A novel way to shop

Never know what books to give? A new personal buying service promises to speak volumes for you. Sean O'Grady puts it to the test
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The Independent Culture

Whenever I've bought books, for myself or other people, I have relied on serendipity. Hours spent in second-hand stores, charity shops and junk warehouses would, I always believed, yield the right results if I spent long enough in there. Coupled with a tendency to indecision and a belief in never spending more money than absolutely necessary, this means I have spent a large proportion of my life on the Charing Cross Road with my head at an awkward angle reading the spines of books I was never likely to buy.

Well, it's time to uncrick my neck and stride purposefully into the exciting modern world of the book business, courtesy of an invitation from Waterstone's. At their Oxford Street branch I met Cathy Waterhouse, the "personal shopper" the store had allocated me to showcase a more rational, up-to-date approach to book purchasing.

The idea is that you tell the personal shopper about the people you're buying for - age, tastes, eccentricities - and then they use their skill to pick the perfect books for them. I brought with me some pen portraits of people I knew to test Cathy's abilities.

I had a choice. I could wander around with her or I could put my feet up and read The Independent. I left it to Cathy, and I'm glad I did.

The books she chose for the two little girls, aged three and five, were well received. I had to read the entire contents of each to them. Twice.

The two pensioners were also relatively easy to cater for, as was the 15-year-old fantasy freak. Indeed, Cathy managed her most significant hit here because I had been briefed by his father that he had read everything with a goblin in it that had ever been published in the UK. Not quite, we discovered.

It was the thirty- and forty-somethings who proved the most picky. So out of my candidates, most were very happy, with a couple indifferent. The only one who showed no interest was 18 months old. The book marketeers obviously have their limits.

The Gift Service is available at selected branches of Waterstone's

All present and correct?

Cath (Irish, my mum, pensionable age)
Into Gardening, Irish stuff.
Suggested book gift Irish Days by Margaret Hickey.
Reaction Delighted: "I'll enjoy that." (But then, mums always do, don't they?) Insatiable appetite for anything about the old country in the old days.

Mary (Irish, girlfriend's mum, pensionable age)
Into Religion, Irish stuff.
Suggested book gift All of These People: A Memoir by Fergal Keane.
Reaction "Lovely." Extremely pleased, although I had an idea she was after this.

Anne (girlfriend, fortysomething)
Into Chick lit.
Suggested book gift Under the Duvet and Further Under the Duvet by Marian Keyes.
Reaction "These aren't as good as the other books." Knowing her liking for Keyes' fiction, the personal shopper opted for something slightly different and autobiographical. Then again, I had little idea which of the books she had and hadn't read. Sometimes playing safe is wiser.

John (colleague, fortysomething)
Into Politics (especially Tony Blair), American football.
Suggested book gift Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles - Britain in the Sixties: 1956-63 by Dominic Sandbrook.
Reaction Quite pleased. I knew he's pretty much read everything current, so Cathy suggested something very new and a touch less contemporary.

Francis (friend's son, 15)
Into Fantasy literature.
Suggested book gifts Greenmantle by Charles de Lint; Endangered Species by Gene Wolf.
Reaction "They look good." Quite a relief. What do you buy the fantasy fan who's long since read everything by Rowling, Tolkien, Lewis and the rest of them? Cathy suggested some rare American imports. Unbelievably, he hadn't read either.

David (friend from university, fortysomething)
Into Politics, cars, business.
Suggested book gift End of the Road: The True Story of the Downfall of Rover by Andrew Lorenz and Chris Brady.
Reaction "I'll read this on the plane to Iceland." Fairly safe choice, catching all three areas of interest, and it worked.

John (friend, thirtysomething)
Into Arsenal FC, Ferraris.
Suggested book gift Arsenal (Rough Guide 11s) by Damian Hall; Wenger: The Making of a Legend by Jasper Rees.
Reaction Seemed very happy, even though his team are not quite the force they were. A nice combination of two cheapish books.

Severin (friend, French, thirtysomething)
Into French stuff.
Suggested book gift The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford.
Reaction Cathy chose this because of its Anglo-French flavour, although I thought Severin might prefer something in French, which she did. Still, she liked the choice.

Margot (John and Severin's daughter, three)
Into Princesses.
Suggested book gift Princess Rosebud by Dawn Apperley.
Reaction Great joy. She started reading it straight away (or rather, having it read to her by me). And again. A very happy little girl.

Penny (friend, dynamic, between thirtysomething and fortysomething)
Into Food, sport.
Suggested book gift Roasts: Meat, Fish, Vegetables and More by Sonia Stevenson.
Reaction Cooked one of the recipes within an hour of getting the book. Roast mushrooms. Delicious, although it seems she knows even more about cooking roasts than I thought.

Georgia (Penny's daughter, my goddaughter, five)
Into Witches.
Suggested book gift The Winnie the Witch Collection by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul.
Reaction As with Margot, she wanted it read to her straight away, which I was naturally happy to do over and over and over. I know a lot about princesses and witches now.

India (Penny's other daughter, 18 months)
Into Anything.
Suggested book gift Turtles (Soft Play and Discovery series).
Reaction Crawled away. You can't win 'em all. Probably end up a librarian.