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Review – 18 Bookshops by Anne Scott (Sandstone Press)

Quirky, original, wonderful writing;  a celebration of 18 bookshops in the life of the author; half of them set in Scotland with the rest in London (5), Oxford (1) Ireland (2) and New York (1). However, this is a storybook, not a travelogue. Nor is it a bookshop guide, as I thought at first.  I bought 18 Bookshops supposing it to be a book about shops. I was wrong. Instead this is an adventure story – about all that is excellent in making good literature available and of its potential for massively widening our horizons.

The book is beautifully descriptive, and at times deeply insightful about what is of value in literature and bookselling. It also pays homage to that very good office of ‘Bookseller’ in hushed tones.

18 Bookshops - Anne Scott

This volume is a pleasure to handle; a solid hardback beautifully produced and packaged, with orange and black leaves and end-covers, and a black and orange typeface. There are no page numbers but surprisingly it’s easy to find your way around the chapters. I do hope numbers are not added to any reprint as it would so spoil this delicious little book. Here are 18 short chapters to read and savour; it’s very difficult to read this book in a hurry. It’s a book clearly forged in Scotland with a Scottish slant and a Celtic view; and all the better for it.

If you love bookshops, you’ll love this book. It captures the essence and atmosphere of a good bookshop perfectly. We need to guard such treasure before it soon becomes a thing only of its past. You’ll have to buy the book to see which shops are selected and if you know any of them? However, be aware that several of them are from as far back as the 1500’s and many are long gone. Each chapter evokes the wonder and power of literature as seen through the eyes of owners and customers of these very diverse shops. Spanning many centuries and winsomely written, it has real emotional appeal to all lovers of physical books and physical bookshops. In an age of simply clicking a mouse to purchase a book, we need to be reminded of this pleasure.

Chapter 7 contains the delightful story of Robert Louis Stevenson, then aged 5, entering James Smith’s bookshop. Stevenson in his later memoir tells of the transforming effect that this Edinburgh bookshop had on his imagination; ‘the place smelt of Bibles and it was wonderfully dark’. In Chapter 9, another Edinburgh bookshop, the Grail Bookshop is the subject. Anne Scott writes, ‘This bookshop gave me more than just books’. Bookshops do that to you. The chapter evoked strong memories for me of a rather different bookshop, owned by the Church of Scotland and also in George Street where I too spent much of my time. Both these shops are now closed; ‘defeated chiefly by rising rents in George Street’.

Scott writes of ‘a Bookman’ in Chapter 10, not ‘bookseller’. Note that subtle distinction; good book people don’t just sell books. I like that description. I think I’d like to be known as such. She writes of one volume, ‘No-one closes this book unchanged for it releases dreams’.  In Chapter 11, the doorway to an Oxford bookshop is described thus; ‘The entry loudly and harmoniously belled’.  There seems a wistfulness and a longing running throughout the book.

I enjoyed Chapter 12 with its history of bookselling in London (and of Paternoster Row in particular) interwoven into the story of Thomas Davies, a Scot, an actor, a bookseller and quite a character it would seem. Davies was a friend and contemporary of both Dr Samuel Johnson and James Boswell. Johnson’s father had been a bookseller in Lichfield. His son had ‘seen the suffering caused by failing custom, broken orders, lost money, and the fickleness of the trade’. Quite an apt narrative for the book trade! An English Heritage blue plaque is now assigned to Tom Davies bookshop near Covent Garden.

Chapter 14 comes with a good description of a good bookseller: ‘Here is an owner who reads her visitors and leases out time to those who need it, who want it in this place’. For me, Chapter 15 is THE chapter in the book. It’s called ‘Leaving’. I read it twice – it’s beautiful, haunting and sad; a love story involving the author and a bookshop overlooking Waverley Station in Edinburgh. This is very personal writing indeed, with hidden depths in its language, hinting at a monochrome past but now a life transformed by all that’s best in British literature.

Chapter 17 on Kenny’s Bookshop, Galway contains a description of the perfect bookshop, ‘to sit somewhere out of the way and look: to read and buy, and read and leave, and return’.  This shop has now moved online. Anne Scott comments, ‘I send for books, pay in silence online: but the book comes in and is real then, though from whom and by whose hand, I can never know’.

