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