“You can see a lot just by observing,” is one of Yogi’s better known aphorisms. Or, in advice that predates him: we have two eyes, two ears, and one mouth. Use them in that proportion. This trip saw me taking advice from those who know more than I do – and observing the difference between leaders and bosses.

If you spend any time in bookshops, you’ve probably seen “staff recommendation” display cards on various books. I’ve tended to rely more on the handwritten notes with a staffer’s name than the pre-printed ones designed to push this month’s over-stocked best-seller. Whether as advice or sales pitch, the cards have done their job when they attract me to a particular book. It’s now up to me to peruse it to decide if the staff member and I share similar tastes.

That said, I went to Belfast to put theory into practice. One of my favourite parts of the city is the neighbourhood around Queens University. As with other college environments, you can see, hear and feel the learning and exploration in the air. The students are exploring themselves and life outside their parents’ nest, which may or may not include what they’re exposed to in the classroom. My experience tells me they learn more outside class than in it. It’s the graduate students and faculty who put intellectual substance behind the undergrad electricity in the air.

College towns are also great places for “literature”. But dammit, I want a book with a plot that makes me turn the page as well a well-written portrait that asks me to meditate on that same page. I’ve waded through too many pieces of absolutely brilliant writing without giving a damn about the characters because the plot didn’t carry them anywhere. Too many long- and short-listed award nominees fall into a series of apparently unrelated personality profiles that [sometimes] get tied up in a neat bow at the end. I admire the writing, but really wish the writer was a better storyteller.

Belfast solves my problem with No Alibis on Botanic Avenue. If you’re looking for mysteries or crime fiction, it’s the place to go. While wending my way through the store a volume of poetry jumped out at me. I read one poem. Then another. And then I looked at the Belfast author’s bio with references to the American South. I didn’t return the book to its table as I moved to the “recommended” rack, where I discovered Kate and I shared a taste. By coincidence, it was Kate who rang up my two-book sale. She also explained the reasoning behind the new-to-me pound coin [that looks a lot like a Euro] and recommended a wonderful place for lunch.

Sure I came to look for books at No Alibis and Books Paper Scissors, but I serendipitously – and somewhat surreptitiously – found myself looking at – and seeing – contrasting group dynamics. Two very different groups reminded me of the difference between a boss and a leader.

I was sitting in a coffee shop mid-afternoon and couldn’t help but notice a group of well-dressed men and women gathered around a table, paying a fair amount of attention to their electronic bosses [laptops, tablets and phones] and lots more deference to an even better-dressed man. He’d say something and they’d dutifully nod, laugh or look at their screens, as appropriate. They’d almost timidly raise their hands and wait for his nod before contributing to the meeting. While the dynamics appeared casual, there was a definite pecking order that I recognized from years of experience. It wasn’t quite Glengarry Glen Ross, but the vibe was there in a somewhat subdued form. They were getting their marching orders and I while I’ve been in meetings like that in conference rooms and airport executive lounges I was surprised to see it in a public place like this.  

Later the same day I was having dinner in my favourite Belfast restaurant. People-watching while sitting along a side wall I noticed what looked like a normal group of people. While I was too far away to hear the topic of conversation over the usual restaurant chatter, the half-dozen women and three men appeared to be engaged in the usual banter and laughter that accompanies a good meal. Starters arrived and they bowed their heads, crossed themselves and listened to an older man in the group, who I noticed for the first time. To be honest, I didn’t know whether I was watching ordinary devotion or a partisan war cry.

Since the only thing on my table at the time was my glass of wine, I began paying them more attention. Their cutlery use told me they were a mixed group of Yanks and locals. The older man, perhaps their pastor or tour leader, resembled an older Spencer Tracy. [Think Last Hurrah or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.] Unlike my afternoon’s sales manager who’d been impeccably groomed every hair glued into place, their leader was casually dressed and spent more time listening, nodding and smiling than talking. But when he spoke his group listened. They responded with genuine smiles, nods and questions. While there were assorted side conversations, he was the leader they all looked to.

The contrast between these two groups was palpable. One man had employees he managed through action and authority. The other had followers inspired by his example. Guess which team went out in to the world from a sense of duty – and which from a sense of love? And which one will be more effective in the long run.

It’s why I pay attention to the staff-written recommendations and not the pre-printed ones from chain headquarters. Even without the point-of-sale cards, an individual telling stories of the author they’ve met and the books they’ve read means they’re sharing, not selling.

That’s something I like. 

My autographed copy of The Wooden Hill is by a local author, recommended by Books Paper Scisssors. I finished it in two nights and loved every bit of it. I’ve been in and out of “Owls” and will be starting Doggerland this week.







This piece is just one of a number I’ve written about my long-term love affair with books. If you’d like to see more simply click on the “Books” category below. You can also subscribe, so that you’ll see these blogs as they’re written, as opposed to social media’s algorithms. As the saying goes, if you like my writing, tell your friends. If you don’t, tell your enemies.