April 6, 2018
“[All bookshops are] beautiful, no matter what they say, the [Evening Standard] won’t bring them doooown…”
by Tom Clayton
Over the weekend at the Evening Standard, Luke Abrahams published a list of the twenty prettiest and most instagrammable bookshops in London. Now, Lord knows, few of us are above snapping the odd, opulently-lit shelfie for the tweets. And why should we be? Stepping into a well-curated, beautifully designed bookshop is one of life’s great pleasures, and there’s absolutely no harm in popping a souvenir snap on your feed. But when the sole purpose of visiting a bookshop is to take a picture of its pretty insides, it’s probably time to examine the scene a little bit…
Don’t get me wrong: all the bookshops featured in the Standard’s list are damned fine establishments, and I’m not here to knock their efforts to attract customers by making themselves look fabulous. That’s great! Bookshops should be places where you feel comfortable; and if you feel comfortable, you’re more likely to spend money. (Apart from those sofa-hogging, page-marking freeloader types who will happily spend an hour aggressively thumbing your stock before waltzing out again, wallets bulging. We see you.)
But it’s also important to remember that bookstores are, aside from fanfare / conveniently-located bay windows / exquisitely designed staircases / selections of ultra-rare first editions, doing the grubby, day-to-day business of selling books. Credit is equally due to those booksellers who slog away in drab mini-malls, on noisy streets crammed with betting shops and coffee chains, on the fringes of pretty towns agonisingly just out of reach of the walking guide’s radius; the places, in other words, where Insta filters fear to tread. It’s at this point I’m afraid I must revert to some platitudes usually reserved for the wellness section of the internet: because when it really comes down to it, it doesn’t matter what a bookshop looks like, it’s what’s inside that counts.
Abrahams’s list is indicative of a larger twee-ification of the book industry that I have neither the word count nor the energy to tackle. It was taken on brutally and beautifully by Heather Keane on the blog the UK distributor Turnaround a few years ago. It mirrors the trend of rising attention to the book-as-object, which, while not exactly bad in itself (I mean, who doesn’t like nice-looking things?), also distracts pretty heavily from the original function of a book: to be read. We risk missing the real magic, fatally narrowing our experiences, if we absorb only this stream of crisp, perfect, well-lit images of books in idyllic scenarios. Hell, we risk idealising them to the point where we’re afraid to open them.
So what’s the solution? Well, it is maddeningly simple, really: for every conventionally beautiful bookshop, there are a dozen others that don’t have that luxury. Seek out both beauty and imperfection. Get in there and roll around in it. Spread the love. And, while you’re there? Spend some money. I guarantee you, they need it. The light might not be right for your feed… but they’re still good dogs—er, books—Brent.
Tom Clayton is publishing executive at Melville House UK.