September 8, 2023 - 1:00pm

The Times has discovered that bookshops are no longer bookshops. In a horrific story today, Britain’s paper of record announced that Foyles’s Bristol branch has “got rid of its fiction section”, with “items such as diaries and posters [taking] pride of place on shelves meant for books”. Sought for comment, the Sunday Times books editor pronounced this situation “sad and incredibly strange”, a blight on the literary scene.

It’s not yet known how Foyles will react. But to anyone who has spent any significant time in a bookshop, particularly anyone who has worked in one, this is simply par for the course. As long ago as 1936, according to George Orwell’s “Bookshop Memories”, any image of some quiet and enlightening little grotto “where charming old gentlemen browse eternally among calf-bound folios” could be quickly disabused. Bookshops have always had sidelines, and their subjection to market forces has always disappointed bookish people.

My own period of estrangement and alienation was mercifully brief — a winter spent tilling and shelving in a comparably genteel Waterstones branch in north London. I, clichéd to the last, had made the same mistake as Orwell. I had primarily pictured myself making conversation with the sort of kind-hearted, frock-coated gentlemen who take in Dickensian orphans: praising Late Amis, recommending punk-ish literary upstarts, and sharing concerns about Edward St Aubyn’s post-Melrose period. Perhaps I could encourage some precocious teenagers to step up from Percy Jackson to David Copperfield; divert others away from Kaur and onto Keats. And to be fair, the occasion where I persuaded an elderly customer to give Joshua Cohen’s The Netanyahus a try remains a singular and fond memory.

What I had not anticipated was shift-work in a toyshop-cum-general store. Eager-eyed, I would take my position on the counter, only to watch on as mounds of bouncy balls, fridge magnets and travel puzzles were dumped on my lap, as Hogwarts Lego sets were craned into view by defeated parents (the store had a thriving Harry Potter souvenir section). All to be scanned and bagged like potatoes. In the style of a middle-class WHSmith’s, the place had diversified its income stream long before I got there, only with wooden craft kits in place of pic ‘n’ mix.

And even when you had the chance to sell a book, it was never the pioneering fiction that is laudably foregrounded in the Times books pages. Men came to buy pseudo-intellectual get-rich-quick manuals and memoirs by business gurus; couples came in asking after Harden’s restaurant guides. Oligarchs’ wives bought lavish Richard Avedon collections for the coffee table. Sometimes, a lost-looking bloke would sidle up for a chat, only to say, “Just give me anything decent mate, I’ve got to get to her birthday party in 10 minutes.” Some poor souls came in from the streets to keep warm — and one thing you can say about bookshops is that you are allowed to browse and convalesce there without spending any money.

Eventually, as Orwell again noted, the only thing working in a bookshop imparts is a loathing of books. You impose special emotions upon books when you’re young, regarding them, with some inchoate Romantic instinct, to be immune from the forces of the market, from the forklift of the warehouse economy. But once you see them arriving in their cardboard crates, shiny and stacked in endless multiples, you can see what they’re really made of; you can practically visualise their lifecycle from felled tree to shop floor.

It’s not something worth bemoaning — just a sad truth to be put to one side. And after all, Foyles, like every book chain, is only selling Moleskins and wrapping paper so it can continue to subsidise its sliver of poetry, its shelf of Penguin classics, and of course the wages of its smug young employees.


Nicholas Harris is a Commissioning Editor at UnHerd.

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