“A good bookshop is just a genteel Black Hole that knows how to read.” – Sir Terry Pratchett
And that is absolutely true. A good bookshop should contain significantly more books than you could ever imagine it containing, and it should distort time and space in such away that ten minutes of browsing turning into three hours and a budget of £10 should mysteriously turn into £70 worth of purchases.
My person heaven of book shopping is Fables Book Shop in the village of St Marychurch near Torquay. If you ever happen to be in the area I strongly recommend it. It’s tiny, not just compared to monsters like Waterstones and Borders (RIP) but tiny compared to the average living room. However it’s literally packed to the rafters with books, and you always get the impression that the owners have read every one of them before adding them to their stock list. It’s the kind of store where every shelf has multiple rows of books, stacks of books, tottering piles of books! I found a gorgeous hardback set of The Larklight Series by Philip Reeve hidden away the first time I visited and I’ve made a point of going back every time we’re in the area ever since. And there in lies the problem- this store is about as far away as its possible to be from my home town and still be in England. On a good day its a 6 hour drive.
So what do we have closer to home? The answer is very little. When I was growing up there used to be a creepy independent store which seemed to mostly cater to science and fishing enthusiasts but never had a lot of stock and generally refused to order anything for customers. That was demolished about 5 years ago and never reopened anywhere else. There has been a W H Smith’s in town for as long as I’ve been alive but like all W H Smiths the stock is 60% stationery & magazines, 10% DVDs, 10% confectionary, 10% school books, 5% Mills&Boon-esque books and 5% the second book of any given series. Shopping at Smiths for a book has always been a depressing process, one that I only bother with now if I end up with a voucher at Yule.
Finally there is the pièce de résistance, the Famous Bookstall. Yes, it’s actually called that. Compared to W H Smiths it’s a wonderland of books, though, in line with its target market, it is heavy on the Mills&Boon. Whilst I wouldn’t normal shop there my grandmother did once present me with a book from the stall stating “this is more your kind of thing than mine”. It was Lord John and The Private Matter by Diana Gabaldon, and I’m still not sure if my gran was referring to the 18th century murder mystery or the fact that the main character is gay.
Unfortunately the next town over doesn’t offer a great deal more. There are two more W H Smiths, a Christian bookstore, two Blackwell’s (good for textbooks, expensive for anything else) and not one or two but THREE Waterstones. The biggest of the Waterstones is spread over two floors, but has recently been marred by the edition of a Paperchase (not some where I will ever shop again) and a Costa Coffee (blurgh, IMO worst coffee ever). However the size does mean that there is usually a good selection of books available, and a greater likelihood that you’ll find more of what you’re looking for. When I visited there last week I noticed some new signs basically saying “If you can’t find it on the shelves we’ll order it and have it within 48 hours”. Now normally I wouldn’t bother with that, now that we have the internet, but I noticed that the last Mark Hodder book The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack was on the recommended shelves, and I remembered that the new book was due to come out the week before. 48 hours would be quicker than I could possibly get it from an online seller so I decided to ask. Here it got interesting. And a little strange.
First I was told that the book wasn’t out *at all* until September. Which I knew was the pre-order date for the paperback, but what about the hardback? Nope, apparently that wasn’t out either. *and* they’d checked Amazon. I could order it now and get it in September. I thanked them and left without placing an order, since if they were just going to order it from Amazon well I could do that myself and get it delivered to my door in a week, rather than having to drive two towns over the pick it up. That night, on a whim, I decided to check Amazon myself. Guess what? The book was already available for order, not for pre-order but for shipped-in-24-hours-order. It arrived in 72 hours and its in paperback. Review to follow shortly.
This is why so many people shop online if they are looking for something specific. I enjoy browsing in brick-and-mortar stores, I like discovering things I might not read under normal circumstances, but if I know what I want to buy in future I think I’ll just stay at home and order stuff in my PJs at midnight that I know I’m going to receive, rather than travelling for an hour in the vague hope that the things I want are actually going to be available.
Those who know the area might berate me for leaving out Forbidden Planet and the glory that is The Space Centre, when I was listing local book shops. That was intentional. Not because they aren’t amazing but because they are genre specific. Of course if I ever want to go shopping for comics or RPGs or classic sci-fi/fantasy those are the places I’ll visit first. I recommend you do so too. Also visit Patriot Games whilst you’re at it!