Pensioner Barbara Lomas is up for her regular fix of murder, mayhem and mutilation. Who’d have guessed that such passions lurked beneath her dandelion clock hair?
“You like a bit of gangland crime, don’t you?” says Helen Colley, Sheffield Castle Market sales assistant of the year.
“Ooh I do, the gorier the better,” says Barbara, handing over the money for Roberta Kray’s paperback, Villain’s Daughter.
“In The Crucifix the victim was skinned alive and vinegar put on her,” says Helen conversationally.
Barbara is one of the JC Books regulars, coming for 10 years. How often? “It depends. If it’s a good book it’s next day. I’ll be up until 3am finishing it”
Helen is more than a sales assistant. She’s the owner. She took over the business from her husband John, now retired, and soon daughter Jessica will take over from her, so there will be no need to change the JC in the business name.
JC Books sells new and previously enjoyed paperbacks on a sale and half-price back in exchange basis. This means a book can make any number of trips to Castle Market, the price gradually dropping depending on how well-thumbed it is. Eventually, thoroughly exhausted, it ends up in the 20p box.
Out front, like a houri’s embonpoint, are the Mills & Boons, then there are the Catherine Cooksons, Danielle Steels, J D Robbs, Norah Robertses and Wilbur Smiths under categories such as Adventure & Thrillers, Horror, Sci-Fi and Fantasy and even a complete section marked Vampires.
On these shelves bodices are ripped, virgins raped and troths plighted at bargain prices.
Helen, who is 48 and who some say resembles cruise ship singer Jane McDonald (funnily enough, she’s just returned from a cruise herself), has read most of them herself.
That way she can keep up a conversation and recommend titles to her regulars. “If I think something is crap I’ll tell them and won’t sell it to them. If I don’t like them, I don’t tell them,” she laughs.
Market customers were asked to nominate assistants and give reasons. “Helen speaks volumes when she is serving,” said Jane Heathcote, who received £100 when her name was pulled out of the hat. A lot of the others said similar things and they are all regulars.
“I don’t think there is anybody I serve I don’t know,” says Helen and it is clear that her chat is as much a part of the stall’s attraction as the books. Some of the customers have been coming for so many years that when they die she goes to their funerals.
“Oh I’ve got so many lovely old dears…” she says.
Mind you, she knows when to shut up. Helen points to another pensioner. “She’s been coming once a week for 20 years, spends £4 and never says a word. Some people like to be left alone.”
Helen won’t say how many titles she’s got but they run into thousands. “Some of them are older than me, priced in shillings,” says Jessica, who is 28.
Jessica is the fourth generation in the business as John’s grandparents started with a shop selling comics on Sutherland Street in 1918. His parents moved to the old Rag & Tag market at the bottom of Dixon Lane and when the Second World War broke out his father was called up.
“His mum was pregnant with John but she had to be on the market because if you didn’t turn up you didn’t get the stall,” says Helen.
The business moved to the then new Sheaf Market, selling stationery and pens and new, not secondhand books, moving to the Castle Market when it closed.
The sale and return of paperbacks started when John realised people could not afford new books all the time. Customers are voracious readers.
It’s not just books sold here: there are pens, crayons and colouring books and back copies of True Detective magazine. Many customers are elderly and have a casualty rate equivalent to a Peter (Dead Like You) James thriller. Every funeral Helen attends means a little less business. That’s not the half of it.
“This market is dying,” she says, nodding over the rows of marked-down Mills & Boons at 45p. The council won’t spend any money on the market, so traders are withholding the 40 per cent rent hike.
The market is meant to be moving to The Moor but Helen will have to see that before she believes it.
Her assistant of the year trophy is modestly hidden away on the shelf. The city council’s press release grandly described it as a “beautifully inscribed crystal trophy” but failed to tell that to then Lord Mayor Alan Law, who presented her with a lump of plastic with her name stuck on an adhesive label.
Customers can order new titles of bodice rippers for when the books rep makes his regular visit. Their details are jotted down on brown paper bags held together with a bulldog clip. “That’s our computer,” says Jessica.
JC Books is under threat from all sides: remainder book shops, charity shops and even some of the supermarkets have boxes of charity books near the tills. Then there’s Kindle and e-books.
“I don’t care what anybody says, there is nothing nicer than the smell and the feel of a book, especially a new one,” says Helen.
And a Kindle won’t recommend a gory murder mystery or come to your funeral.