#Mondayblogs Beautiful Libraries: Bodleian Libraries, Oxford

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in omnibus requiem quaesivi, et nusquam inveni nisi in angulo cum libro… (Everywhere I have searched for peace and nowhere found it, except in a corner with a book)

The first library at Oxford University was a room above the Old Congregation House in 1320. So if you haven’t returned your books yet, expect a very hefty fine. If we skip forward to the 15th century, a chap called Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester pumps in a bit of cash as well as his personal collection of 281 manuscripts, meaning larger premises are required. Humfrey was the younger brother of King Henry V, so he had a bit of clout. But although plans to erect a new library above the Divinity School had been banded about since 1424, work only really began in 1478. If you’re getting excited about seeing these incredible manuscripts, don’t. From the 1550s onwards, various kings and queens destroyed any texts that didn’t conform to their own religious viewpoint.

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It’s at this point that our hero enters the scene, Sir Thomas Bodley (1545 – 1613). Bodley had done the obligatory tour of Europe, gulping down as much culture as his elastic guts could contain, as well as diplomatic missions for Queen Elizabeth I between 1585 – 96. Bodley wasn’t short of cash either having married a wealthy widow, and so he pumped all of his energy and cash into creating what is now known as the Bodleian Library. This would see 2,500 books added from his personal collection as well as from donors. There’s no point making influential contacts if you don’t use them.

James ThomasThis was to be a proper library, and so a librarian, Thomas James (1572/3–1629), was appointed. The doors opened on 8 November 1602. This was swiftly followed by the first printed catalogue in 1605. But the real stroke of genius came in 1610 when Bodley entered an agreement with the Stationers’ Company of London which ensured a copy of every book published in England would find itself into the collection. This still exists, with the library receiving an average of 2,500 texts a week.

When Bodley died in 1613, his death was suitably commemorated when work began on the building of the Schools Quadrangle the day after his funeral. This was a project he had pushed for, wishing to replace ‘those ruinous little rooms’ with something more fitting for scholars and book lovers. His will would see additional money left for what would become a public museum and picture gallery, the first in England. The last addition to this incredible library came between 1634-7 when an extension (Seldon’s End) was completed. This would enable the storage of valuable manuscripts and scrolls, making the university an absolute must for any scholar worth their salt.

But what marks this library out from all others isn’t the grandiosity of the buildings, nor that it would be the setting for the Harry Potter films, but the observation of a tradition that dictates nobody is allowed to loan books out of the library! Even King Charles I was rebuffed in 1645. Given that heating wasn’t installed until 1845, and proper lighting didn’t arrive until 1929, you had to be a pretty serious reader to visit.

I recently went on a tour of the library (£6 – make sure you book in advance) and it was a mesmerising experience. The ancient texts are chained to shelves, and are right weighty boggers. They’re catalogued according to when they were received and are shelved back to front so that the spines face the wall. This isn’t some fashionable whim, but a necessity to help preserve them. Therefore they are numbered, meaning you always have to ask a librarian where a book is – a useful tactic to ensure a librarian keeps their job.

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Oxford oozes history, none more so than in the main entrance to the library tour. The ceiling contains the initials of scholars who had passed their masters, back in the day. This would entail a three hour debate at a pulpit in front of the public, while being constantly interrupted and interrogated by your lecturer. And just to spice things up a bit, you were expected to switch between Greek and Latin. Given that you couldn’t take books out of the library you would be expected to memorise religious texts, along with the rest of your cohort. But as there was only one copy of each, and these were chained up and only accessible during opening times, you had to be pretty patient and pretty good at remembering stuff.

Readers of this blog will know that I was put on this earth as a Notts propagandist and so here’s your six degrees of separation to Oxford: Geoffrey Trease (11 August 1909 – 27 January 1998), author of 113 books.

Trease excelled at Nottingham High School under the careful guidance of his English master Garry Hogg, a kind man who gave him access to his personal library and who encouraged Trease to plump for an Oxford scholarship over Cambridge due to the literary emphasis of Classics at Oxford. Trease did as advised but found Oxford an unpleasant experience, dropping out after his first year in 1929. In his autobiography Trease writes:

trease“I could not go on. I was bored to death with this musty scholarship, this wearisome gibberish concocted by the pedants. One year of Oxford at its driest, unrelieved by one flash of inspiration, humour or understanding from any don concerned with me, had suffocated the enthusiasm with which I had gone up from school. I told myself that if I went on like this for another three years I should hate the Classics for the rest of my life”

Despite the disappointment that things hadn’t worked out, Hogg was on hand to offer alternative support to his favoured ex pupil. He had an aunt who ran a settlement in the East End of London who could put him up for a while. Trease took up the offer and found himself at Kingsley Hall, which “for an aspiring writer, anxious to study human nature, was a living laboratory”. Here he met Muriel Lester, an extraordinary woman who was the antithesis of his dull academic peers. Writing in his notebook at the time he recorded “she never spoke ill of anyone. Her praise was ready and frequent, her blame rare but terrible…she was amazingly human, loving songs and good company”.

