient rattling heating system (although it was supposed to be spring, that morning there had been a white frost up the sides of all the church spires when I was on my way to work, frost across the endless tenement roofs). Earlier while I'd been watching him I'd been wondering again about leaving bookselling. I had turned away so as not to have to see him standing in his coat with the grey belt hanging; I looked out of the window instead at the busy Old Town streets and the blackened church and shops, the taxis passing and the wind whipping the people about as they stood by the pelican crossing or hunched themselves against the weather up and down the street where the museum was. My blouse was too tight under my arms. I stretched my shoulders and wondered if the material would rip. I wondered what it would be like to be working at the museum with its glassy-eyed stoats and stuffed hawks and foxes cordoned off behind the Do Not Touch signs, the dinosaur bones wired together the height of the grand hallway, the sound of genteel heels tapping on marble, the scholarly, weighty, methodical air. But they probably had a dress code at the museum too. Probably people like this man would stand about there all afternoon as well, hanging their handkerchieves to dry off the toe-bones of extinct creatures, urinating on the predators. I stood and wondered if there was anywhere in this city I could work where I wouldn't feel that while I was doing it life, real life, was happening more crucially, less sordidly, somewhere else.

Then the smartly dressed man came in and stood at the counter. I smiled at him.

Can I help you? I said.

He put his briefcase on the counter. It was large, old leather, bulging. A businessman wouldn't own such a briefcase; maybe he wasn't a businessman after all. Maybe he was an academic, I thought, since the bookshop is only yards away from the city's medieval university campus, and now that I had thought of him as an academic I could see how his hair was slightly overgrown, how his suit was a little worn and how there was something defensive and clever about his eyes when he looked at me, which he did while he opened his briefcase. It was full of the shining spines of brand-new hardback books. Maybe he was a Christian or some kind of religious bookrep. I frowned.

I am an author and historian, he said. You have probably heard of me. You have almost definitely sold some of my books here already.

He told me his name, which I didn't recognize though I nodded and smiled a suitably respectful smile. It was still mildly exciting when an author came into the shop in those days, the days just before authors were always appearing in bookshops like they are now. Now it is rather mind-numbing always having to associate a face or a voice with a book so that the face and the voice and the name, the body of the writer, are all sold as part of the #9.99 package, tiny peeled slivers of him or her inserted for readers between the pages like erratum slips or bookmarks.

He took one of the books out of the briefcase and put it down on the counter. It had a picture of Hitler on the front. I read its title upside down. It said something about true history.

This is my latest work, he said.

I opened my mouth to redirect him to History. He held up a finger to stop me.

It is the English translation, he said. Because this book is only available in this edition in English, I am having to sell it personally to booksellers and institutions like yours, which is why I am here today in person selling it to you. It will be available, in time, in a more mainstream edition than this one which, as you can see (he turned the spine so I caught a flash of an imprint insignia) has been produced by a small American press. But I would like this book to be available now, sooner rather than later, to all my readers even though it is only at the moment available in this difficult-to-find, difficult-to-order edition. You understand?

I nodded.

I know that a bookseller such as yourself, he said, would like to have all available editions on your shelves as a matter of principle.

He seemed to be waiting for me to nod so I nodded again.

We --, I said.

You see, he said. Much of what reaches us, much of our everyday knowledge, from our knowledge of current affairs to our knowledge of history itself, is heavily censored.

The man leaned forward.

This book, he said, is in its own way a kind of rebellion against exactly what we've been talking about.

He looked boyish, coy. He smiled charmingly.

Censorship, he said, smiling close to my face, is the death of true history. You could say it's the death of truth. We are all censored, every day of our lives. You know what I mean.

Yes, I said.

It is vital that we fight back against this vile censoring of our identities. For example, he said. I have been conspired against in all sorts of ways. In fact there is a conspiracy against me right now. In everything I do I have to work against others who are working against me.

He nodded at me now so I would nod back along with him, which I did, though I had no idea what he was talking about.

And this means, he said, standing his book on its end in front of me, that my work is often censored, because I am writing the true history that no one wants to hear. I write the truth that a paid conspiracy of Jewish publishers, bankrolled by a Jewish majority in whose sole interest the truth is daily denied, will not be courageous or pure enough to publish.

