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A Bookshop Through Time- the 1980s

I was born in 1982 and so for the majority of the 1980s I was too young to take it all in, but I have memories of watching Top of The Pops and Neighbours, learning to ride a bike and generally being a kid.  We didn’t really have a bookshop close to us in the places we lived and books were expensive to buy new but we did have Deal library which I loved visiting.  I was obsessed with the barcode pen which the librarian used to check my books out and one time they even let me have a go. 

Anyway, enough about me, what about our bookshop?  The guides I have used to write this post are actually two directories, The Bookshops of London by Martha Redding Pease published in 1984 and Bookshops of Greater London by R. J. Thomas published in 1986.  Between them, they hold listings of bookshops across the city and its outskirts. I don’t have any first-hand memories of working as a bookseller in the 1980s but I know plenty of you reading this are likely to.  There was a marked change in the types of bookshop which opened in this decade with chains opening their doors in several different towns and cities utilising the same brands.  Our bookshop is still one of the independents which are left.  Although the Net Book Agreement is still in force and these bigger book retailers cannot compete on price, they can on pretty much everything else. 

I can guess that apart from barcodes and an electronic epos system being installed at the end of the decade, there were few major changes in the way the shop was run.  Book displays would have gone back to being more minimalist than the more expressive 1970s, but aside from that and due to a turbulent economy, there isn’t mush money to plough into modernisation.  The lino floor could do with replacing and the shelves probably also need some attention but that will have to wait a bit.  The paperbacks and hardbacks are still housed separately but to attract purse-strapped office workers there is a remainders section at the front of the store where everything is mixed together.  Remainders are allowed to be reduced under the NBA but only after they have been agreed to by the publisher and are past publication date. They bring in a nice amount of money each week and sometimes the manager throws in a book or two that technically shouldn’t be there.

Our bookshop has always been near to Foyles as it is situated in Charing Cross and they have been there for decades.  Our booksellers have previously learnt lessons from how they shelved and categorised their books which helped a great deal.  However, the way that this well-known bookseller sell their books now is said to be odd.  Purchases are wrapped in paper and receipted before any money has changed hands.  It is up to the customer to take their purchase to be rung up by a cashier rather than just selecting and paying for it.  Foyles is described by some as a legendary mess, with the handiwork of William and Gilbert undone, replaced by a maze of new and second-hand piles of books everywhere.  In comparison our bookshop is a bit neater but has much less of a name. 

There is a new bookseller next to Foyles and they have just bought 121-125 Charing Cross road from them.  Waterstone’s have four floors of every book imaginable as well as a second-hand service and if the book you want isn’t there, then you can try one of their other four stores across London.  People come into our shop and ask how much farther it is but they don’t stop to buy anything from us, although on occasion an enquirer will rifle through the reduced books at the front and buy one. Books Etc. are opening up their basement in their nearby shop in order to expand and the new branch of Hammick’s in Covent Garden has three floors with one being completely dedicated to children’s books.  Wow.  Hatchards has also just opened a new branch in Finchley.  More to come on them in the next decade. Our bookshop has always been general in what it stocks but there is no way it can compete with these much larger retailers, offering sofa space, coffee and huge ranges.  We still have many loyal customers though and a few direct accounts with local offices who buy reference books and dictionaries.  There are a few notebooks, postcards and bits of general office stationery to purchase by the till as any sale helps and there are so many office workers now.  Some, who work for publishers in the area often pop in and check that various books are in stock and point to them in front of their lunch hour companions and say things like “I worked on that.”  Even though our shop can’t compete with the bigger stores, the booksellers and owner are not too worried.  They think that people will soon tire of the department store style bookshop experience and go back to what they know. The Bookseller is still on the counter-top, marked out ready to phone through some orders to publishers.

Will they be alright? Next time we will find ourselves in the 1990s and in the company of two people who ran Blackwell’s and Foyles in the era. What a treat.

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A Bookshop Through Time, the 1970s

The 1970s.  The decade before I was born and one I am told contained the coal miner strikes, the shortened working week, and the beginning of Thatcherism.  I don’t want to make this political, so let’s go to one place where escapism is sold in paper-form, our bookshop through time.  I have been helped post-humorously into this decade by Thomas Joy, who wrote The Bookselling Business in 1974.  At the time of writing, Joy was the managing director of Hatchard’s bookshop, and before this, he ran Harrod’s book department and had been President and Treasurer of the BA.  Next time you can go to Hatchard’s on Piccadilly, look out for a photograph of him on one of their fireplace mantlepieces. 

