Sometimes it’s OK to have a gap in your knowledge.
World War Two has always awoken my curiosity, mostly because, like many of us, I have related family history and first-person accounts told to me by my British Grandparents and Aunties. That side of my family is from Hackney and Stepney/Brick Lane, and so naturally, there were War and Blitz experiences, including my Great-Parents pub on Homerton High Street (The Coach and Horses), blown to smithereens in 1940. My Grandma used to get the bus to work in town and hid under the bus seats during a raid. My Great Uncle rode a bicycle in the Azores. My mum told me that when she was a child, her family still counted out the components of the family roast to make sure no-one had more than another.
Our shop was there in the 1940s, of course, but going into a lot of detail will be difficult.
I don’t have a guide to running a bookshop in the War, but I have pieced together what I think our shop would have been like. To do this, I have read a fascinating text published at the time, Britain Needs Books, which aimed to convince the world that they had a place in a society gripped by shortages and devastation. Due to restrictions on paper usage bookshops like ours would have often ran out of stock. The Government could at any time divert paper stocks to projects deemed integral to the war effort, and as a result, publishers also had to be more selective about what they produced and how many. There was a committee set up at the PA for that purpose, and if you buy a book from that era today, you will most likely see a stamp that reads ‘War Economy Agreement.’
In our shop, the owner’s daughter is there, having taken over from her aging father, but aside from two other female assistants, the men have all been called up. Not only that, but I speculate that all of those remaining are involved in the war effort, be that as fire wardens, ambulance drivers, or another role. This would have been a strain on their time, made them tired, and coupled with air raids, I am sure they are not always early to work, nor always exhibiting the upbeat mannerisms expected by Heffer of his apprentice audience in 1933. Bombing raids would also have interrupted business, so there may have been entire weeks or months when the shop was inaccessible.
I am assuming that there would have been less passing trade from male office workers and clerks rushing to and from Charing Cross station and that many more books are being posted out as fewer people travel into central London. I will guess that our shop’s big windows have been re-enforced to protect against being shattered so that there was not much on display under the blackout blinds, and the lighting had to dim after a certain hour if the shop isn’t closing early. The bookshelves have more space between the volumes they house and the stationery shelves are empty of paper. During the War there were calls for books to be distributed to soldiers, and so the owner’s daughter (she is running the place, but this is what she is still known as) is getting a sack of paperbacks ready to be collected and taken to a central sorting centre. The books are old copies that her father ordered off of one of his rep friends, and she is glad they are going to good use. People don’t have a lot of money, so books are a luxury, but publishers have responded with more titles on gardening, cooking, and mending and a bit of a fiction boom because people want to escape. The owner’s daughter has a display of Penguin Books, a popular and newish series of affordable paperbacks, which had been the idea of publisher Allen Lane, who would provide special editions to those serving in the War.
All they hope for is a return to normality soon…..
This is as far as I am prepared to go with a description of our shop in the 1940s because if I carry on, I will start writing a novel. We will go back to 1951 (my next bookshop guide) and see what is happening with it then, but before I go, I wanted to introduce you to a wartime bookseller in Paris, Sylvia Beach. She was interned for being a bookseller in newly-occupied France in 1941. Her bookshop was called Shakespeare & Co., and a second Parisian bookshop would take over her legacy of helping authors and writers. I won’t say anything else except, in these difficult times, suggest that you would enjoy finding out more in a fantastic and engaging history of the shop by buying the book here. You will not be disappointed.https://shakespeareandcompany.com/d/9791096101009/shakespeare-and-company-paris-a-history-of-the-rag-bone-shop-of-the-heart