Trease took up a series of jobs that ranged from cleaner to youth worker. The experience offered a grounding in humanity that was absent from Oxford and no doubt went some way into shaping the drive for equality that would see him revolutionise children’s stories by giving meaningful roles to both male and female characters. He transformed children’s historical fiction by avoiding the jingoism of the era, such as sidling with the superiority of the victors, and instead emphasised the universal needs of people. To turn your back on Oxford took a fair bit of courage and is one of the reasons we celebrated Trease’s life in issue 11 of Dawn of the Unread.

Source: Bodleian Library Souvenir Guide by Geoffrey Tyack

RELATED READING

DOTU Round logoDawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.

#MondayBlogs Much Ado About Wenlock: A home for book lovers

We’ve been very busy working on Dawn of the Unread II: ‘Whatever People Say I Am‘, but decided to take a break to head down to Much Wenlock to visit a tiny little library and two bookshops that have cemented themselves within the heart of the community.   

Much Wenlock is a tiny town in Shropshire, snuggled on the A458. It’s big brother to the aptly named Little Wenlock, which is 7 miles away down the A4169. Wenlock most likely comes from the Celtic name Wininicas (white area) which is a reference to the limestone of Wenlock Edge rather than any affiliation with UKIP. Loca means ‘enclosed place’. Wenlock Edge was the subject of several poems by A.E Houseman in A Shropshire Lad (1896). One of these (XVII) suggested that playing cricket could help console a broken heart, leading Edith Sitwell (who features in issue 1 of our comic) to comment: “If he means to say that cricket, and cricket alone, has prevented men from committing suicide, then their continuation on this earth seems hardly worthwhile.” Ouch!

Visitors to these parts are most likely making a pilgrimage to the 12th century Priory or to pay homage to William Brookes, but we’re here for the bookshops and the library.

In terms of literary history, Much Wenlock can boast Carol Ann Duffy as the patron of their annual Poetry Festival (6 May), Mary Webb (25 March 1881 – 8 October 1927), the romantic novelist whose work inspired the parody Cold Comfort Farm, and the English classicist and feminist Mary Beard (1955-) who the late A.A. Gill once described as ‘too ugly for television’. If you want to read Beard, we’d recommend starting with her TLS blog A Don’s Life or Women & Power: A Manifesto (2017)

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Much Wenlock Library is situated within the Grade 2 listed Corn Exchange building. It’s the tiniest library we’ve ever seen, occupying a small rectangle of space and snuggled under three arches. The Corn Exchange was built in 1852 and originally included an agriculture library. There’s a marble tablet dated 1887 that pays homage to Dr William Penny Brookes (13 August 1809 – 11 December 1895), the founding father of the modern Olympic Games with the purpose of “to promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the Town and neighbourhood of Wenlock”.

It’s very hard to obtain any information about the library as the website links on the Shropshire Council website don’t work. It’s also only open for two and a half days a week and was closed when we visited. 12 of Shropshire’s libraries faced reduced hours as of 2016 in an attempt to save £55,000, as reported in The Shropshire Star. Ludlow North councillor, Andy Boddington, said: “We are entering dangerous territory. Once opening hours for libraries and other public services are cut back, they are rarely restored. When people get used to facilities being closed a lot of the time, they use them less.”

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The town boasts two bookshops. Much More Books (6 High Street) is over 10 years old and boasts a collection of 40,000 books to browse through. Like many modern bookshops they have a digital presence, largely because they specialise in out of print and rare books. The shelves are stacked high and well categorised. My favourite section was old maps, some of which date back to the early 1900s and fold out of leather cases. There was also a substantial volume of DH Lawrence books, so we purchased five Penguin editions of his short stories (£10 in total). These were in excellent condition, making me feel guilty about defacing them with a yellow marker as I continue research for DH Lawrence: A Digital Pilgrimage. What I liked most about this bookshop was they welcomed dog walkers and staff looked up at you from the till, as if wanting to have a conversation. Always a good sign. It wins the award for the strangest music I’ve heard in a bookshop. When we visited on 9 March they were playing some strange mystical music with a bit of a dance beat. The kind of thing I’d expect to hear in a holistic shop in Glastonbury.

