A few weeks ago bookshops trended on Twitter and not for positive reasons. WH Smith, one of the UK’s High Street shops, had been named the worst for about the third year in a row. I wasn’t surprised. Much as I used to adore the shop as a child, particularly my annual jaunt there in August to buy the next years academic requirements like geometry sets and a pencil case, the shop just seemed to have aged badly and I for one agreed with the negativity of many but hoped that the chain would take on board the feedback, which Woolworth’s hadn’t and had paid the price for .
The surprising reply to the negativity was an education to me. WH Smiths is apparently favoured by “working class people” (not my words) as specific bookshops are not welcoming spaces for far too many people. Bookshops are apparently considered high brow and many wouldn’t dare enter. I read one tweet where an author shared that she once did a book event at a WH Smith and was talking about Waterstones. One 15 year old asked her if you could go into Waterstones wearing trainers. She wasn’t laughing about this she was sad about it.
Joanne Harris, the author of Chocolat (one of my favourite books) was vehement in her criticism of those that were looking down on WH Smiths and hoped that people would look to support them given that they were some people’s only access to book buying, along with supermarkets. People don’t go into shops to buy books but they might buy a book if they were in a shop that sold them. People are ashamed at their levels of literacy and scared to ask. People think bookshops are for clever people only.
I was mortified.
Here I am happily running a blog about bookshops for the last 6 months without the slightest inkling of this. Recently a book tuber that I follow had done a video about bookshops saying that many people ask her regularly what the purpose of a bookshop is and how you use them. I thought this was about the Amazon generation, you know where you hear about a book and type in the title or author and order the book online. I thought the new generations just hadn’t had to learn what a bookshop was.
I didn’t realise that bookshops were inhospitable places to many outside of the Amazon generation and I am sorry for that.
It all made me a bit embarrassed about my blog, about whether I was coming across as judgemental and patronising. So I just wanted to say that I don’t care where you buy your books, even if it is Amazon. The premise behind the blog came about, you might remember, from my reading of The Diary of a Bookseller, over the New Year. The author owns and runs a bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland. It became apparent to me during reading the book that the running of a bookshop is a love/hate job and it reminded me that I love going to a bookshop. I realised that owning an independent bookshop is unlikely to make you rich but once you’ve made the commitment you need to pay your bills. I can either choose to buy my books from a chain where there is no personality or I can choose to buy my books from a bookshop run by a person who loves books, loves stories, loves sharing the love. And I choose to support local independent bookshops. I find some bookshops intimidating too so I do understand. I thought it was funny that one bookshop I visited whilst on the challenge sold books I sell in my Etsy shop. Expensive books. And yet I felt uncomfortable in the shop, like I was being looked down on. And yet I sell the same books as they do!
I am hopeful that bookshops take on board this feedback too because for me the answer isn’t just about being less sniffy about WH Smith, as Harris put it, it’s about working out whether there is anything that can be done to make bookshops more welcoming to everyone?
And there are some that are just beautifully welcoming. I’m Autistic and hate talking to anyone in the main but in some bookshops I’ve visited this year I’ve been made to not only feel welcome but made to feel excited to be there and a part of it. Much Ado Books in East Sussex. The Pilgrims Hospice Charity Bookshop in Margate. The Chaucer Bookshop in Canterbury which I hadn’t dared go in until I did this challenge because it looked intimidating but which is the loveliest shop with the loveliest people where they always share their love of books with me. Rother Books in Battle, Barretts Books in Wadhurst. All Waterstones just seem to be so lovely and helpful, my local one in Ashford, the Folkestone one, the Bluewater one, my favourite in Canterbury. There are plenty of bookshops that I have visited that I won’t go back to, where I’ve felt uncomfortable. But there are more that I can’t wait to go back to and plenty I am desperate to visit.
For me the opportunity to shop in a bookshop often brings me peace. The smell of books is reassuring and comforting. I tend to have a list with me of books I am currently looking for, particularly useful in charity shops where I can find them for much cheaper than on line. Or I can just be inspired. Like in the gorgeous Stanfords in Covent Garden or Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street. I can just go to a bookshelf marked with a country in those two bookstores and take my pick. This is how I found Rangar Jonannson, my current favourite crime writer. I find this way of book shopping quite exciting!
Books are just an escape, a hobby. I remember a friend once saying to me that the only way to make the most of the one life you get is to read about as many other people’s lives as possible. My taste may not be your taste and that’s why the excitement of books is that there are who many to choose from. You might be a Stephen King fan. Or not. Jo Nesbo. Or not. Agatha Christie. Or not. Just because I think it’s good doesn’t mean you do. And if you don’t it doesn’t mean I think any less of you. Although I draw the line at Eleanor Oliphant I’m afraid. I’ve taken a note of the people that liked that one!!!
I will come back to the bookshop visits but the judgement on Twitter knocked me a bit so I fell out of love with it for a minute. But I’m back! I’ve got my head around it. I’m not sniffy about WH Smiths or Tesco or Sainsburys, I buy books in all of them. I just like reading.