Sunday, 25 November 2012

Orwell's Bookshop

This time I shall discuss second hand bookstores, with one eye on Pelgrane's Bookhounds of London and another on this essay by George Orwell.

When I first read Bookshop Memories I was struck by how modern it seemed, even now, some eighty-odd years after its first publication. That isn't just Orwell's writing style, though that certainly helps. What really makes it seem as though it could have been written yesterday is that, for all intents and purposes, little has changed in the book trade since Orwell's day.

Take the section starting "Like most second-hand bookshops we had various sidelines." You'd be hard pressed to find a bookstore that sold stamps and typewriters these days, but it's nevertheless true that most bookstores even now have a sideline of one sort or another. DVDs and blue-ray discs are very common, as are oddments like cards, novelty mugs, (Keep Calm and Carry On, anyone?), and even collectable playing cards. Plus, of course, snacks and drinks, though these seem to be less common now; or perhaps I've been going to the wrong bookstores.

Or those Christmas cards, sold to stores in June and no doubt shoved out onto the shelves as soon as they arrived. After all, storage space is at a premium and no bookstore can afford to keep a lot of inventory in its back room. Imagine '2 doz. Infant Jesus with rabbits' staring back at you, as you go to pay for your selection. Mind you, it being November as I write this, you may not need to stretch your imagination that far.

Of course, the most obvious then-and-now comparison is with the customers, and those haven't changed at all. The only difference, as Alex Robinson's Box Office Poison demonstrates, is that the muddle-headed aren't looking for books published in 1897 any more. Yet the paranoiacs, the dodgy characters that smelt of old bread crusts, the importunate students all still exist, or have their modern equivalent. Posy Simmonds would probably argue that many of the ones ordering books they don't intend to pay for these days are would-be authors trying to drum up interest in their self-published work.

There are differences, of course, and the most obvious of these is the lending library. Some of the charity shops might still have something like it, in that you do still find places which let you take a book away for free so long as you leave one behind in its place. Yet the library as Orwell remembers it is a long time dead, and probably most second hand booksellers these days don't mourn it.

So what does all this mean for Bookhounds?

For one thing, it leads to some interesting scenario hooks. Imagine what could happen if the horoscopes and fortunes sold at the players' store actually started coming true, or became laden with Mythos hints, or even became a spreading mechanism for Dust-Things. Perhaps one of those dusty old reprobates who's always trying to sell the players worthless books finally turns up with something interesting, or alternatively, claims he has access to a title - or a library - the protagonists want. Or one day, when trying to keep the bluebottle corpses at a minimum, the players may find a new and very interesting insect lying amongst the dust and fragments.

More importantly, it gives the Keeper a window into what life would have been like then, and what the players' shop is probably like. As this is Trail of Cthulhu there's an understandable desire to link pretty much everything to the Mythos, or at least to horror, in one way or another. After all, that's what keeps the players coming to your table every other week. Yet Orwell shows that even places with an "exceptionally interesting stock" have to keep a fair selection of Ethel M Dell on the shelves, just to keep the punters happy. Booksellers who don't pay attention to their customers' wants go broke in fairly short order, and the players may find that - though their incunabula collection may be first-rate - Warwick Deeping is the one keeping the wolf from the door.

Not that you, as a Keeper, need to know much about authors like these. It's probably simpler to invent your own, probably using Mills & Boon as a template to work from. The key point to take away is, the players mustn't be allowed to think that the whole of their professional lives are spent hip-deep in the Mythos because, when that happens, the campaign is one step away from Dark Shadows; and while that has its points, it would be difficult to get a really Purist feel in a game where everything is tied together in one massive Gothic melodrama.

Throw in some scenes, now and again, when the players are dealing with purely mundane troubles, and that will achieve two objectives. First, it will make the horror that much more frightening, when it does turn up. Second, it makes the store an actual character in the ongoing story, rather than the scene of the (Mythos) crime. Finally, it helps the players establish their characters and flesh out their backstory if, every so often, they aren't hunting down occult terrors from beyond the veil. They then get to show what the character likes, dislikes, how they deal with people, how they deal with each other. Allowing them to do that without having an omnipresent threat hanging over their heads will give them space to breathe.

"The sweet smell of decaying paper appeals to me no longer. It is too closely associated in my mind with paranoiac customers and dead bluebottles." Or perhaps, in your game, something else again ...

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