I will never forget the irritating squeaky squeal of the ‘steering wheel’ on the book truck that was Dillons’ nod to children’s bookselling when I worked at Dillons Bookstore, in Exeter, back in the early 1990s.
More than one bookseller marched up to the truck, screwdriver in hand, driven to distraction by the awful noise and determined to fix the problem. Over the many years I worked there, no one could extinguish the ear-splitting squeal.
Of course, small children loved the truck – but they rarely looked at the books jammed into the shelves that made the rear of the truck. I can’t say I blame them. The poor design of the shelving resulted in dog-eared, battered and sorry-looking picture books – impossibly jostling for attention. On top of the exciting ride-on truck cab, complete with adult-annoying squeaky steering wheel, and unappealing tatty books, the children’s department was banished to the furthest, darkest corner of the bookshop, with no natural light. This area was not conducive to a considered appreciation of books. Children and parents alike, made quick trips to the department whipping in to collect a particular book, or, even worse, leaving exasperated at failing to find something. Nothing about this area of the shop encouraged browsing – an activity vital in choosing a book for a child, and, more importantly, fundamental in encouraging children to choose their own books and nurture a love of reading.
Forward on twenty years, and things are delightfully different for the children’s department in the same store. Dillons no longer exist and the store is now a Waterstones. The children’s department now takes pride of place in half of the back of the ground floor, the blacked out windows have been opened up and the store shines in it’s appeal to its younger customers – the book-lovers of the future. Picture books are sensibly displayed on tables and custom-designed shelves. A low-level inviting seating area has been set up around a table – perfect for looking through possible purchases. Most significantly, the area has been designed for children and looks distinctly different from the rest of the shop. Unlike the uniform grey shelves of the Dillons store, the children’s department at Waterstones Roman Gate, is white, bright and created with children in mind.
My children love this store, they happily browse the shelves and take the books they like to the table to help them decide what to buy. I love this department, my children are happy here, we take the time together to look at the books – I make selections, they invariably choose something else, but I love that. They are making their own decisions, they are developing their own love of books.
It is great to see such a positive change in children’s bookselling, plus, I’ve never seen the department empty – which surely means good news for the business of bookselling too. Dedicated children’s bookshops are bucking the trend against bookshop closures, they are taking the time to meet the needs of their customers, and reaping the benefits.
I wonder if the application of this ethos could be more widely adopted in bookshops…