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Wenlock Books (12 High Street), a few shops up the road, is an independent bookshop that prides itself on introducing readers not only to standard editions, but quality imprints such as Persephone, Little Toller and our favourite, Slightly Foxed for memoirs. They also stock the Collector’s Library, pocket sized editions with gold edges, pale blue covers and a ribbon bookmark. Owner Anna Dreda is keen to curate tastes, saying ‘introducing readers to books that they might not otherwise have happened upon is one of the enduring joys of my life’. Upstairs they have a collection of second hand books as well as access to coffee making facilities. They also put on a series of events, that include Poetry Breakfast (second Thursday of the month, 9-10am) and Knitting and Poetry (fourth Thursday of the month, 2.30pm-4pm). This is a bookshop that is very hard to leave. And if you do manage to lure yourself away, the alleyway at the side of the shop (leading to a restaurant courtyard), has more books – and they’re here 24/7. This is known as ‘honesty alley’ and books are paid for through donation. Money raised goes to the Friends of Conakry Refugee School in Guinea, West Africa.

DOTU Round logoDawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.

 

FURTHER READING

#MondayBlogs Peterloo: the graphic novel

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For many of us working on comics, crowdfunding websites such as Kickstarter have become absolutely vital in ensuring that varied and innovative work reaches new audiences. One of the biggest Kickstarter success stories of all time was Roy Greenhilt’s The Order of the Stick Reprint Drive which aimed for pledges of $57,750 to publish out of print comics but ended up receiving a staggering £1,254,120. The reason it was so successful was due to a simple formula: People pledged money because they wanted to own a physical copy of a comic that was now out of print. Instead of paying a shop, they paid the artist directly. This is a formula which has enabled Kate Ashwin and Amanda Tribble, two of the artists in Dawn of the Unread, to put food on the plate and develop their respective careers.

One kickstarter campaign that we’re currently very excited about is Peterloo – a graphic novel. So we got in contact with Paul Fitzgerald, Eva Sclunke and Robert Poole who have kindly outlined the project in this guest blog.   

4. Peterloo Carlile (detail)

The authors have used original paintings and historical documents to help create an authentic and factually accurate narrative for the project.

The ‘Peterloo Massacre’ of 16 August 1819 was a landmark event in the development of British democracy. A peaceful rally of some 60,000 pro-democracy reformers on St Peter’s Field, Manchester, was attacked by armed cavalry, causing 15 deaths and over 650 injuries. ‘Peterloo’ (an ironic reference to Waterloo four years earlier) became a national cause célèbre, and features in every history of the period as well as many books novels, films and TV and radio programmes. It was the bloodiest English political event of the nineteenth century, and the best-documented crowd event of the age. It pioneered modern peaceful mass democratic protest, and opened the way for the extension of the vote over the next century.

The Peterloo bicentenary in 2019 will be a major public event. There will be a Mike Leigh feature film, a permanent memorial in Manchester, the Manchester Histories Festival, the Manchester International festival, and community-led commemorations of all kinds. And, if the right support gets in place, there will be a graphic novel – one with a difference. Every word, and every event, in the narrative will be taken directly from an original historical source. The artists, Paul Fitzgerald (‘Polyp’ is his signature) and Eva Schlunke, are working with a historian, Robert Poole, in an unusual collaboration.

Robert Poole. ‘There are hundreds of press reports and eye-witness accounts. The reason we can do this is because of the incredibly rich source material. The local magistrates and the Home Office were writing to each other nearly every day for months, exchanging information, spies reports, leaflets, posters, evidence for trials, the lot. You couldn’t make it up – and you don’t need to.’

Paul Fitzgerald. ‘I’m challenged as we’re only using the words of those who were there. Graphic novels should be about images, not clunky, expositional dialogue.  It also allows us to juxtapose the ‘fake news’ accounts of the establishment with the words of the victims who know what they saw that day. We want to create a richly, evocative kind of sound cloud that brings alive these voices from the past in a way that we don’t think has been done in the graphic novel format before.’

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Eva Sclunke. ‘Crowdfunding this project feels like we’re picking up the baton of the public subscription efforts people made in the decades after 1819, to expose the truth of what happened. Hundreds of people chipped in to let the victims have their day on court, and to create the Free Trade Hall at the site of the attack. We hope to do the same, and create a popular, authoritative and accessible resource for the future with the next generation in mind as well as the past.’

