Bringing An End To Bibliophobia



Blame the information age; I have a tendency to overshare. Flicking through Amazon Books I stumbled upon (yes, honestly, I really wasn’t looking for them) the comments section for some of my more experimental novels. If you’ve only read the Bryant & May series you have no idea how perverse my mind can be. And there it was, a review of ‘Plastic’ which chucked my own words back at me. Viz; ‘When a book takes six years to write, you know there’s something wrong with it.’ This is a statement I chose to make myself, but a reader picked it up and ran with it.

Now, ‘Plastic’ is a deeply peculiar novel of which I am still immensely proud. It mixes the sinister, the satirical and the silly in equal measure, and has (if I say so myself) some cracking one-liners. But it doesn’t play to the stalls. As a consequence, no bookshop stocked it and it vanished. But then that’s what happens to most books, because bookshops don’t have the space for full ranges of authors’ novels and buy their stock from publishers who push lead titles to paid-for front tables.

Until a revolution happened.

First of all, questions were asked. What is a bookshop? Apparently users of WH Smith didn’t think of it as a newsagent or a bookshop, but regarded the chain as an all-purpose mini-Woolworths where they could also pick up the odd book. Waterstones, on the other hand, were real bookshops in their eyes – but many would-be readers found the chain too upmarket and intimidating.

The definition of a heavy reader is someone who buys six books a year. But the very people who use WH Smith and won’t go into Waterstones often read a couple of books a week – making them far heavier readers. Both groups were asked this question: If WH Smith and Waterstones were celebrities, who would they be? The answer came back; Smiths would be Jeremy Clarkson and Waterstones would be Nigel Havers.

I’ve never especially thought of Waterstones as being upmarket, or anything other than a good bookshop. But clearly there are people who are intimidated by its atmosphere. Bookseller James Daunt was quoted in the New Statesman;

‘Most people are not fully aware of how close Britain came, in the autumn of 2011, to losing its bookshops. After fixed prices for books were abolished in the mid-’90s more than 500 independent stores closed, unable to compete with the discounts offered by supermarkets and internet retailers. Long-established chains such as Dillons and Ottakar’s foundered and were subsumed. In January 2011 Waterstones, the only remaining chain devoted exclusively to bookselling, closed two bookshops. The following month, it closed nine more. Waterstones teetered on the brink of administration.’

To save itself, Waterstones had to slim down fast, re-energise its stores and stop the crippling sale-or-return policy. To create better bookshops, they had to stop allowing publishers to buy space in them.  Instead the shops would order their own books. They made each branch autonomous – indie, in fact, so that the chain was effectively no longer operating like a chain at all.

It worked. As e-book prices jumped and e-book readers switched back to book-buying, the bookshops benefitted. Now Britain’s bookshops are thriving again.

17 comments on “Bringing An End To Bibliophobia”

  1. Brooke says:

    “,,,you have no idea how perverse my mind can be.” As readers of this blog, yes, we do.
    And I’m glad you were hoist with your own petard. Because six years is how long it took Rebecca Skloot to research and write “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” an award winning book (2010) that remains on the best seller list. Adam Curtis didn’t “investigate” anything. Ms. Skloot helped the family tell their story, included the family on her lecture tours and used proceeds from the book to fund science education. Curtis on the other hand insults the family with the YT video.

    Feel free to delete above.

  2. Brooke says:

    The above responds to your tweet about Curtis.

  3. Chris Webb says:

    Is that Daunt Marylebone? Never been to that one. Seems to be their flagship. I popped into the one in Cheapside a few weeks ago and picked up a couple of books of the kind that might be of interest to the sort of folk who read this blog:

    Camden Town by Tom Bolton
    Soho by Peter Speiser
    both published by The British Library.

    I agree that Waterstones isn’t particularly upmarket, although they are occasionally quirky. Bloomsbury sells tatty old orange Penguins, which I suppose round there are more fashion accessories than books.

    Now Hatchards – that is upmarket. It feels like a country gentleman’s library. Maybe there’s a large untapped market for a chain of bookshops between Waterstones and Smiths.

    I wonder what happened to all those discount bookshops selling remaindered stuff. There used to be loads around, some well-established and some short-term popups. The only one I can think of at the moment is on the corner near Notting Hill Station.

  4. admin says:

    Brooke, if it hadn’t been for Adam Curtis I would never have found the book. But I take the point.
    Chris, yes, that’s the world’s most irritating bookshop. The staff are lovely, it’s just the cataloguing system that makes it impossible to find anything.

  5. David Ronaldson says:

    I bought a copy of “Plastic” in a bookshop: Foyles. That was where I also first stumbled upon Roofworld. £20 and an hour’s journey, give or take, is a bit of a price for access to a good bookshop, however, although I do have David’s in Letchworth just down the road.

  6. admin says:

    I’m thinking of coming up to Letchworth again just to buy more books at David’s!

  7. Ian Luck says:

    We used to have a Hatchards in Ipswich, where it was housed in possibly the oldest shop in town, known as ‘The Ancient House’, which was simply perfect as a bookshop. A maze of odd-sized rooms, uneven floors, and what I shall term a ‘Museum ambience’. It is, of course, now, a branch of Lakeland cookware. I always used to get my books from there. Every member of staff was obviously a reader, who would suggest alternatives if your favoured title wasn’t in stock. I loved that shop.

