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.