There isn’t as much change from how our Charing Cross bookshop looked in the 1960s, but the front window display looks far more interesting.  A selection of gardening titles hemmed into an imaginary border by a real wooden mini fence, which has been borrowed from a hardware shop not far away.  There is also a trowel, and a garden fork marked ‘Display only’ just in case customers think that they can purchase everything in the window.  The aim is to plant the seed in passers-by’s minds that it is nearly time to get gardens ready for the Spring and Summer as lighter evenings approach.

This bookshop used to sell all kinds of stationery and ‘Fancy Goods,’ but inside there has been a considerable cull of non-book products because there are so many paperbacks that are much more in demand at cheap prices. Publishers even have sections just for their books.  Look, over there, a sales rep and a bookseller are doing an order to replenish Everyman’s Library stock.  Very popular series at the moment, and all bookshops have an area specifically for these books.  This presents a challenge as the standard categories and shelving rules are frequently broken, and instead, potential purchasers are lured into a full selection of books from one publishing imprint.  This makes competition tough.  I have been told a true story that on occasion, scuffles would break out between reps on the shop floor and even that some reps would wait till a competitor had left the shop and then go and ruin the section which housed their books.

The shop still runs a mail order service, but it is far more focused, and a new monthly order catalogue is sent to customer’s homes so that they can choose from a range of subjects and not miss out on the most popular new books.  There is a gardening section on the front of the brochure for this month, which mirrors the front window display, and then on the back page is an order form and a pre-paid envelope to post back to the shop direct.  Due to the high volume of city workers, there is a lot more footfall, especially since our shop is not far from the train station.  People call in on the way to their office jobs and order books on all subjects, and they don’t mind the wait as long as they can get what they want.  Convivence is key now. 

To cater to these customers who know what they want, the bookshop has become a place of self-service even more than it already was.  Staff are ready at the new checkout till point to ring up purchases on the electronic till, and there are a lot more cash transactions rather than ledger recorded sales and bills sent in the post.  People can also pay by credit card, but not many have them yet, and it is a manual process.  The stock system is also still written down, as are stocktakes, and orders were sent to publishers and wholesalers by letter.  However, teleordering is not long off being invented, and barcodes, although in existence, are not widely used. 

The returns system is now a more significant part of bookselling, and therefore there is a dedicated returns clerk over by those boxes at the back of the shop where the posting table is.  Returns have existed since the Victorian era and mean that books can be sent back if they don’t sell, not before they have been in the shop for three months and not after twelve or eighteen months.  (Still in place and the norm today.)  Returns enable smaller retailers to take risks and order more, knowing that they can claim back and not lose out too much financially.  The Net Book Agreement also still exists and ensures that books are not sold below their net prices for six months from publication.  However, some in the wider industry are not fans, and breaches of the rules are getting more common.  

Another growth area is children’s books, and the shop now houses a proper children’s section with a dedicated bookseller, which is just as well because, at the weekend, kids come by on their own to spend pocket money and ask for recommendations.  A huge pile of uncorrected proofs has arrived from various publishers, and the booksellers will take these home and read them.  If they see any mistakes, they will mark them up and bring them back to the shop to post back to the editorial departments.  If a bookseller loves the book and is treated as part of the process, they will order it and recommend it in person to their customers.

So, the key factors of the bookshop in this era seem to be recommendation, convenience, and display.  Things are starting to look a lot more like the bookshops of today, but the next decade will bring more change, I am sure.

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Sylvia Beach, a Bookseller Extraordinaire

Today I have been called upon to listen to Sylvia Beach. How? Well, let me explain. Firstly, a bookseller who ran a shop in France messaged me last night and said that she loved the “Bookshop Through Time” blogs and had I looked into the life of Sylvia Beach? Then, this morning, I saw a tweet from a bookshop celebrating the birthday of James Joyce and had referred to Ulysses. Every time I see that book come up, I think of Sylvia Beach, but I decided that today must have to be the day I did some cursory research. I am sure there are those of you who are aware that Beach published Ulysses and was the first bookseller to do so, and I knew that the shop Shakespeare & Co. in Paris today was named after her original shop on Rue de l’ Odeon, where there is a plaque to commemorate her.  Also, I had read in the history of the existing Shakespeare & Co., that she closed when the Nazis invaded France in the Second World War, but that was about it.

