Sylvia Crescent buys books and puts them in hotels. She's paid to do it. She calls herself a hotel book stylist. As far as she knows, she is the only person doing it. She thinks she invented the job. She is much in demand from hoteliers who have a book identity crisis.
"Ten years ago you'd never have found a bookshelf in a hotel," says Sylvia Crescent. "Well, you might have found a bookshelf, but you wouldn't have found a book on it, only a china dog or a framed photograph of what the hotel looked like 50 years before. That was it. Hotels had the idea that, once the Gideon Bible had been installed, their duty to literature was over. So guests who might be looking for something to read would either have to bring their own leisure reading or settle down to a grim tale of Middle Eastern warfare."
"The Bible," explains Sylvia. "I don't know if you've read the Bible recently, but most of it is a skilful propaganda history of the Middle East written strictly from the Jewish side, window-dressed with sex and violence. There's a small bit tagged on the end that does argue for a peace settlement, called the New Testament, but it's a fair bet that most people would never get that far if they started at Genesis."
Right... So how does it work? How does a book stylist go about establishing a hotel's identity?
"Well, book-wise, hotels basically fall into three groups: there's the hotel that thinks it's a country house; there's the hotel that likes to pretend that all its customers are top businessmen; and then there's the kind that thinks that hotel guides are better than real books."
"Have you never noticed that?" says Sylvia. "Any hotel that is listed in a guide to good hotels wants to have a copy of that guide lying around. `Look, look - we're in The Good Hotel Guide!' - that's the message.
"But it's a pretty stupid message, because anyone who picks up the guide and reads the entry is already staying at the hotel and doesn't need to be persuaded. But no hotel can bear to be in a guide and not have the guide lying around. However, having just one guide lying around looks a bit pathetic, so they ask me to get all those other guides, guides with names like A Hundred Tranquil Hotels in Unspoilt Britain or A Guide To Hotels Who Have Paid To Be In This Guide, and I make sure all those are on the shelves as well. Sad, really, but there you are."
What about the hotels that pretend to be country houses?
"Where all the furniture is slightly faded and rather homely? Same goes for the books. Nothing new, unless it's Dick Francis. Nothing challenging, like Dickens or Dostoevsky. What this kind of hotel wants is the sort of comforting and comfortable books you get at home. Of course, it isn't until you look at your bookshelves at home that you realise that, however cosy and familiar your books look, almost all of them are unread or unreadable. What we have on our shelves is lives of people who didn't have much of a life; travel books to countries that don't exist any more; novels by writers that people don't read any more like Thackeray, Gissing, Arlen, Charles Morgan, Jeffrey Archer; and antiquated thrillers that are too period for even the BBC to film..."
All of this must prove very difficult to get hold of.
"Are you kidding?" grins Sylvia. "It's all the stuff that second-hand bookshops normally can't shift. Tons of it, lying unmolested in old bookshops. I pay them cheaply by the vanload. They cry tears of gratitude. Then I make the hotels pay through the nose for it."
And what about hotels that cater for serious businessmen?
"That's easy. They don't have books. A top-class businessman has no books at home, unless his wife can read, and he certainly doesn't want to see any cluttering up a hotel. Do you know the sort of hotel a businessman loves? It's one that has a room called `the Library', but when you go into the Library you find it has no books in it, only newspapers, faxes and TV sets. My job in hotels like that is to go round now and again, taking books away."Reuse content