Why am I writing this blog? (or, the potted history of a book-lover and lapsed bookseller, and why I think bookshops are important…)
Like many young girls of my generation, I was an avid reader as a child. If I wasn’t dancing around the house (I was a rhythmic gymnast with aspirations of becoming a prima ballerina), then I was curled up on the sofa/bed/any comfy nook or cranny with my nose in a book.
To this day, I remember the delight of my first reading of ‘The Hungry Caterpillar’. My appetite for books grew as I pored over ‘Where the Wild Things Are’, or ‘Paddington Bear’ and polished off many of the popular children’s classics. In later years, I devoured almost every book written by Enid Blyton, rejoiced in Alice in Wonderland, and was so immersed in the world of Narnia, that I was inconsolable for days after reading the entire series of books, in a week. At a very early age, the wonder of books became my world. The awful dilemma of racing to discover what happens, but not wanting the story to end, and the crushing loss of finishing a book and losing that almost-tangible connection to somewhere else were keenly felt, many times.
Also not unusual for women of my age, at a certain point other things (boys, schoolwork, rhythmic gymnastics – I’d got quite good) drew my attention – less time was spent in the fantastical world of books and more in the ‘real’ world.
At 16, I applied for a Saturday job at W H Smiths. At the interview they asked me which department I would like to work in – a quick and assured decision of ‘stationery’ was returned – novelty erasers were the craze at the time. However, books and I were to be firmly reunited – “we thought you’d get on very well with the ladies in the book department.”
Though a fine retailer, W H Smith was not a bookshop, but my passion for books was reignited, and this time I had spending power!
At the time, my brother was buying his first singles, my friends were buying make-up and clothes, and I was buying books – in fact, the reserve shelf at W H Smith was full of books I would be buying with my future earnings, so great was my love of books again.
The opportunity to work at Waterstones opened up to me and I jumped at the chance – fortunately I got the job, and the bookshop became the gateway between my explorations through books and my life beyond those doors. The bookshop – a magical betwixt realm!
In the late 80s, Exeter heard the exciting news that a Dillons Bookstore was to become a feature of our High Street. I did feel a little bad at ‘jumping ship’, but with the lure of a shiny new bookshop (and extra hours) there was little I could do to resist.
I worked at Dillons for several years. First as a part-timer, later as a career bookseller, and then becoming a floor manager. Moving into (lower) management took the shine off bookselling for me, the ‘business’ of bookselling weighing heavily on my shoulders, and I left to study for my degree.
Over the years, I continued to work part-time at various chain and independent bookshops, and in that time have seen many changes to the industry. At the start of my bookselling career, Waterstones and (the now defunct) Dillons were the big bad chain bookshops – pushing for the abolition of the net book agreement and flexing a greater spending power that saw the demise of many independent booksellers. Now, the tide has turned and Waterstones and Foyles join the fight of the underdog in the battle against price-slashing supermarkets, e-books and the ever-widening grip of Amazon and their huge discounts on books.
Since the birth of my children, I am a lapsed bookseller, but I will always be an eternal bookshop moocher – for as long as bookshops feature on our high streets. It can be a battle to get children interested in books when they are competing with games consoles, tablets and other technologies, but bookshops have the power to excite children about books and reading. Bookshops can make a difference and I genuinely fear for our future generations as book-lovers if we see the disappearance of bookshops from our everyday lives. The thought of bookshops as curios, or heritage visitor attractions is quite terrifying, so I hope, with this blog, to raise the awareness of the need to fight to save bookshops as book-lovers, to garnish support for our bookshops, and to examine how bookshops can adapt to face the future, stronger and with greater resilience.
I do hope this blog resonates with you and I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas for the future of bookshops.