Liz Hoggard: Life through a shop assistant's eyes

I can see why Philip Green and Stuart Rose still take turns at the till

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I failed Maths O-level. I'm borderline dyspraxic. I can't read a set of instructions to save my life. So – inevitably – I became a journalist. It didn't happen overnight of course. For years I waitressed, worked in shops and – most humiliating of all – as a runner in a bingo hall.

Finally when I got a job on a magazine, I crossed the floor from an agonised blue-collar existence to office life. Even now I wake up sweating with relief that I don't have to do silver service or tackle the till or measure men's trousers. So imagine my horror when I was given the chance to spend a day working at Foyles bookshop. "You'll be able to witness Christmas from a bookseller's perspective," the PR soothed.

Last Friday I arrived truculent and white-faced at London's Charing Cross branch. They took away my phone and handbag, sat me at the Information Desk – and made me interact with real people. And you know it was bloody fascinating. I came away filled with admiration for the psychology of shoppers. How much they want to please the person they are buying for. How ingenious they are when a book/DVD is out of stock.

Most of all I was bowled over by the staff. Half the time it's a detective trail. A customer will plead: "My Mum wants this novel with 'Green' in the title," or ask plaintively: "Has anyone written a satirical book about PR?" And nine out of 10 times they'll find it for you. Like the lingerie runners in department stores, they'll take the measurements of your loved one, and suggest a classic crime novel or piece of science fiction that should fit them.

Admittedly Foyles, an independent bookseller, prides itself on its backlist (everything from fiction in translation to nanotechnology). But there were some very funny exchanges. Such as the man who wanted Brick Lane and kept refusing Monica Ali. It turned out he wanted "Bricklaying". Who knew? But they found it.

And there was a poignant moment when a man with mental health issues talked at length about being made redundant to the staff. Apparently customers feel a bookshop is a safe space where people will listen – unlike other stores.

I can see why Topshop's Sir Philip Green and M&S's Sir Stuart Rose still take turns at the till. You need to understand what real people buy – and why. In an interview this week, actress Kristin Scott Thomas explained why she ducked out of Hollywood: "It's all very well, telling stories, but unless you can fuel them with some proper experience ... unless you can sit on a bus and know what it feels like to sit on a bus, then you develop a weird take on life."

More than anything it made me feel the death of the bookshop has been exaggerated (even with the closure of Borders). Because people still get excited about print. I only saw one person buying a celebrity biography. The surprise hit this Christmas is the graphic novelisation of the life of Bertrand Russell. And Mary McCarthy's 1960s feminist novel, The Group, is selling all over again because of a new introduction by Sex and the City's Candace Bushnell.

Everyone should spend time working on the shopfloor of life. It's not healthy to be too white collar. You see the top trends happening in front of you. And you'll never moan about assistants again.

lizhoggard@hotmail.com

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