February 17, 2020
Bespoke subscription book service? Sure, why not!
by Athena Bryan
The Guardian wrote a piece about Heywood Hill bookshop, a posh-sounding British bookshop (I’m sure I didn’t use that word right—“posh” that is, not “bookshop”) that once employed Nancy Mitford and now slings books to customers in a monthly subscription service.
“But surely somebody has tried this before,” you might say (I like to imagine the readers of my Mobys are Noël Coward characters).
And the answer is yes, they have, but The Guardian helpfully explains what sets this one apart:
There are countless online companies that ship out a monthly read, some adding artisan teas, hot chocolate, or an adaptation on DVD of the book. But Heywood Hill’s subscription is as bespoke as possible: each package is individually tailored to the reader’s tastes following a conversation between the subscriber and a bookseller.
If that sounds expensive, it’s because it is. The cost is 125 GBP for six paperbacks, and 1,150 for forty hardcovers. Ignorant as I am in all things British (for example, Nancy Mitford? Vaguely aware of her. She’s one of the non-Nazi Mitford sisters, right?), this puts the books at 28.75 GBP per volume, which seems to be a pretty high, or shall we say posh, or perhaps even bespoke price!
The premium, of course, is paying for the personalized knowledge of the booksellers. The Guardian waxes eloquent about their skills:
The libraries these booksellers carry around in their brains are astonishing. You can practically see the flicker of their mental index cards whirring as they decide what might delight a particular customer.
Which sounds, honestly, like all of the booksellers we know and love.
But Heywood Hill isn’t the only one in on the game—Mr. B’s in Bath has been offering its own bespoke subscription service since 2012.
All of this brings about the same broad feeling that book curators did a few months back. In that case, there was that exasperating “are you actually reading these books” aspect of an interior designer assembling your library. So why should there be any discomfort here, where it’s all about the books? And the booksellers!
This has led to a real come-to-Jesus moment for your faithful blogger who realized any intimation that this somehow betrays the ethos of book people is entirely an unfair bias founded on her membership to the grimiest and least reputable echelon of book people—those who work in publishing: lurking around second-hand stores, passing around dog-eared volumes, and forever “borrowing” their roommates’ new hardcover releases.
So good on you, bespoke subscription services. Everyone, buy books! And remunerate your booksellers appropriately for their highly skilled services!
Athena Bryan is an editor at Melville House.