You can support their Kickstarter campaign here. Pledges vary from £1 – £400. The team need to raise just over £2,500 in the next 18 days to achieve their goal of £10,000. We’ve pledged £25 because this is a tragic story that everybody needs to know about and because we get a copy of the graphic novel when it’s produced.

DOTU Round logoDawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.

RELATED READING

#Mondayblogs Beautiful Libraries: Municipal Library Central Santa Cruz de Tenerife

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Santa Cruz is absolutely gorgeous; brimming with tapas bars and city parks, it’s an urban delight that feels like real Spain. It’s in stark contrast to Los Cristianos in the south, the Wetherspoons of Tenerife. But my reason for visiting the joint capital of the Canary Islands was to see the Municipal Central Library.

There’s two ways I would recommend accessing it. If you walk along the Puente Serrador Bridge you’ll be treated to spectacular views of the city and the North Atlantic Sea. Eventually you’ll see an orange coloured building whose architecture harks back to colonial rule. This is the Mercado Municipal Nuestra Senora de Africa. Inside is a bustling market, the hub of the city, where the locals come to grab food from various stalls and kiosks before relaxing with a Barraquito Especial (coffee, condensed milk, milk, cinnamon, lemon and liquor). The library is before the Senora de Africa, on the left as you pass over the bridge.  Viewing it from this vantage point enables you to appreciate the simplicity of the architecture, the way it blends into the environment, and the sheer scale and sleekness of this magnificent design.

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At the end of the Puente Serrador Bridge you’ll see the Mercado Municipal Nuestra Senora de Africa. The photo on the right with the curling sculpture is taken outside the library.

The other option is to head below the bridge and aim for the Museo de la Naturaleza y el Hombre on Calle Fuente Morales. A quick right turn reveals the front of the library and trees shading the beginning of a path that runs between the adjoining buildings, connecting the old quarter of the city with the modern zone. If you want a library to be a focal point of the community then location is everything. This ticks every box.

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You can see the bridge in the bottom right image.

The building was designed by the architects Herzog & de Meuron in cooperation with the Spanish architect Virgilio Gutierrez, and aspires to be a reflection of contemporary art, influenced by new technologies. The exterior is thick minimalist concrete, reminiscent of the interior of the Nottingham Contemporary, with high glass panels flooding light into the large diaphanous spaces. The walls are patterned with long thin cut out shapes, like someone has blasted a row of Space Invaders, neatly scattering pixels along the surface.

Light is absolutely central to this design, making it such a tranquil space to work in. The ceilings are so high it’s easy to feel like you’re outside while inside. Dripping down from the ceilings are lights in glass baubles. The delicacy of the design makes them feel like a work of art in their own right, offsetting the neat symmetrical rows of the Opal Shelving System below. These shelves are painted white and without end panels to allow light to flow through them. Needless to say every table is occupied, with people reading, working on laptops, or filling tables with scatterings of documents. I suspect as many people are here for the tranquillity as they are for the books. Disability access is excellent as is the WI-Fi.

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The library occupies an area of ​​6470 m2, of which 4670 are for public use and the rest corresponds to the office area and warehouses. On the ground floor are 36 computers, 300 reading posts and shelves that accommodate about 100,000 volumes of books. There’s plenty of CDs and DVDs too. The first floor is dedicated to children and youth studies, with playgrounds and activity areas, 6 computers, 150 reading posts and 20,000 books to choose from.

The Library has a long history, having been inaugurated on April 2, 1888. The 7,000 books it housed back then were mainly from the Economic Society of Friends of the Country and from the private library of Francisco de León Morales, who was the first municipal librarian. It started off life in the premises of the former convent of San Francisco, then in 1932 moved to José Murphy Street. By 1999 it grew in size by swallowing up the buildings of the old courts. In 2008 the library moved to its present location, joining forces with the headquarters of TEA-Tenerife Space of the Arts. TEA is a multi functional exhibitions centre which combines different spaces and activities for social interaction and aims to promote artistic creation and thought on contemporary forms of art and culture, mainly by housing the museum of modern art. There’s a great little shop at the top entrance, selling arty clothing and jewellery, and a well stocked café downstairs.

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I can’t contain my grin on discovering such a beautiful library.

