7th February 2015 - Kat Hacheney
On the first anniversary of the opening of our Waterloo Station shop, bookseller Kat Hacheney looks at why this oasis of culture and calm has become a destination as much as it has a stop on the journey.
Waterloo train station at rush hour is like an anthill: people bustling to catch their trains, others rushing down escalators and spilling into subterranean tunnels. Trolleys are pushed and dragged over white tiles; an endless hum of voices fills the departure hall. Occasionally an announcement cuts through the buzz: 'We are sorry to announce that the 17:21 train to... has been cancelled'.
Oh, the doldrums of modern commuter life. I feel for you, I really do. But, there are more pressing issues facing the weary traveler. Forgot that last minute present for someone that you've left at home? Somebody else did the crossword in your newspaper? Perhaps, the smart phone battery has run out of steam? Traveller, don't despair! One thing that you can rely on is that every journey starts with a first step. And a good book. That's where we come into play.
It's already time to celebrate our first birthday here at Foyles Waterloo. Has it really already been a year? It feels like only yesterday when we were unpacking all the boxes, piling the books up high and hoping for the best as we slid up the black shutter for the first time.
The press often seems determine to portray bookselling as a business in decline, but our first year here offers plenty of evidence to the contrary. It's been a blast! From the first book we sold - Love Monster by Rachel Blight, if you were wondering - we've been up on our feet and running, fetching books from the shelves for our customers all day, every day. Each morning Waterloo's flurry of intrepid passengers pours through our door and brings our shop to life. Even after a year people still walk up to us and say: 'It's good to have a proper bookshop here.'
But what do they mean by 'proper'? My guess is that it's the choice that we offer. My bookish heart beats faster when I think about the gems you can unearth here. Yes, we have the bestsellers like Gone Girl and The Fault in Our Stars, but there are also Birgit Vanderbeke and Thomas Bernhard to discover, for example, or a collection of Paul Celan's poetry. At Christmas, Saga, a space opera in comic form, and Soldiers of Salamis, a novel about the Spanish Civil War, were bestselling staff picks.
We've learnt that cats not only dominate the internet, but that they also rule the book trade; The Guest Cat has been another particularly big hit in store. (In fact, its editor credits our shop with kickstarting the book's march up the bestseller lists.) In general, Waterloo's commuters seem to love animals, if the success of The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly and The Genius of Dogs is anything to go by. That, I think, is what best characterises our bookshop as 'proper'.
And if that doesn't tick the character box for you, then our chandeliers certainly should do. These chandeliers are the starry sky above booksellers' heaven. And let it be known, booksellers don't joke when it comes to their bookshop! Sometimes we tend to dream though, and one of my dreams is to sell people books straight out of the old ticket booths we still have in the shop.
Even our customers are something to boast about: recently Hilary Mantel was seen leafing through the greetings cards. The proximity to the Old Vic probably explains why Kristin Scott Thomas was in here buying books. All sorts of TV regulars have been spotted browsing, although, as someone who wasn't born in Britain, the names of most mean nothing to me and I have to rely on my colleagues to let me know when I've served someone famous! But it's not the celebrity spotting I love about the job; it's working with people and books.
Just last week I had a young woman coming in; blond hair and wearing a blue parker. She pushed The Great Gatsby and another book over the counter, asking for a student discount. While she was filling out her student card, I asked what she was studying: it turned out to be Russian literature. We soon found ourselves discussing to Gogol's The Nose, a wonderful piece of satire. For everyone unfamiliar with it, it's literally about a nose that runs through St Petersburg. We both ended up speculating how this nose manages to move, as in Gogol's text there is no description of it, let alone how big the nose is, as it also dresses in human clothes. Before the transaction was finished, I asked what she would recommend to me and to my surprise she answered with Economics: A User's Guide, because, she said, 'I had no idea about economics whatsoever.' I thought this sounded a lot like me and I've now added it to my ever-growing book mountains at home.
Chandeliers, beautiful original fittings and celebrity shoppers aside, there's something very comforting in the thought that, amid Waterloo's daily hurly-burly, Foyles provides the answer to the challenges of a journey. And with the inevitable delays that come with commuting, it's always best to have a book on you.
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