A few days ago, we had a lovely sunny day to ourselves thanks to the husband’s schedule only requiring him for evening work, and thus we decided to go enjoy some Florida sunshine and see what the rest of the human race looked like.
We wandered the local mall, just for fun, got ice cream… and went to the nearest bookstore for a browse. It was one of the big names stores, and when we stepped inside, there was the familiar scent of printed paper and percolating coffee.
Books sat proudly on display across shelf after shelf, category signs and directional arrows pointed one wherever you could possibly want to go… and then the sadness crept in.
For every book, there seemed to be at least two gimmicky items on sale, like children’s toys and board games. For every proud sign declaring where a genre might be hidden, there was the inevitable disappointment when you found the section in question combined with another one. And the coffee shop had more people in it than there were in all the stacks combined.
Now, there of course isn’t anything really wrong with any of this. Bookstores are businesses, and children are a great market. Board games are definitely a worthwhile pastime, and one I love myself. And nothing makes a book better than sitting down to read it with a steaming hot drink.
But bookshops aren’t like I remember them anymore, and I found myself deeply nostalgic and sad for a time that has now passed, and the joys of my younger years when I lived in England.
The store I used to go to was called Hammicks at the time, later bought out by a bigger company. Originally, they were based in a corner shop where the high street turned to go into a shopping mall in Bracknell, long before it got its redevelopment.
I remember clear as day going in there with my mother when the first Harry Potter came out, to get my sister a special edition copy. I even remember where all the books were kept, and that they had a narrow set of steps down into a basement where even more books lived, and where the special orders would come in.
I remember buying my way through the entire Redwall series available at the time, and delving into the Point Fantasy series, where I discovered the unbeaten Brog the Stoop, a childhood book my sister and I stole off each other to re-read something chronic.
Later, they moved to a bigger premises outside the mall. The ground floor had all the more sedate works, as well as the children’s section, but a grand set of stairs led up to the second floor, and if you followed the rail around you would find yourself slap bang in the Fantasy section, with graphic novels off to one side.
Row after row after row of beautiful books with flashy covers, and I remember not only buying Robin Hobbs books as they came out from there, but also discovering other gems such as The Somnambulist and The Burning City. The staff upstairs knew me, and I would take suggestions from them on what to read next. It was comfortable, it was familiar, it was homely.
There was a cafe in the back with wide leather sofa to sit and read on with a drink, and they sometimes hosted authors there, for either promotion events, or signings.
I met Sir Terry Pratchett there for the second time in my life, and that moment is etched in my mind as it will be forever, when he said some of the most important words I would ever hear as he signed my copy of his latest book.
Those memories, and that atmosphere, will never be replicated. Even if buying physical books, in person, were not a slowly fading habit in the wake of the internet age, I don’t think it is likely we would return to my memories anyway.
It’s been years since I walked into a book shop and an employee asked me what I liked to read, or offered me any suggestions. Now, there are only the sterile displays beneath ambiguous titles such as ‘What We Are Currently Reading’.
The shelves now group Sci-fi and Fantasy together in one place, which makes me want to scream, and even when you can find one authors’ series represented, you can almost guarantee the books are not shelved in the correct order. That’s before another series gets mixed in, and… of course… the printing format is from three different runs of the same novels, so they don’t look like they even belong together.
There are no notice boards for upcoming events, or new authors about to debut. No posters for exciting new releases plastered in the windows, unless its some toy due to come into stock in the near future. There are no children rummaging along the shelves making a mess, but getting involved… they are just sat in their prams while their mums pay for whatever she ordered in, and leaves.
Ultimately, if all book sales go to online, print on demand, it wont be a bad thing. Less trees used for books that might never sell, less space needed for storefronts as it all comes from central warehouses, so some areas can become housing or go back to nature.
It won’t be a bad thing, there will be upsides… but I will always miss my old bookshop, and the memories I made there, and the love of reading it gave me.
Here’s to you, bookshop of my youth. You changed at least my life for the better.