I’m always interested to see what kind of events libraries put on as one question we asked in Dawn of the Unread was ‘how can libraries become a focal point of the community?’ Santa Cruz is doing this through a diverse range of workshops. During my visit there was a comics’ book making workshop in the Children’s Room with Carlos Miranda for 7 -14 year-olds. Fabio González held an illustration workshop that explored basic concepts of illustration and visual language with games that put these concepts into practice. There were sessions for adults, such as the ‘Naked words’ project, as well as an annual programme of oral narration sessions held on the last Thursday of each month. The library also hosts a reading club that’s been running weekly since 2012. But most intriguing for me were adverts calling for submissions to the Julio Tovar Poetry Prize, thereby making the library a regular point of call for those feeling inspired to write after attending various events.

DOTU Round logoDawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.

OTHER BEAUTIFUL LIBRARIES WE’VE VISITED

 

 

#MondayBlogs Small Good Places: On Bookshops – Prof Andrew Thacker

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Issue 5 of Dawn of the Unread saw Byron Clough address the closure of independent bookshops

In this guest blog, Professor Andrew Thacker explores the challenges faced by contemporary bookshops. The rise of online selling and the ease of reading on digital devices paints a pretty bleak picture for print media. But then in 2015 something strange started to happen in America…  

On a recent trip to Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham my conversation with Ross, the owner, was interrupted while he got on with the proper business of selling books. First up, someone who wanted the book companion to BBC’s television’s Blue Planet. Ross found the book she wanted.  Then there was a guy who brought a couple of slim volumes of poetry to the counter: ‘I’m not sure you’ll want to buy that one once I tell you the price’, said Ross.  Sure enough, the high cost of this slim volume imported from the US put the buyer off, but he picked something else up instead and then a conversation was held between the two about a future reading by the said poet.  Finally, a man with a holdall laden down with what seemed to be second-hand books came up to the counter, his arms stuffed full of left-wing pamphlets and magazines: ‘Have you got the latest Socialist Register?’ he enquired.  Not yet available was the reply, but Ross did furnish him with a tote bag for his purchases with the hammer and sickle upon it, a freebie that delighted the customer. A short conversation about the radical bookshop, Housman’s, in London then ensured.

This is the culture of the modern independent bookshop that I love, the experience of which you cannot get with one-click buying on-line. Recently I was lucky to be at an academic conference in Boston, in the US, and took time out from the papers and panels to visit a bookshop.  This was the Grolier Poetry Bookshop, located just off the campus of Harvard University, and a shop that has been supplying poetry alone since 1927.  The shop was beautiful, a small place which treasured books as material objects and which exuded a calming presence, wonderfully suited to the somewhat rarefied pleasures of slim books of verse.  I browsed and soaked up the atmosphere, admiring the numerous photos of visiting poets, as well as the broadside poems printed on a wall, a tradition going back several centuries.  I bought a tiny book of obscure poems and left, recharged by the cultural aura of the shop as much as by the pleasure in purchasing the actual book.

How much longer, however, will such places as the Grolier – the independent bookshop devoted to the culture of books, poetry and otherwise – continue? I suspect all academic bookbuyers of a certain age (which is what I am) will have memories of a favourite bookshop, whether on campus or nearby, or a secondhand store in which bargain copies of textbooks could be snapped up. For me the musty smell of an old bookshop is a sensory pleasure akin to Proust’s madeleine. But does the bookshop still hold a special place in the hearts of all academics?  And do the obscure pleasures of the bookshop still appeal to our students?  With the disappearance of many independent bookshops often staff and students just don’t live anywhere near to one of the ‘small good places’, as the American sociologist Ray Oldenburg, described certain bookstores (along with cafes and bars) that formed the heart of particular urban communities.  We might well give our undergraduate reading lists to our campus bookshop, but do we – like 72% of our students according to a recent survey by market researcher Nielsen’s – then purchase our own books online, aware that time spent browsing away from our office in a physical bookshop for the latest monograph recommended by a colleague is time away from attending meetings?  Isn’t it just quicker to order via Amazon’s ‘one-click’ service on the app on our phone, then turn back to our emails? On the Berkeley campus of the University of California the central student union now has an Amazon pick-up point for students (and presumably staff) to order online and collect on campus: with around 40,000 students enrolled here I am sure they are doing good business, even though the spartan book-free space does not resemble anything like the glorious labyrinth of a traditional bookstore.

