There’s a bit of a furore over whether WHSmith is a ‘good’ place to buy books from or not, and it’s set me on a trip down memory lane. Smith’s came bottom in this year’s Which? retail survey, which is based on consumer feedback. Old-fashioned, expensive and with unhelpful staff, according to the survey, this is the 8th year in a row that Smith’s have been in the bottom two. It’s customary lowly position has been greeted by a bit of a row this year – maybe I’ve forgotten previous years’ disagreements – that seems to be centred on whether it’s snobby to not like Smith’s or whether it’s justifiable turning up of one’s nose. Some people object to being upsold big bars of chocolate at the till, even the self-service ones (my mum is a case in point, here), others think it’s a bit high and mighty to be policing cheap chocolate purchases. Lots of people find the decor shoddy, and it’s long been a truism that Smith’s just isn’t what it used to be – too many lines, not enough expertise and the like.
But in my little corner of the world, the most terrible thing to be levelled at the retail giant (1300 branches, by the way) is that it’s not a real bookshop *shock, horror*. Why on earth would anyone want to buy a book there when there are actual real proper bookshops to go to, the question goes (conveniently forgetting its history as an actual bookseller and coming up with the ISBN, if I remember right). I’ve worked in ‘proper’ bookshops my entire adult life (Dillons, Waterstones, Foyles) and I don’t mind admitting that, I too, buy books in Smith’s and I don’t mean only when I was a child. Full disclosure, I don’t much like my current local branch of Smith’s. The lighting is odd, the shelving units are too high (I am not so very far off the ground), a lot of things seem pricey in there – but, for the 2 years between ‘my’ branch of Waterstones closing down (I opened and closed that beloved, infuriating second home) and the cute new branch opening just across the road, WHS was the only place to buy new books in Watford.
Watford is a pretty standard, ordinary market town, I guess, but it did used to be a big print town, pre-Murdoch and the digital age. Both my dad and grandad were printers by trade. It was also the home of Benskin’s brewery, but that’s probably less pertinent here. In my more romantic moments, I like to imagine ink is in my blood. Growing up, there was an indie bookshop on Market Street called Appleby, Myers and Clark, that I have vague memories of (I later went on to work with the Appleby of the trio), and there was a Smith’s on the High Street, that I have a hundred great memories of. I went there with my mum, with my sisters, with my nan, with my best friend. I bought Choose Your Own Adventures, a science dictionary, a hardback Pride and Prejudice, a proto-YA series from the US about cheerleaders (I very much wanted pompoms for a time), and later, a copy of Julie Burchill’s Ambition, which was quite the filthiest thing either my best friend or I had ever set eyes on. It never once occurred to me that I wasn’t buying my books from a proper bookshop.
At some point during my teens, Watford got a Hatchards on The Parade and very nice it was too. The only thing I can definitely remember buying in there was American Psycho, as a present for my boyfriend, Craig. We’d played kiss chase and went to the circus together as tots and for a few brief months as teenagers thought we were destined for each other. He wrote me a really quite wonderful cris de coeur after we split up, but I was stone-heartedly deaf to his entreaties. Happy days. (I really hope he doesn’t read this). It wasn’t there too many years before Dillons took it over, and the shop moved down to Charter Place and got two whole floors (are you enjoying this trip around Watford town centre?). I went there quite a lot, the people who worked there were nice and it’s where I bought my copy of Interview With the Vampire. I even worked there for a bit, during the tail end of the Pentos group. But I still went to Smith’s, especially while the High Street branch was still there. Books occupied the top floor, adults at the front and kids at the back. It was the double whammy of them moving into the Harlequin Centre and me starting at Waterstones that lessened my desire and need to go there for books. Until it became our bookshop again, 17 years later. Then I browsed the shelves, bought kids’ books and historical fiction, checked out the Richard and Judy reads and felt glad I had somewhere in walking distance that catered for my reading needs.
I’ve always been bookish, at home in libraries and second hand bookshops, gleeful at the thought of a new indie to explore, or a familiar chain in an unfamiliar town, but then I’ve always read voraciously and widely so have no fear of confronting shelves and shelves of books. I can barely remember not being a bookseller now and have worked across pretty much all departments and for the ‘biggest bookshop in Europe’ at Waterstones Picaadilly, so anyone trying to condescend to me would get short shrift. But it’s not like that for everyone. At Waterstones Watford we were in the shopping centre and were acutely aware that even years after opening, local shoppers would tentatively walk in and ask if we’d been there long only they’d not been in before. We needed to be welcoming and friendly, knowledgable without showing off, and even-handed in our approach to what often gets termed commercial fiction (although why we wouldn’t want all of it to be commercial is somewhat mysterious to me). Crime was one of our biggest selling sections (and true crime one of our most knicked, but that’s a different story). Our most popular events were with sports stars – Ian Wright, Foggy, Ian Botham, the Watford team – not literary salons. It’s right to cater to your local market, not alienate them, but even then bookshops can be imposing places, supposed temples to learning, a bit too much like school, and booksellers can be perceived as gatekeepers, a bit aloof, judgemental. And let’s be honest, this is sometimes true. I defy my bookselling colleagues to not admit to themselves there are at least one or two authors they loathe to sell (I have mine but I’m keeping them firmly under wraps).
I used to like buying my records in Boots in days long gone. I could go and look through the racks, pick up Hits Hits Hits (1981, if you’re interested) and pay with my Record Tokens. I’ve never really felt comfortable in ‘proper’ record shops, I don’t know much about ‘proper’ music and I don’t care much for feeling too uncool to inhabit the same space as the people working there. The same vibe has been observed in certain comic shops; I love being patronised while buying the latest Batwoman issues, for sure. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to understand why people might feel more comfortable buying their entertainment in the neutral environment of Smith’s, or a supermarket. I think it might one of those occasions we can use the empathy skills we’ve learned from reading so many books.
Anyway, buy books wherever you like. With a bar of chocolate or with a pretty notebook and a colour change umbrella (I’m looking at you Waterstones). I’ve got my favourite and least favourite places, like everyone, but it’s not up to me to impose my choices on anyone else. And my personal view as a bookseller is if you work in a bookshop wear your knowledge lightly. Equally, if you’re a book shopper, you are free to think Smith’s isn’t all that much cop and spend your time engaging booksellers in other shops in deep discussions about the relative merits of different translations of The Odyssey. Whatever floats your boat (or blinds your cyclops).