What makes us pick up a book?

Independent thoughts blog

Ever since visiting Three Lives bookshop in Greenwich Village, NYC, over twenty years ago, I have made a point of returning each time I am in the city.

The first time I visited its idiosyncratic shelves it gave me as big a thrill as seeing where E.E. Cummings had lived – in a muted mews house round the corner – or visiting the Frick Collection and imagining myself in an Edith Wharton novel. Inside Three Lives I felt I had arrived somewhere that contained just a little of what I had always expected from adulthood but had discovered wasn’t actually that easy to access. Great company, great style, an air of independence, promise of exploration, interesting men proffering paperbacks, great female writers …

Last month I returned and browsed tables again. Sometimes English language bookshops all feel the same. Not this one. Curious covers and unfamiliar titles. I picked up a collection of essays by the Australian Helen Garner. I don’t know why exactly (one of the great mysteries of bookselling is it’s not always beauty and it’s not always plot promise that drives purchasers to pick up). I was drawn to this large paperback because it looked unusually plain perhaps – a blocky red title font and a photo of a middle-aged woman on a street in a nice navy trouser suit.

I began tentatively but raced through with greed and pleasure and now count myself as a proper fan – so intimate and gripping was her text. Getting to know her was like making a new friend. I have since read The Spare Room (uncomfortably brilliant) and I have others on order … But the short, sweet, harsh truths of Everywhere I Look were particularly moving.

If you like unflinching but heart-filled female writers seek her out.

After a year of evenings reading Pullman with my son, I was longing to share with him something gritty and real. We settled on A Kestrel for A Knave by Barry Hines, which I knew from the film Kes. I had no idea how very very good a novel it is. Slim and precise and bawdy. My eleven-year-old loves the boisterousness of the characters and the intensity of the relationship between the boy and hawk. I am revelling in the quality of the nature writing on its pages. Just as rereading Cider with Rosie felt like a joyful intoxication and James Baldwin like a bodily challenge, this is an incredibly physical book. Delving backwards into writers can often feel more exciting than reading the latest bestsellers … perhaps because they feel like more independent choices.

On the same day that Waterstones revealed they literally forgot about the independents (threatening to open a store in competition with Golden Hare Books in Edinburgh) I read with amazement about the incredible influx of ice cream parlours. We’ve seen them of course – and enjoyed them – but I had no idea what a movement was behind the surge. This is the only retail sector in the high street in growth and their success is down to the fact that they are safe, non-alcoholic, women and child friendly, late opening, social spaces.

The description of all the benefits of the ice cream parlour reminded me however of my favourite public library – The Library at Deptford Lounge, south-east London, which is a warm, safe, friendly place to read, do homework or chat quietly in the cafe. It is properly mixed with multiple generations, ethnicities and demographics. There was a low level buzz of kids reading aloud and a coffee machine. It is packed and welcoming on a Tuesday afternoon, in the way that spacier branches of Waterstones often aren’t.

A spacious Waterstones can feel gloomy however brilliant the manager. And many new Waterstones are small and trying to masquerade as individually owned stores. Yet independent bookshops are run by enthusiasts, on slim margins, often in small spaces. They are not a populist or a commercial solution for the industry. The indie should not be our sole bricks-and-mortar strategy for supplying books. I wonder what the strategy for the larger Waterstones branches will be now they are under new ownership … I hope they have other tactics than closure, for all our sakes.

As libraries and Sure Start centres disappear, as Waterstones pretends not to be a chain and non-alcoholic, characterful, instagrammable ice cream cafes and dessert parlours grow on the high street, one wonders whether there isn’t an opportunity for the book industry here. Can we provide attractive, family friendly and alcohol-free hang outs too?

We could put aside the traditional categories of library, retailer, indie, publisher aside. For example, Foyles are now working as a concession to spread their presence. Taschen have long sold their books in their own stores. I can see Penguin stores working for both book and other product sales. Meanwhile, publishing is an industry not known for blowing its own trumpet. We have a (un)healthy but necessary dose of outsiders and observers in our talent DNA. But do we give up hope of industry-wide initiatives? Councils may no longer have enough money to fund libraries (or buses) but they have space and have trained a generation of staff. If the publishing industry as a whole opened twenty Book Lounges across the UK and Scotland and committed to stocking them with new books for ten years, it would take the push for diversity in region, culture and ethnicity to a whole new – much deeper, much younger – level.

Hannah MacDonald