At The Bookstall by A. A. Milne

I have often longed to be a grocer. To be surrounded by so many interesting things– sardines, bottled raspberries, biscuits with sugar on the top, preserved ginger, hams, brawn under glass, everything in fact that makes life worth living; at one moment to walk up a ladder in search of nutmeg, at the next to dive under a counter in pursuit of cinnamon; to serve little girls with a ha’porth of pear drops and lordly people like you and me with a pint of cherry gin –is not this to follow the king of trades? Some day I shall open a grocer’s shop, and you will find me in my spare evenings aproned behind the counter. Look out for the currants in the window as you come in–I have an idea for something artistic in the way of patterns there; but, as you love me, do not offer to buy any. We grocers only put the currants out for show, and so that we may run our fingers through them luxuriously when business is slack. I have a good line in shortbreads, madam, if I can find the box, but no currants this evening, I beg you.

Yes, to be a grocer is to live well; but, after all, it is not to see life. A grocer, in as far as it is possible to a man who sells both scented soap and pilchards, would become narrow. We do not come into contact with the outside world much, save through the medium of potted lobster, and to sell a man potted lobster is not to have our fingers on his pulse. Potted lobster does not define a man. All customers are alike to the grocer, provided their money is good. I perceive now that I was over-hasty in deciding to become a grocer. That is rather for one’s old age. While one is young, and interested in persons rather than in things, there is only one profession to follow–the profession of bookstall clerk.

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To be behind a bookstall is indeed to see life. The fascination of it struck me suddenly as 1 stood in front of a station bookstall last Monday and wondered who bought the tie-clips. The answer came to me just as I got into my train– Ask the man behind the bookstall. He would know. Yes, and he would know who bought all his papers and books and pamphlets, and to know this is to know something about the people in the world. You cannot tell a man by the lobster he eats, but you can tell something about him by the literature he reads.

For instance, I once occupied a carriage on an eastern line with, among others, a middle-aged woman. As soon as we left Liverpool Street she produced a bag of shrimps, grasped each individual in turn firmly by the head and tail, and ate him. When she had finished, she emptied the ends out of the window, wiped her hands, and settled down comfortably to her paper. What paper? You’ll never guess; I shall have to tell you–The Morning Post. Now doesn’t that give you the woman? The shrimps alone, no; the paper alone, no; but the two to-gether. Conceive the holy joy of the bookstall clerk as she and her bag of shrimps– yes, he could have told at once they were shrimps–approached and asked for The Morning Post.

The day can never be dull to the bookstall clerk. I imagine him assigning in his mind the right paper to each customer. This man will ask for Golfing–wrong, he wants Cage Birds; that one over there wants The Motor–ah, well, The Auto-Car, that’s near enough. Soon he would begin to know the different types; he would learn to distinguish between the patrons of The Dancing Times and of The Vote, The Era and The Athenaeum. Delightful surprises would overwhelm him at intervals; as when–a red-letter day in all the great stations–a gentleman in a check waistcoat makes the double purchase of Homer’s Penny Stories and The Spectator. On those occasions, and they would be very rare, his faith in human nature would begin to ooze away, until all at once he would tell himself excitedly that the man was obviously an escaped criminal in disguise, rather overdoing the part. After which he would hand over The Winning Post and The Animals’ Friend to the pursuing detective in a sort of holy awe. What a life!

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But he has other things than papers to sell. He knows who buys those little sixpenny books of funny stories–a problem which has often puzzled us others; he understands by now the type of man who wants to read up a few good jokes to tell them down at old Robinson’s, where he is going for the week-end. Our bookstall clerk doesn’t wait to be asked. As soon as this gentleman approaches, he whips out the book, dusts it, and places it before the raconteur. He recognizes also at a glance the sort of silly ass who is always losing his indiarubber umbrella ring. Half-way across the station he can see him, and he hastens to get a new card out in readiness. (“Or we would let you have seven for sixpence, sir.”) And even when one of those subtler characters draws near, about whom it is impossible to say immediately whether they require a fountain pen with case or the Life and Letters, reduced to 3s. 6d., of Major-General Clement Bulger, C.B., even then the man behind the bookstall is not found wanting. If he is wrong the first time, he never fails to recover with his second. “Bulger, sir. One of our greatest soldiers.”

I thought of these things last Monday, and definitely renounced the idea of becoming a grocer; and as I wandered round the bookstall, thinking, I came across a little book, sixpence in cloth, a shilling in leather, called Proverbs and Maxims. It contained some thousands of the best thoughts in all languages, such as have guided men along the path of truth since the beginning of the world, from “What ho, she bumps!” to “Ich dien,” and more. The thought occurred to me that an interesting article might be extracted from it, so I bought the book. Unfortunately enough I left it in the train before I had time to master it. I shall be at the bookstall next Monday and I shall have to buy another copy. That will be all right; you shan’t miss it.

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But I am wondering now what the bookstall clerk will make of me. A man who keeps on buying Proverbs and Maxims. Well, as I say, they see life.

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