General facts about Beach are easily acquired, and journalists have certainly covered her life very well, even after she died in the 1960s.  However, his afternoon, I discovered and listened to an interview initially broadcast by the BBC in Ireland not long before her death. On a bench, the reporter asked her how she felt to be at the James Joyce tower’s opening. Beach immediately went back in time, to her bookshop in the 1920s, to her life with her lover Adrienne Monnier who owned the bookshop across the street, and the writers who saw her as a mother figure and who amongst them were Joyce, Hemmingway, and Ezra Pound. Beach was American, as were many of the visiting authors to her English Language bookshop, which she bought after her father died. She became a go-to, and one day at a party she was not invited to, Beach met James Joyce by a bookshelf in an adjoining room. They conversed, and he asked her what she did, to which Beach replied she was a bookseller. Joyce promised to call at her shop after she gave him the address, and he did a few days later. He was upset about Ulysses being condemned and banned in much of the world, and she recalled his head was in his hands. Beach just asked him if he wanted her to publish the book, and he said he did. And that was that.

Shakespeare & Co. became a lot more famous after Joyce was published, Beach and Monnier ran their bookshops happily until the Nazi’s came to the streets of Paris in World War Two. Beach recounted how she would not sell a copy of Finnegan’s Wake to a German soldier who repeatedly asked, and he vowed to go back for her. The shop was packed up and hidden upstairs in the building to keep the books safe. Even the shelves were taken up. Beach tells of the day they came back, and she was held as an American enemy in prison for some months. When she got back to the shop and Paris was liberated, Beach recalled looking out of her window and seeing a procession of Jeeps. She suddenly heard shouts of her name, and eventually, a prominent voice shouted “Sylvia!” It was none other Earnest Hemmingway, and Beach ran down to greet him, then he spun her around and around in his arms. After Monnier gave him some soap, which he requested, Hemmingway liberated Beach’s shop by taking his men up to the roof and shooting. She continued that he didn’t stay as he wanted to go and liberate The Ritz.

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Sylvia Beach talk around the facts of her life, and so here is the link to where I tuned in.  A remarkable bookseller who lived a fascinating life and was described by others who wrote about her as brave and kind.  I warmed to her straight away, and I hope you do too if this is the first you have heard.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R1Zbw39MCm4

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A Bookshop Through Time- The 1960s

This time we are heading to our bookshop in 1968, when a series of short pamphlets were published by the Booksellers’ Association which focussed on the art of bookselling.  One set were all about the ideal aesthetics of a bookshop at this time, which means we can furnish our shop appropriatly and with some imagination. Let’s go to Charing Cross and find it.

The shop from the outside still looks the same structurally, but the windows are cleared of their backing shelves and the inside is visible from the street.  A low-lying display of books allows there to be a draw for potential customers who will not feel too intimidated at entering.  Inside there are quite a few changes.  The old dark wood shelves have gone, ripped out and replaced by more modern ones made out of pine which cover all the wall space and which can be adjusted if needs be.  Recently the Norrington Room at Blackwell’s Oxford has been refurbished and many booksellers have taken inspiration from its modern design.  Many of the old cabinets and tables in our shop have also gone from the floor, but a couple of tables remain, on them are displayed the latest bestsellers.  Stock control is now as important as categorisation and so index or card systems were used to keep track of where titles are shelved, their subject matter and prices, as well as a record of edition numbers.  There are forward-thinking publishers such as Penguin and booksellers like Blackwell’s who used a computerised punch card system to hold this information but our shop is a bit small for that.

The paperback section has moved to the back of the building to encourage more people in, rather than allowing them to gather around the front door and discourage potential customers from entering.  The floor itself has changed too, instead of the wooden planks and patches of lino, there are cork tiles laid with a plastic coating.  Una Dillon prefers this in her own London shop and says that the beauty of this flooring is that it is very easy to sweep and keep clean.  The lighting in the shop has been switched to electric, powered by fluorescent tubing around the new shelves and provide light in the windows too.  The fire has been removed in favour of an electric heater.

