Blackwell’s Bookshop – Thorne’s that was

Today was supposed to be all about a trip to Quilliam Brothers, but alas it was closed for refurbishment so my friend and I ended up in the Tyneside Coffee Rooms, where I ate a portion of apple pie and custard so big I needed a lie down afterwards.

But heading in that direction did give me a chance for another wander down memory lane: a visit to Blackwell’s bookshop. Another one of those shops that utilises the city’s stunning architecture, this is on the ground floor of what I believe used to be the Grand Hotel (going from the sign, anyway). But to me it was more memorably the site of my first bookshop job, at Thorne’s University Bookshop.

I worked there when I was doing my A levels and, if I recall correctly, when I was home through uni: at one stage doing a day shift there then heading to my evening shift at the now defunct Cooperage pub and nightclub: a punishing schedule that had me so tired I regularly nearly walked into traffic.

My memories are overwhelmingly fond, if sometimes odd. The place was run by the Thorne family: Mrs Thorne was generally kindly and pleasant, but my limited experience of Mr Thorne was of a stern, Victorian type figure who toured the shop each morning to a chorus of “Morning, Mr Thorne!” as he greeted us individually. The shop was run as a cross between a personal fiefdom and Grace Brothers: the staff were nearly all women, most of whom were – or seemed to my teenage eyes – middle aged, and we were all expected to address one another by our surnames, reinforcing the Are You Being Served vibe (I don’t think I have been called Miss Sinclair since – and it was always Miss or Mrs, never Ms).

It gave me a crash course in crazy customers: from ‘sandal man’, the foot fetishist who would salivate over our strappy sandal wearing window dresser as she did the windows, and stare at the feet of any woman he was talking to with a lascivious expression. After my arrival, whenever he came in, the staff sent me to serve him, since he took one look at my Doc Martens and walked away, disappointed.

Then there was map man, who used to come into the map department, unfold a map and examine it at close proximity while vigorously rubbing his luxurious head of hair.

It was here I learned that customers expect you to be able to find ‘that blue book’, can’t understand why a book that just came out in hardback can’t be bought in paperback, or can get snotty about you not having any of Shakespeare’s novels in stock (“You have all of his plays!”).

But it was also here I learned the pleasures of actually being able to help people find a book they would love; a task that, without computerised records – we did our stock taking in paper catalogues and relied on memory a lot – wasn’t easy. I am still proud of the fact I somehow figured out “that book with the man on the cover” was The Once and Future King.

It was also here I met a girl who became one of my closest friends, Sarah from Caution Spoilers. I was drawn to her because I thought she was cooler than me (these days she jets off to Cannes, so turns out I was right), and we proved we were proper rebels by calling one another by our first names. In such fires friendships are moulded…

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