Never before has such a gang of fiction-writing luminaries been crammed into a single room for a mass signing. Antonia (A S) Byatt signed copies of Possession only feet from her sister, Margaret Drabble. Sebastian Faulks craned over a hyperventilating American fan, to inscribe his name in her Birdsong, while Colin Dexter, who today publishes the last-ever Inspector Morse book, beamed at his adoring readers.
The location was Waterstone's, Piccadilly, the newest and largest bookshop in Europe, where bookselling reaches its apogee. People suspicious of the modern tendency to flog books like discounted root vegetables would have had their fears confirmed. There are no books in the window, except fake ones on the heads of mannequins. "We wanted to stress," said Louis Wahl, the marketing director, "that we're doing a lot more than selling books". Like selling the book-as-fashion-accessory, the novel-as-gift- item, the buy-two-classics-get- one-free-bargain, the juice bar, the conversation module....
Salman Rushdie emerged from a television interview muttering, "I've just done a five-minute commercial for Waterstone's, and all I've been given is one glass of champagne." Michael Holroyd, the biographer of Shaw and Strachey, remarked, "We may be at the birth of something new in bookselling, but there's a subtle difference between buying books and actually reading them".
Before Joanna Trollope and Jilly Cooper unveiled a gold plaque to commemorate the huge shop, Andrew Motion, the Poet Laureate, said he hoped that size wouldn't mean a limited shelf-life for books, a dependency on shifting bestsellers. "It's important that we can keep the rambling quality of our literary culture," he said.
Faint hope. Modern bookselling is about "signage" and niche marketing, about steering the customer into meta-book territory. And it's about books as "fun". "Why do they insist on saying that books should be fun?" asked Beryl Bainbridge. "Books should be serious. The more you insist on the elitist quality of books, the more people will run to them". The real attractions of the modern megastore are far simpler. "It's got a bar," she breathed, "where you can buy alcohol and smoke."