Business as Usual by Jane Oliver & Ann Stafford: A perfect comfort read

Cover image of Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann CliffordThis blog tends to be all about the shiny and new but several titles reviewed on Ali’s HeavenAli blog from Handheld Press caught my eye, including Business as Usual first published in 1933. Then Covid-19 struck and the world turned upside down. Small presses seemed likely to be the hardest hit so I posted two lists of ten indies still valiantly mailing books to customers, including Handheld Press who turned out to be based a few miles from my home. My own order was delivered by co-owner Kate Macdonald who cycled over and left it on my doorstep before ringing the doorbell for a socially distanced ‘Hello’. Just as I’d hoped, Business as Usual turned out to be a glorious piece of escapism, an epistolary novel in which Hilary leaves her Edinburgh home and heads for London finding herself a job at Everyman’s, a smart Oxford Street department store.

The daughter of genteelly poor parents, Hilary has been first a teacher then a librarian but her local library no longer needs her. Engaged to Basil, busy making a name for himself in medicine, she has a year to fill and decides to spend it in London, taking herself off to the Minerva Hotel and finding a job at Everyman’s writing out labels in their book department. Hilary is not the neatest of employees but she has lots of ideas. When she’s put in charge of Fiction C, the cheapest of their circulating library subscriptions, she ruffles a few feathers and makes an enemy. Despite her clumsiness and irrepressible sense of humour which tends to get her into trouble, Hilary deals with customer complaints with tact and intelligence devising a new more efficient system much to the annoyance of her bête noire, Miss Sparling. Soon, Hilary is promoted, not once but twice, which all proves too much for Basil. In between times, Hilary has tea with her socially well-connected, kind-hearted aunt, roars off for a weekend with her friend in a dilapidated car and is offered the chance of a stint on a research trip to Greece. By the end of the year, Hilary’s life will be entirely different from the one she expected.

And what about a Bookshop? A Degree, they said, would matter less there. It might almost cease to be a disadvantage

Oliver and Stafford’s novel is hugely entertaining. Hilary is funny and bright, her letters full of gentle fun-poking often illustrated with amusing line drawings. Her ripostes to Basil are smart and to the point. We never see his side of the correspondence but it’s clear he’s a self-important prig. Despite her parents’ financial embarrassment, Hilary has not been exposed to disadvantage; Everyman’s ‘Nine till Six’ employees offer her a glimpse of a different more constrained life from her own. Some of her observations stand the test of time: Customer-in-state-of-acute-complaint-and-seeking-victim rang a loud bell from bookselling days for me. Kate Macdonald’s introduction puts the book in its context, offering background information on its two authors, both astonishingly prolific, individually and as a team. Everyman’s is based on Selfridges, apparently, and Handheld have included a quote from its founder on the back of the book who clearly loved it as much as I did.

If you like the sound of Business as Usual, please consider ordering direct from Handheld Press. I’m sure Kate will be more than happy to bike a copy to the Post Office for you.

Handheld Press: Bath 9781912766185 242 pages Paperback