The final chapter covers an occult bookshop in London. For me, this is the poorest of the chapters and sad to end such a delightful book on such an unsatisfactory note.

18 Bookshops is as much about good literature as it is about bookshops; the subversive impact of a well-written book on the mind and the imagination down through the ages. It contains the manifesto of why I personally have been involved with books all these years.

I think I must write my own ‘18 Bookshops’ before it’s too late. It’s not quite the same to describe 18 websites! If I did, I’d have to include a far-too-short visit to Maria Brothers in Shimla, Northern India – a musty, dusty shop full of old volumes and maps left over from when the British left India, where stock crumbled in your hand as you explored but which was a treasure house of old books in which to browse. I still vividly recall this shop as I write.

That’s what all bookshops can and should do – I commend 18 Bookshops to you as a celebration.

Maria Brothers, Shimla, India

Inside Maria Brothers, Shimla

Final note – I do find it offensive – given the subject matter – that this book is advertised by Anne Scott’s publishers as available via Amazon of all places!

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Book Trade History; ‘200 years of Christian Bookselling’ – Part 2

April 27, 2010 Leave a comment

In the early part of the 20th century, there was a long roll-call of bookshop openings; B McCall Barbour (Edinburgh 1900), Mowbrays (London 1903), The Salvation Army (London 1911), The Church of Scotland (Edinburgh 1918, Glasgow 1922), Scripture Union (Wigmore Street, London 1925), The Evangelical Bookshop in Belfast (1926) along with the London based Quaker Bookshop in the same year.

In the 1930’s, Challenge Literature Fellowship commenced trading (Guildford 1930).  SPCK grew very strongly in this period with branches springing up all over the country. The Church of Scotland opened their third shop in Aberdeen in 1939 just as the Second World War started.

The most significant event of the 1940’s was the establishment of the Christian Literature Crusade with their first shop opening in London in 1941. They are now in the enviable position of being the foremost UK Christian bookselling chain following the recent demise of SPCK and Wesley Owen (IBS-STL). The Methodist Book Centre in Stoke on Trent opened just as the war ended in 1945.

The Roman Catholic chain, St Paul’s Multimedia (now Pauline Books and Media) started in 1955.  Then in 1957, St Andrews Bookshops opened their doors in Great Missenden and in 1963, George Verwer of OM opened in Bolton. Both these shops went on to have a hugely influential effect on the UK Christian bookselling scene birthing in the case of OM, the Send the Light operation with its second shop opening in Bromley in 1966.

There was a major spate of Christian Bookshop openings in the period 1976 – 1996 with the bulk of this activity taking place in the mid-1980’s. Often, these shops had names like ‘Good News’ or ‘Oasis’ or simply ‘The Christian Bookshop’ and several of these owner-managers are now reaching retirement, resulting in probable bookshop closures.

In the 1990’s, activity in the trade became something of a two-horse race between the STL owned, Wesley Owen chain and the SPCK. Often, this was simply a difference of theology and stock-holding ethos. Independent booksellers looked on bemused and not a little alarmed!  Both chains expanded rapidly in this period, in many cases by taking over other independent booksellers. In 1993, Wesley Owen acquired the 22 Scripture Union Bookshops and the 8 Church of Scotland Bookshops, followed soon after by the English based bookshops of ECL in the West Country, Crown Books around the Hemel Hempstead area and the Challenge Christian Fellowship predominately on the south coast.  

Coming right up to date, there remain signs of life in this niche with Strongbraid Ltd, trading as Quench Christian Bookshops, taking over several St Andrews Bookshops sites in Southern England. However, the rising star of our industry is internet retailer, www.eden.co.uk (founded in 2004) which is giving even Amazon a run for its money!

Parts 3 and 4 will follow shortly.

This brief history of the ‘Christian book trade in the UK’ is extracted from a lecture given by the author to the Librarians’ Christian Fellowship (LCF) Annual Conference in London on Saturday 24 April 2010. For further information see www.librarianscf.org.uk.

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