What’s The First Book You See In A Bookshop?

Reading & Writing

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I grew up surrounded by strange experimental books from the likes of Brigid Brophy and BS Johnson. These were my touchstones, not Austen and Brontë. Being able to read great literature as well as other types of books doesn’t mean you have to prefer it.

As more books than ever before are published, it’s interesting to see how bookshops present them. In London, at Waterstones Piccadilly, there’s a strong emphasis on new important literature on its key level, the front ground floor. In the same way that large American bookshops always used to play Vivaldi as you walked about, this suggests a Victorian idea of ‘improvement’, prestige and occupation of the higher intellectual ground. Contrast their approach with that of Foyles, the grand book emporium in Charing Cross Road. The Foyles mix is completely inclusive, all demarcation lines blurred, and at the front of its first floor the first books you’re greeted by are graphic novels.

Many smaller independents concentrate on revealing the wonder of reading. In Chelsea’s John Sandoe, they’re so adept at thrilling the casual browser that it’s virtually impossible not to buy a book there. The mix of books on display is so eclectic that there’s something for every curious mind.

This is a rare bookseller skill. I’m not suggesting that all bookstores should put Jilly Cooper next to Don DeLillo but that the bookshop owners should present a level playing field, the guiding ethic being a book’s power to thrill or please or enlighten or entertain.

In the chains most top tables are paid advertising and the running order of stacks is often planned at head office, but we know that community bookshops can foster and appeal to local readership trends. If you’re in Yorkshire there’s a reasonable chance that you might be interested in a Yorkshire author.

Lately American books have taken a much larger market share in the UK, while the availability of UK books in the US has dropped dramatically. This is probably down to more vigorous promotion on the US side, but a US invasion of UK bookstores is apparently well underway. I welcome books from other countries but I’m particularly pleased to see more novels from Europe promoted by publishers like Pushkin Press.

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The recent Waterstones decision to open several small local bookshops under new names is not a harmful one, because it allows them to target specific areas of appeal, as opposed to providing one giant shop which must be all things to all people – and they’re not hiding the fact that they’re owned by Waterstones.

In King’s Cross, where I live, locals are fussy about what they eat, but because Tesco’s stock is decided centrally there are several aisles of sugar drinks that nobody ever visits. I would be happy to see giant stores reduced, although I recognise that time-poor shoppers in more isolated areas welcome a giant one-stop shop.

It doesn’t work with books, and Waterstones has recognised this at a local level. But their Piccadilly store – their flagship, just as the Foyles CXR store is theirs – clearly feels the need to be important, and by doing so feels discouraging to those with a passion for all reading.

11 comments on “What’s The First Book You See In A Bookshop?”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    I don’t find Waterstones Piccadilly at all discouraging, I love the shop. But since learning that the Bloomsbury (former Dillons) branch has got rid of its second hand section to make way for yet another sodding coffee shop, I will not visit it again. Actually, I think I read about that on here a couple of weeks ago.

  2. Brian Evans says:

    PS By the way, the main independent bookshop which we are still lucky to have in Southport has a very good second hand section. Also, as you go in, you are greeted with an open coal fire, and your purchase is wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. It’s just a shame I can’t stand the bloke who runs it. I think he is cloned with the cove from Judd Books in Bloomsbury. Actually, he’s worse-I’m sure I’ve caught him on occasions wearing a bow-tie.

  3. Brooke Lynne says:

    The first thing you see in Philadelphia’s last large bookstore (chain) is Trump stuff. And that sends you back to your notebook/e-reader.

    We have a few independent bookstores selling used books. They are run by people who make your old codger from Judd Books look positively friendly and charming.

    The Free Library (free thanks to Benjamin Franklin’s foresight) has a nice used book store, but I don’t go there, as their cats are off-spring of B&M’s Crippen and Count Dracula.

    On World Book Day, I had a conversation with the founder of our premier independent bookstore (new only). She is 93 and going strong. She says every day is world book day and told me enchanting stories about customers who staggered into the store, desperate for something to read to take their minds off their troubles. For many, she and her husband found the perfect book. The others? Her husband kept a bottle of brandy and would provide a glass full and send them on their way–god speed. That’s a real bookstore. Founded in 1951, the store still goes along; the first thing you see — a stunning array of literature, science, politics, history, art–. Friends go there just for the feel of the books.

  4. Davem says:

    I must admit that I quite like Waterstones in Piccadilly as well.

  5. John says:

    I’m moving to Philadelphia! I’d love a neighborhood bookstore that supplies medicinal shots of brandy as a spirit booster. (um… sorry for the pun.) :^D

  6. Chris Webb says:

    Afraid I don’t agree about Foyles: they took the rather surprising decision to put their art section right inside the front door when most people would assume the niche highbrow stuff would be tucked away in a dark corner somewhere. Their selection of books seems to be no more or less comprehensive than Waterstones etc, although their fiction sections are somewhat smaller than you might expect, especially the general fiction along the back of the first floor. I liked the ramshackle labyrinth of the old shop (and it is where I first discovered a series of books about a pair of detectives called Bryant and May) but the new one has the over-lit ambience of Sainsburys. That and the attitude of certain members of their staff mean I don’t go there much.

    I think Waterstones Piccadilly is a very egalitarian place, as a bookshop should be. Most of the ground floor is given over to a wide selection of new or popular books, and I don’t think it is overtly intellectual or highbrow. For a long time they had a big display of Harry Potter stuff, and the crime fiction department currently has a prominent display of distinctly low-brow (not to say sleazy!) Hard Case Crime books. Basically it is big enough to be whatever you want it to be – pop in for a crappy paperback to fall asleep with, or spend an hour or two selecting an expensive coffee table book on Renaissance art. The staff are always friendly and helpful as well.

    As a side-note, Jeremy Lloyd, one of the creators of Are You Being Served, worked for Simpsons of Piccadilly, which is now Waterstones, and this inspired the sitcom. Whenever I get in the lift there I can’t help thinking “Ground floor perfumery, stationery and leather goods, wigs and haberdashery, kitchenware and food, going up”.

  7. admin says:

    Having written this, I took another look at Waterstones Piccadilly yesterday and found the range of books in the entrance much better. I think it partly depend on what sections you head for. I don’t like having ‘fiction’ buried somewhere among the other departments, as I regard it as key to book sales – but that’s probably wrong.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    I wonder if the art books were put at the front for people who are buying a present for a “difficult” person, desperate buyers who grab at an art book hoping to impress.

  9. Antonia Dailly says:

    Barter Books in Alnwick. An entirely second hand bookshop (with several open fires, tiny trains running above one’s head, and a delightful cafe) has the most splendid mix. and best of all, clear signage.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    Marking Alnwick on my to-see list.

  11. Charles (another one) says:

    I’ve never quite forgiven [b]that[/b] Waterstones for no longer being Simpson’s.

    That said, it is a nice spacious bookshop, even they find it hard to make it look full, just wander down the road to Hatchards to see the difference, though i suspect both must have similar numbers of books.

    When Waterstones first opened in South Ken (edge of) it was a great book shop, and I am glad to see it aspiring to that status again.

    Now I live in Bucks, the books hops are few and far between, but we do still have a fantastic second hand book pile in Penn, worth making an excursion to.

    And I was greatly impressed with Barter Books in Alnwick too, came out with a couple of Don Camillos, an amazing AA Milne, not that one, and some other stuff, all by serendipity. There is a great castle and garden nearby too…

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