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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Bookshops are Back: The Joys of In-Person Book Buying

Elena Trowsdale traces the magic of independent bookstores and public libraries.

It’s that time again folks! Retail has been released from its hiatus and, more importantly, bookshops are back open. Since the easing of the latest lockdown, book sales have risen massively. The hustle and bustle of shoppers has returned to Waterstones and Blackwells, and many independent bookstores are now breathing a sigh of relief. Personally, I’m overjoyed that I am once again allowed to contribute to these businesses, mostly because it means I am encouraged not to buy from the mega-company that is Amazon. I feel much more environmentally friendly buying ‘Oxford World Classics’ from Oxford; it just makes more sense!

However, my love for bookshops extends past just my hatred of Amazon. In my opinion, they are extremely important spaces. There’s something magical about running your fingers across a shelf, gazing over each stack and meandering through a cavern full of works of literature. When it comes to picking a book to read, it’s such a huge help if you can hold the physical thing in your hand. I often feel like I need to read the blurb, piece through the pages and appreciate the cover before I decide which edition of a text to buy, or, as an English student, whether to study that book at all. I often find little moments of magic when I am searching for books on my reading list, slowly gazing down the names only to find that the book I need has an even more interesting book next to it. It feels like having so many books in one place encourages you to make more spontaneous discoveries and develop your knowledge more naturally.

I also find it very helpful to be able to sit in one place and read bits of a book without buying it. When I was younger, my mum couldn’t really keep up financially with my intense reading habit. To remedy this, I used to sit in Waterstones on a selection of beanbags and frantically read the newest Jacqueline Wilson novel in under an hour. 8-year-old me thought that that was the very definition of fun. Since then, I have discovered the joys of café bookshops and have spent many hours perusing newly released fiction over a steamy cup of tea. 

I can vividly remember spending my sixth form years tottering down from my college after 3:30 into the city centre. I would spend every afternoon sprawled across a table in Leeds Waterstones Café annotating poems, picking up new books to read and filling out loyalty card after loyalty card in buying white mochas and fruit toast with marmalade. It was my haven, my special place where time stood still. I’m not ashamed to say that I made very good friends with pretty much all of the baristas. However, despite what you may think, I did also have my own ‘bookshop’ crowd; a group of my indie vintage-camera-critique-coffee-buy-ukulele friends. Bookshop cafés were a place where us weirdos could go to meet other weirdos, a place where we all could fit in. 

One particular memory that resonates with me is a barista peering over my shoulder as I painstakingly highlighted my A-Level poetry anthology with unnecessary precision. As he cleared away cups and plates, he complimented my annotations and told me how he believed annotations and scribbles make books more beautiful. I had never thought of it that way, but once I had, it changed my entire view of the reading process. Books are objects to be experienced, so why shouldn’t we change them? Different readings became just as important to me as the physical text itself. Bookshops became epicentres of knowledge that I could leave my own stamp on. (Disclaimer: I always bought the books before I scribbled in them, please do the same!)

Despite this, there is one place I love even more than the bookshop: Public Libraries. Need I say more? While bookshops are quiet places in which you can spend many hours, libraries are the only city centre places you can sit in without the expectation of spending money. I view this as essential to communities and to children. Everyone can benefit from a free inside space, especially one which is created for the experiencing of literature and the learning of knowledge. It’s a travesty that austerity has meant the government has closed down over half of public libraries, an action that will likely impact the education of the next generation and the opportunities available for current OAPs. 

I have fond memories of completing the UK public libraries ‘summer reading challenge’ as a child, a challenge which likely led me here to Oxford to study English as an undergraduate. Whenever I walk past my local library now, I feel a pang of sadness. What was once a calming, friendly place is now a ‘community centre’ where the local council conducts meetings with people on probation, unemployed people and people with housing issues. While this community centre is obviously essential, council cuts have led it to move from the town hall into the library, taking up over half the space and pretty much eradicating the children’s area.  

Now bookshops are back, I demand free public libraries for all. Everyone should be able to experience books, regardless of cost.

(Bonus: Picture of me aged 18 at Waterstones café)

Image Credit: Elena Trowsdale and Pixabay.

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