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I have been carrying out research, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, on the history of the modern bookshop, exploring how independent bookshops such as City Lights in San Francisco (publisher of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl) or Shakespeare and Company in Paris (publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses) have been important institutions in the development of modern literature and culture.  But I have also been interested in the wider culture of the contemporary bookshop, challenged as it has been over the last two decades by the rise of online selling and digital reading devices, as pioneered by Jeff Bezos with the founding of Amazon in 1994.  A few years ago it appeared that bookshops were in a state of terminal decline. According to an article in Daily Telegraph in 2011 nearly 2000 bookshops had closed in Britain since 2005; while The Bookseller reported that independent bookshops closed at the rate of one a week in 2012, leaving just over 1000 such premises. Even the big chain booksellers, partly responsible for the closure of many independents in the 1980s and 90s, were threatened, and the closure of Borders in 2011 was taken to be a sign that the days of physical bricks and mortar bookshops were coming to a close.

However, in 2015, Oren Teicher, the head of the American trade organization, the American Booksellers’ Association, announced a rise in the number of new independent bookshops, and boldly claimed that “We are engaged in decoupling the word ‘endangered’ from ‘bookstores’.” While in the UK, the Publishers Association this year revealed that sales of print books were rising, while sales of e-books fell for the first time since 2011.  Of course, some or much of this rise in sales of print books could have occurred online rather than in physical locations, but the decision of Amazon in 2015 to open its first bricks and mortar store in Seattle seemed to indicate that the times were changing for bookselling.

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Foyles bookshop appeared in issue 7 of Dawn of the Unread

The endurance and (partial) revival of the bookshop is due to more than simply the sale of books: bookstores for many years now have been places where other activities have proliferated, such as drinking coffee, listening to authors reading, attending a book group, or viewing an exhibition.  Many of these practices have been around since the early twentieth century: Harold Monro’s famous Poetry Bookshop in Bloomsbury opened in 1913 and hosted weekly readings for many years; it also rented out rooms above the shop to poets and artists such as Robert Frost and Jacob Epstein.  The current manifestation of Shakespeare and Company in Paris has carried on this tradition, with Jeanette Winterson writing in her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011), of a recuperative period spent within its booklined walls. The lure of a well-designed spatial environment for a bookshop, as seen in the revived Foyles in Charing Cross Road, London, shows that what continues to attract people to the physical bookshop seems to be more than simply its new or used contents.  The Last Bookstore, in downtown Los Angeles, is perhaps the last word in what might be called a ‘destination bookshop’, ones visited by tourists for the experience of their interiors more than for the quality of their stock.  The Last Bookstore offers a fascinating use of interior space and dimmed, noir-esque lighting to creating an atmosphere of the bookshop as purveyor of quirkiness.  Some traditionalists might blanch at the use of books as architectural features, as in the hundreds used to support the cash-desk or those that carve out its impressive ‘book tunnel’. But for anyone who has ever been entranced by the quiet charms of a bookshop, it is certainly worth a visit.

It is not surprising, then, to learn that Blackwells, one of the oldest and most established academic booksellers in the UK, announced in The Bookseller recently that it was trialling two ‘enhanced concept stores’ on the university campuses of Cardiff and Liverpool, integrating their online selling into the physical location and creating a more ‘spacious’ and ‘social experience’, according to Blackwell’s head of sales, Scott Hamilton, that combines a café, seating, and digital display screens. “The big thing I wanted to change was the look and feel of the shops,” said Hamilton. “They are more modern, the ceilings are more open.’  It might only be a matter of time before the styling of The Last Bookshop has an impact upon a new campus bookstore, hoping that students will rediscover the pleasures of bookshop browsing as part of metropolitan hipster culture, along with craft beers and vinyl records (The Last Bookstore has a very good vinyl section).

The Nielsen’s survey suggests that bookshops, of all varieties, retain an important function in the student experience: of students buying new print titles during last academic year, 41% bought from a physical bookseller, with 25% from a campus bookshop, and 18% from a high-street shop.  Not surprisingly, however, Amazon still dominates the selling of books to students, with 70% of respondents having brought from the online giant, although the share of total volume sales had grown in campus bookshops. Small, good places might have a long struggle ahead of them, especially if Amazon move onto more university campuses, but there are at least the glimmers that the pleasures of physical bookshop culture will endure and the interactions between bookseller and customer that I witnessed recently in Five Leaves will continue.

Andrew Thacker is a Professor of English at Nottingham Trent University. As part of the Being Human Festival he will be giving a talk on ‘The rise, fall and revival of the modern bookshop’ 7-8pm, Tuesday 21 November, Five Leaves Bookshop, FREE. You can book your place here

DOTU Round logoDawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.