  8. Peter Tromans says:

    I think that I bought ‘Plastic’ in Blackwells, which, for me, has taken the title of world’s greatest since Foyles downsized. I also enjoy Waterstones in Torrington Place; it still has some of the atmosphere of the old Dillons, though the café is no longer pseud’s corner. I like bookshops to be a touch academic.

    I know they are the curse of the secondhand book business, but Oxfam in Oxford (and Bloomsbury) are gold mines.

  9. Ian Luck says:

    I have never found Waterstones to be ‘upmarket’ or ‘intimidating’. I do buy what some people might consider an unhealthy number of books every month, but, when one has got in the habit of having five different books on the go at the same time (1): by my bed; (2): in the bathroom; (3): in the livingroom; (4): at work; (5): in the kitchen to read in the garden. They mount up. And I buy books about anything. Novels, Classics, Biographies, Histories, quirky travel books by people like Stuart Maconie. Art books, some erotic photography books, which the mainly female staff in my branch never even commented on. I do like Waterstones. What I don’t like, are the people who seem to think it’s a library, and stand around reading great swathes of books, and treating them as if they had already bought them, bending the covers back, etc. That really annoys me. I don’t buy books in WHS, but I do get my magazines from there., and there are always, always, beige invaders (™ Bill Bailey), and the ‘practising for death’ brigade in there using it like a library. Use the library, for god’s sake! They’d be pleased to see you! Is what I generally think. They mutter and glare at you if you attempt to reach past them, and some even query your selections. I said to my friend once, after running the gauntlet for the new copy of Fortean Times: “If you ever see me getting like that, you have my permission to take me outside and shoot me.”

  10. Brian Evans says:

    There use to be a terrific 3 floor independent book shop in the centre of Liverpool called Philip, Son and Nephew. It is now, surprise surprise, a Wetherspoons pub.

  11. Jo W says:

    To Ian Luck
    I gave up buying books in WHSmiffs some years ago when they started only selling ‘The New Blockbuster’. But I gave up trying to buy magazines in there,back in the dark ages. My reason – I couldn’t even see the shelves because of the lines of ‘blokes’ passing time in there with mainly mucky mags,car mags(same thing really) and then computer mags. They were not oldies,they were all ages but suffering from the same terrible affliction – they were all quite DEAF!

  12. SimonB says:

    Also to Ian… Just got back from visiting Lakeland (ran out of cling film!) and spent a minute or two while I was there trying to remember the Hatchards layout. I do miss that feeling of discovery on entering a new small section of the shop and finding a new category of books.

    I got as far as an interview when Waterstones opened in Ipswich and recall the manager stating that he wanted the range to be accessible to all and certainly not aimed at the upmarket end of the spectrum. When it got to my turn to ask questions I enquired if there was anything he would not stock or not want in the store. His response was that he probably wouldn’t put the Satanic Verses in the window (which dates how long the shop has been open) and wasn’t planning to have Mills & Boon section, but otherwise was open to everything.

    Did you ever shop at Amberstones on Upper Orwell Street? That one was most dangerous for me as they always seemed to have something new by a favoured author every time I went past.

  13. Ian Luck says:

    Amberstones would ALWAYS have something that you would glance out of the corner of your eye, which would be exactly the book you needed more than anything. It would usually happen after you had paid for what you came for, and were on your way out. It happened very often. Another shop where the staff obviously loved what they were doing. I still feel a twinge of sadness if ever I walk past where it used to be.

  14. Debra Matheney says:

    6 books a year?! I buy 6 a week! Sad but true. I recently retired and there should be more time for reading.
    Working my way through forgotten writers, which is delightful but also adding to the wish list of potential reading.I try to visit independent book shops as I travel here in California Being in a book store is relaxing to me.

  15. Vivienne says:

    Not sure I have ever bought a book in WHSmith. In Chiswick we have a remainder type bookshop where I recently bought a hardback for a pound that I had admired but resisted some time back at fulll price. Very quirky choice here, always good for a browse.

    I bought Plastic and enjoyed it but found (as a woman older than ?Jean) that she was rather out of date to start with – more like my mother’s friends. I know she ended up much more feisty but it was a bit of a disconnect. Have just received Forgotten Authors as a slightly late birthday present, so looks like more visits to bookshops to track these down!

  16. Helen Martin says:

    Shopped in Waterstones once. Helpful clerks, knew Admin’s oeuvres, friendly and the place felt like home. I am most definitely not upmarket.
    Bookstores feed the most harmless of addictions.

  17. Ian Luck says:

    In the 1980’s, I never used WHS at all, simply because we had a big branch of John Menzies, which sold pretty much everything a young nerd needed. Magazines. Chemical fizzy drinks. Vinyl Records. Blank cassette tapes. Odd action figures you didn’t know existed, but knew you had to have. ‘All the shit’, as we would have said in 1984. And it was right next to the shoe shop where I worked. Oddly, I hardly ever bought books there, preferring Hatchards. Possibly because their bags were nicer. I jest! But they were.

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