After Bowie, Rickman: should retailers profit from death?

VicbooksBowieDeath doesn’t lend to easy commercialisation. Which isn’t to say that it can’t, or isn’t, harnessed in the commercial realm to great effect, but those who treat the dead without respect can do great harm to the living. How do we booksellers deal with the death of a prominent figure? There have been many conversations behind the counter (and everywhere else) with the deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman, which raised the spectre of retail and death in my mind. Should retailers profit from death?

I was working at a Waterstones in Kensington, London when the Queen Mother died in 2002. A bookseller I worked with put up a dump-bin with royal-related books in it, also incorporating a half-empty gin bottle and an ashtray with stubbed out rollies in it. It may sound crass, but it was an act of respect on this bookseller’s part, one our customers loved.

I have felt dirty displaying the books of a recently departed author; tainted by the commercial act. I was quite cynical when Terry Pratchett died, hoarding remaindered copies of his books in advance and waiting for his death. Yet in other instances I have reverently displayed the books of the dead, alongside photos and quotes. When Jose Saramago died in 2010, or Maurice Sendak in 2012, I went to great lengths to promote their books, because I loved them and wanted others to read them and love them too. I also loved Pratchett’s work but felt guilty that I prepared for his death. Is it premise or practice that makes the act one of respect or disrespect?

Subtlety the key in a small space

At Time Out Bookshop, space is at a premium, which has made some of Jenna Todd’s beliefs around subtlety easier to put into practice. Jenna prefers catching a customer’s eye with an understated moment rather than possibly soil the experience with something that could look like commercial opportunism. A gentle hand and a respectful space can be created by moving a book to a prominent position as a “nod to someone feeling the loss of that person. But I prefer to stay away from making a song and dance about it.”

A sensibility displayed in another way last year with their simple window display of Ted Dawe’s Into the River that wonderfully captured the sensitive nature of censorship (pictured below).


When Terry Pratchett died Jenna went a step further as it felt right to her: a small acknowledgement in the section with a photo (laughing crow) and a Pratchett quote: “The trouble with having an open mind, of course, is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it.”

Yet when Mal Peet died it was closer to her heart, so a lot of conversations happened about the joy of reading him, “Peet has a niche of readers, one it was a joy to bring new members into, so the lack of future work represents a continuing loss, but also a chance to talk about him and his work with customers.”

Small town sensitivity

Chris Lumsden of Paper Plus Wanaka (pictured right, with wife Cheryl) describes the environment of a smaller community as being influential on his views of displaying the books of the recently dead, which is to say that he simply doesn’t do it. The risk of offending someone in a close community is high, especially when a lot of your business is based on word of mouth. Chris says that the ‘viral gossip’ in such conditions can do great harm to a book shop’s reputation, a risk not worth taking when Paper Plus Wanaka has put so much work into forging community connections (giving 20 per cent of their event profits to local charities, for instance). The danger of being seen as a tasteless profiteer is very real.

A locational aspect to considerations around prominent deaths does make sense, but surely it’s not just geographical?

Respect for a life well lived

Niki Ward of Vicbooks in Wellington was quick to dismiss the notion of ‘taking commercial advantage’. Niki and her staff put up a David Bowie display after news of his death broke,

“There was a genuine feeling of shock on our part, so we did what we could as a kind of eulogy.”

Interestingly, she points out that little (if any) money is made through sales after the death of a prominent figure; “it’s certainly not death profiteering”, she says, “it’s devotional over commercial.”

Niki believes almost everything comes down to the personality of the shop, those that manage it and those who work within it, saying: “If it matters to you, then do it; customers expect an honest response to the world, anything short of that can detract from essential things.”

Niki also believes that sometimes a death can restart an important conversation if embraced with care and respect.

“When Maya Angelou died there were many conversations between staff and customers, leading to a renewal of interest in this important woman, interest that was relevant and reverential.”

Drawing attention to the works of an author, or a biography of a recently deceased person, rarely has a profitable aspect to it. It could well be argued that by making space for such displays one is taking prime space away from other more commercial titles.

So what is being accomplished? A store is simply telling the world what it cares about, what it respects and loves.

It’s not about premise and/or practice, as a bookseller your premise is your practice; just keep it in alignment.




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