Monday, 16 November 2015

Lament for lost bookshops

The nearest city to us is Bristol, and the part of it I usually go to is the area round the Triangle - up above the city, but not quite as high as Clifton Village. The university is nearby, and the Wills Building and the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery are lovely landmarks. Park Street, which rises steeply up the hill from the centre, has lots of independent shops and cafes, including the Bristol Guild, which has the most higgledy-piggledy layout of any shop I can think of, so that you climb a few steps or turn a corner and discover a bit of it you've never seen before, full of wonders.
Park Street, with the Wills Building at the top

The other attraction of this area has always been its bookshop/s. When I first moved to Bristol, some thirty five years ago, at the top of Park Street was George's. It too was housed in a delightfully all-over-the-place building; it too was full of wonders. It was founded by William George at the age of 17 in 1847 in Bath Street, moving to Park Street a few years later. In 1929 it was bought by Blackwell's, but retained the name of George's till the late 80s, when it became Blackwell's. It must have been a few years after this that a cafe was installed downstairs. Perfect.

Not long after this, a big department store a few hundred yards away closed, and rumours flew around as to who had bought it. We soon found out. It was Border's, a new book store chain from America. At first people were suspicious. Wasn't this a bit brash and over-the-top, a department store full of books?

Well, no. It turned out that it was actually rather splendid. It was spacious, it had everything you might be looking for, it had comfortable chairs and sofas, and nobody minded if you spent hours there browsing. And of course there was a cafe for sustenance. It became an ideal meeting place - it didn't matter if the other person was late, because there was so much to occupy you. The children's department was fantastic.

It reigned supreme for several years. But then Border's in Britain was hit by whatever it was hit by, and all the stores were closed down, including ours. It was a sad day for book lovers in Bristol.

But worse was to come. Blackwell's, presumably hit by the downturn in trade since the advent of Border's was apparently unable to take advantage of its rival's demise, because just as Border's closed, Blackwell's sold off the greater part of 89 Park Street to Jamie Oliver, and squashed itself into a tiny (relatively) space on the ground floor. It still had a reasonable choice of fiction, and of books for older children, but every other department was woefully curtailed. So,I imagine, people went there less and less, because they knew that the chances of finding what they wanted were pretty low, compared to if they shopped online.

And now the inevitable has happened. Last week I went to Bristol and headed for Blackwell's - and it's gone. After all those years of bookshoppery at the top of Park Street, now, in what must be the most bookish area of Bristol, there's nothing. Even the university doesn't have a permanent bookshop. I stood in front of that blank window, and I felt very sad.


  1. We had a Borders not far from where I live and yes, it was nice to be able to browse and sit down with books at the cafe. There was a bad business decision made in the U.S. and that was the end of Borders.

    I mourn for the lost science fiction bookshops of Melbourne - not one but several. We have one left and it's not really a science fiction bookshop, more a comics and pop culture shop which also has SF. I miss being able to talk to people who knew what they were talking about and could recommend books.

  2. Yes, Borders was a perfect place to meet friends for a coffee and chat about life and books. I worked in an independent bookshop in Sevenoaks for a year after I finished my degree. The bookshop is still there, a miracle. Even then, the hard bargaining from publishers was marginalising the independents. I guess Amazon has done the rest of the job 📖📕📓📑📒📰

  3. Strangely, Borders still exists in Dubai - I suspect it was bought up but it retains the name.