The man drew breath. His face was slightly flushed. I was still nodding though I had stepped well back by now and was scratching my head. I was wondering where the rest of the ground-floor staff was. There seemed to be nobody else in the shop, just me, the man in the suit and the man whose handkerchief was drying over the books as he read his way chronologically through The Chronicle of the Twentieth Century.

You see how it is, the man in the suit said. He smiled at me, a winning smile.

I had slid my hand under the counter and had my finger resting on the button we called the panic button which was for when people tried to hold-up the till or for whenever staff felt threatened by anything. But if I pressed it and Security came, what would I say? This man is a bigot. Please remove him. Or I do not agree with what this man is saying. He is a dangerous liar. Please have him ejected from the shop.

I fingered the button. Um, I said.

He was unloading books out of his briefcase; there were ten or more on the counter.

No, --, I said.

He stopped. He looked straight at me, a book in his hand.

Are you Jewish? he said.

No, I --, I said. It's not --. It's just that I'm not a book buyer. I'm not a manager. You need to be a manager to buy the books in. I can't, I'm just, a, a.

The man looked angry. For a moment he looked vicious. Then his face settled.

I wonder if you might call the manager, he said.

I can call the sub-manager, I said.

Can the sub-manager buy in books? the man asked.

I nodded. I pressed the numbers on the phone. The man and I stood in silence while we waited for Andrea to come down. He looked at his fingernail, rubbed at it impatiently with his thumb. I stood by the till looking hard at the old peeling sticker on its side giving everyone information about how to process barcodes. Andrea came down. She came under the divide and stood beside me behind the counter.

I'm sorry, she said. We don't stock books like yours in our shop.

The man looked almost pleased. Vaguely smiling, he put the books back into his briefcase, closed the clasp and left the shop.

The door swung shut.

Jesus, I said. Christ.

He'll be back in a minute, Andrea said. He always does this. He'll come in the side-door and go up and try History. Bet you a fiver. What did you say to him?

Nothing, I said. I didn't say anything to him.

Then this is what happened next. The man we called Toxic folded his handkerchief up and shut the Chronicle. But instead of going straight out of the shop as usual, he came over to the counter. He stood in front of us and he looked directly at me. He shook his head. Then he looked at Andrea and he tapped the side of his head lightly with a finger, twice. Mad, he said. She's mad, man. Then he left the shop.

When the door had closed behind him Andrea said to me, you know, every time I see that man I'm filled with shame at what we did. Some nights I actually can't sleep because of it.

Then she said, okay, you can go and take your break now.

On my break I was in a terrible mood. The staffroom really smelt of stale smoke. It was a deeply antisocial place. That was the day I decided to make the No Smoking signs and stick them round the yellow walls. It almost caused all-out war.

But soon after the fuss about whether people could smoke in the staffrooms or not, I moved to the new chain down in the New Town. First I helped install the new computers that automatically reorder books which sell more than three copies. Then I was made ground-floor manager. I can wear what I like now (though I am always smart) and I let my staff wear what they like too, within reason.

I have kept an eye out for that Toxic man since I moved. I have never seen him again. We don't get the same kind of person in this shop, I don't know why, other than that it is a clean shop, with wide-open wooden floors and a clean line of books and shelves; and nobody urinates here either, it wouldn't be easy to without being seen. People rarely even sit in the armchairs, because as company policy suggests we leave them in open positions so people won't be comfortable in them for too long. We do have prostitutes; I don't remember there being prostitutes in the old shop. Maybe it was too difficult to negotiate, too obviously nooked and crannied, not open enough to make browsing an innocent-seeming-enough activity. Maybe it was because there was no café at the old shop.

But I tell you. I'm ready. I stand at the counter behind the computers and I'm waiting. If that man comes in here, if that man ever dares to come in here, I will have him removed. Believe me. I have the power to do it now and I won't think twice about it.

Ali Smith

Ali Smith's novel "Hotel World" was a finalist for the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize. Smith lives in England.


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