On books and customer service

Late last week I discovered via a couple of conversations that I no longer have a copy of either Lolita or The Peloponnesian War. For both of them, I was all, ‘Well, of course I’ve got that!’, because who would consider themselves to have a decently supplied book shelf with such gaps in the collection? Alas, both seem to have fallen prey to one transatlantic move or another. Embarrassed, and with heavy heart, I plotted a quick trip to Blackwells to resolve this unpleasant situation.

Fickle jade that I am, I was instead seduced by a whole swathe of other titles, old friends and newcomers.

The Worm Forgives the Plough – John Stewart Collis. I’m pretty sure this has been kicking around on the TBR list for a couple of years, ever since Slightly Foxed brought it to my attention (note to self: renew subscription to SF). Newly re-issued by Vintage, with a forward by Robert MacFarlane, it is Collis’ autobiographical account of giving up life as an academic to go and work on the land during WWII.

Henry II – W.L. Warren. I read and enjoyed the first 3 of Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death series; then the characters started to verge on parodies of themselves and I got a bit fed up. I stayed interested in the historical period and in Henry II, though, so now I have this 600pp+ biography to wade through. It was first published in the 1970s but it’s Yale and I’m thinking it might well still be the definitive biog. It was also under 20 quid when the only other option was 60 quid, so it wins on price.

Quartered Safe out Here – George MacDonald Fraser. He of Flashman and generally being a reactionary old bugger fame. This is his memoir of WWII, and from what I remember it’s moving and very funny. I bought this as a gift, but I might have to borrow it.

Master & Commander – Patrick O’Brian. There I was, planning an afternoon’s reading in the sun and unable to think of the appropriate accompaniment. And there was an entire shelf of O’Brians. We know how this goes, right? You may intend only to read the first one, but somehow you’re on book 10 without even realising that your every leisure moment has been given over to tales of Jack and Stephen. So I bought Post Captain too. In a astonishing act of finally waking up to the bloody obvious, I see that Harper Collins have twigged that if you’re reading a series, it’s enormously helpful if the publisher (a) lists the series in order and (b) tells you which volume in the series you’re looking at. They’ve got them all listed on the back covers now, with a note in the blurb too.

Then I had a brilliant idea. I do want the whole series again, but there are always so many other books clamouring for my attention that replacing lost ones gets low priority. But if one book a month could just turn up on my doorstep, I’d be happy about it.

So I tweeted @blackwelloxford while I was in the store to see what they could do. Conversation reproduced below, because this is fucking awesome customer service: instant response, doing exactly what I wanted with the minimum of information being exchanged because it’s already on record somewhere. Read and learn, other stores. Read. And. Learn.

@BeckyEC: Also getting the first 2 O’Brians, replacing the series. Cd you just send me 1 per month until I have them all?

@blackwelloxford: I’m sure that could be arranged #welivetoserve

@BeckyEC: Fantastic. Seriously, I would love to set that up. Account card at the ready…

@blackwelloxford: Consider it done – do you want to start on Sep 1st?

@BeckyEC: Perfect. Start with vol 3, keep ’em coming. Now that is service.

@blackwelloxford: No problem at all.

And thus did Blackwells score themselves roughly 140 quid of business, because there are 21 books in the series. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the fact that I was so happy with that outcome influenced my decision to buy the Henry II, too.

While in the shop I also clocked that Vintage have put Simon Raven’s Alms for Oblivion series back in print. My one-woman campaign can now come to an end and I can start badgering people to read them. (Consider yourselves badgered, you lot.) I was so pleased to see them that I almost bought all 3 handsome volumes (there must be 4 books in each vol) out of sheer gratitude. But since I already own the lot in individual volumes, that seemed like an extravagance. So I picked up the Collis when I saw it instead.

I’ve got to say that I love the Vintage Classics look at the moment. They’ve managed a striking series identity (red spine, blue author name, white title), which is cheerful and eye-catching when they’re spine out on the shelf, along with cover images that are individual and appropriate for each title. They’re so pretty and strokeable that I was circling the display table yesterday hoping to find a couple on it that I wanted to read and didn’t already own. They have totally become my go to publisher for classics, unless I’m already set on the Everyman edition or there’s a Persephone kicking around.

Long live print!


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I've run out of books. Again.

4 thoughts on “On books and customer service”

  1. I used to work for Blackwell’s in Edinburgh, the odder the requests the more fun we found it, whether it was sourcing an examination copy of a £300 biochemistry text for a local institute or tracking down old copies of long-out-of-print books. It was nice to work for a company that not only allows you to use some initiative, but positively encourages it.

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