Published: 06:00, 27 September 2020
When the Kindle reading tablet was first introduced in 2007, many were predicting the death of the traditional book.
Indeed the device sold out in the first 24-hours as customers seized on the convenience of having a multitude of books at the touch of a button.
But, fortunately, the paper version never went extinct and is even enjoying something of a resurgence.
And a man who knows more than most about selling them suspects it’s because a book has special tangible quality no electronic reader can ever possess.
“I’ve seen people hug, smell and even kiss books - that’s how special they can be to them,” says Martin Latham.
He’s worked at Waterstones for 35 years, the last three decades running the Canterbury store during which he has sold a staggering £50 million worth of books. He’s the company’s longest-serving manager but at the age of 64 he says he’s not about to shelve his career any time soon. Besides he has a new book of his own to promote - about being a bookseller.
His own passion for books started as a boy watching his father bring home armful’s of them after trips to Portobello Road.
“Our house in Earl’s Court was stacked high with all sorts so I didn’t really have a choice,” he said.
Martin admits that at school he was more likely to be found in the library than on the rugby field.
After gaining a PhD in history from King’s College and a series of “rubbish” jobs, he found his vocation in Waterstones in High Street, Kensington, which then led to him being offered the deputy manager’s job in the Cheltenham store.
In 1990, the then managing director Tim Waterstone interviewed him for the manager’s role at the new Canterbury store.
“He asked me why I wanted the job and I told him it was because I wanted to set Canterbury on fire - not literally, of course,” he said.
Bespectacled in his tweed-style sports jacket, he has a bookish air about him.
But that doesn’t mean he has no thrill for adventure. Indeed, his hobbies include wild camping, kayaking and swimming in the sea all year round.
But he is also just the person you would want as your ‘phone a friend’ when that tricky literacy question pops up.
His new book, The Bookseller’s Tale, published by Particular Books, is, of course, on sale in Waterstones and reveals the story of his and our love affair with books.
Far from the rather staid environment the uninitiated might imagine a book shop to be, he says they are comfort for all sorts of characters, young and old.
And then there’s the celebrity author visits, like JK Rowling. When promoting her second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in 1998, she used Waterstones’ shop phone to read her six-year-old daughter a bedtime story before her talk to an excited group of fans.
He recalls Spike Milligan, who after a signing event, took it upon himself to answer the shop phone to customers, causing one to hang up in disbelief when he introduced himself.
He also hired a young graduate called David Mitchell - no, not the Peep Show actor - to run the fiction department, who later became a Booker Prize nominated author and screen writer.
The hundred’s of authors’ talks he has organised have also featured former Prime Ministers Edward Heath and John Major.
Forget the Marlowe Theatre, because his small stage has been taken by some of the biggest names in literature, science, politics, history and television.
Then there’s children’s authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Morspurgo, fiction writers including Jilly Cooper and Joanna Trollope and A.S Byatt and celebrity chefs Nigella Lawson and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
Customers and their quirks naturally feature in Martin’s new book and he says connecting with them is one of the most enjoyable elements of his job.
“Their questions are also gloriously unpredictable,” he said.
“Like, ‘where are you technical books on goldsmithing’ or ‘I want a book which proves the existence of God?’”
He is often surprised by what sells too - although the shop has more than 100,000 books on the shelves to choose from.
The bookshop, he says, is often a place for television-led fads, but also private enthusiasms.
“For example, I’ve sold three copies of the £39 Atlas of Britain and Ireland’s Larger Moths,” he said.
“Who an earth was passing by the nature section and thought ‘yes’, something up to date about hawk moths is just what I need? £39, no problem.”
Sales, he says, can also be driven by political motivations and interests, like the recent Black Lives Matter protests which led to him selling 150 books on racism.
His own reading preference is about nature and history - he would have probably been a history teacher if bookselling had eluded him.
But he also believes is job as afforded him a unique insight into the human psyche and thinks booksellers have played a vital role in society.
“In some places, selling books which the authorities don’t like can get you in a lot of trouble, and in extreme cases, even worse,” he said.
Martin is married to Claire, who works for the Kent Community Health Trust, and lives in Barham.
“I have no plans to retire because I am fortunate that I love the job and coming to work,” he said.
“Customers and book lovers prove every day that there is more to life than war and laundry.”