The staff are expected to do the following in order to be good booksellers and it is their durty:

  1. To attract the customer
  2. To give the customer confidence
  3. To create interest and discover the customer’s needs
  4. To arouse appreciation
  5. To create a desire for the merchandise
  6. To close the sale

The BA ran a lot of courses in the 1960s, from salesmanship to accounting, and these were readily attended by their members.  Look, there is one advertised in The Bookseller, next to the till, which is not electronic yet, although the new owners are looking to replace it.

Next time we will be in the 1970s and it will be interesting to see what will be in store for our bookshop.

Next post will be added on 1st Feb 2021

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Choose Bookshops like it’s Christmas 1939

As it is the time for what seems continuous gift lists and shopping, I was really excited to come across a newspaper article from 1939 which took readers on a tour of the major bookshops to ask what they were selling lots of.  I hope you find it as interesting as I did.

The article was written on 17 December 1939 in The Observer.  The reporter, who took the reader on a mini-tour of a few of the country’s prestigious bookshops, said that at first glance, there did not look to be a war on, with their colourful displays and piles of books.  However, he noted the absence of expensive gift books from the shelves and the fact that bookshops were not quite as busy as there had been a year before. 

In Glasgow, John Smith and Son Ltd. remarked that the London post had been a bit slower, but aside from that, trade was the same as the previous year.  They were promoting Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley and James Bridie’s One Way of Living.  The children’s section was doing well with a new Shakespeare anthology and many new picture books in high demand.  Basil Blackwell commented from his festively decorated shop on Broad Street, Oxford, that it was a “book Christmas.” The reporter noted that all the titles for children were displayed on lower tables so that “the children themselves could turn the pages, and find the one that must go home with them.”  A favourite author was Arthur Ransome, who would be meeting his fans in the shop the next Tuesday at 2.30 pm.  Another popular choice were the Perf Castor animal books, translated from French, and a picture book called Baby Whale.

At Heffer’s in Trinity Street, Cambridge, the bookseller said that no-one wanted any books about the war at all.  Nothing on Hitler or Stalin was selling, and their customers were buying more carefully, which meant that they were purchasing a bit less.  Their bestseller was a book by Osbert Lancaster called Homes Sweet Homes.  Also doing well were all the Phaidon art books, A. E. Housman’s poetry, and Stella Gibbon’s My America. In London, the bookshops were busy, and as a result, the booksellers were hard to track down and interview.  Overall, the top titles selling in the capital were The Queen’s Book of the Red Cross, Ethel Vance’s Escape, Gibbon’s My America, and J. B. Priestley’s Let the People Sing

Hatchard’s Piccadilly thought that Sir George Franckenstein’s Facts and Features of my life would be a bestseller, and Hugh Rees, a bookshop on Pall Mall, had all the Barbar books in and said that the Perf Castor titles were doing well too.  Harrod’s book department was optimistic about Christmas even in wartime, and The Queen’s Book was selling 400 copies a day!  They were also doing a profitable business with library subscriptions being bought as gifts, and magazines were being bought to be sent to the forces on duty at home.  H. V. Morton’s Ghosts of London and The British at Home by Pont were selling pretty well in general too.

Over at Boots Booklover’s Library, The Great Tradition by Frances Parkinson Keyes was among their books that were leaving the shelves in high demand.  W. H. Smith was doing a roaring trade with Enid Blyton’s latest release about a circus.  A bookshop called Lamley and Co. on Exhibition Road, Kensington was described by the reporter as an Aladdin’s cave, with “bookish treasure” waiting to be discovered in its narrow corridor-like setup, with shelves down each side of the shop.  The bookseller there was doing a roaring trade with T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book.  Foyle’s reported a “healthy and seasonable bustle” and had sold a lot of Here Lies by Dorothy Parker and A. G. Macdonell’s Flight from a Lady.  In non-fiction Vita Sackville-West’s Country Notes and A. A. Milne’s, It’s Too Late Now were equally selling in large amounts.  A and F Denny were a vast bookshop in central London, and they were selling hundreds of copies of The Black Out Book

The world would be very different just a year later but in this snapshot of time is a book trade that was doing what it did every year, albeit with a minor inconvenience or worry about the market as a result of war having just been declared.  This article was written on the eve of much worse times to come, and the booksellers are captured at that very moment, working to meet the demands of the Christmas crowd, alongside the books that they had ordered and were busy recommending.