That’s the title—somewhat overstated, but effective at grabbing the reader’s attention—of a recent Guardian essay by Rick Gekoski. He mentions a post by Sarah Crown presenting the “most beautiful” bookshops she knows, then continues:
Such a shop is intended to offer an experience so thoroughgoing it might be described as organic, in which the environment is as booky as the books, and one is comprehensively immersed in the pleasures of being and reading.
Sounds great, but it doesn’t work for me, as it so obviously does for Sarah and her many enthusiastic commenters. This may be because I am a book dealer, and my demands on a bookshop are often specialised, but I am also an avid reader, and I buy a hell of a lot of books. And the kind of (both beautiful and useful) bookshop that has been described is frequently, in my experience, exactly the sort of place that I am disappointed, and frequently exasperated, by. (Though I find more of these in America, I can think of a good few examples in the UK as well.)
The reason for my unease is that what is so lovingly created in such settings is not a bookshop, but an idea of a bookshop. It is a sentimental idea, a kind of pastoral often untouched by serious commercial consideration. The kind of bookshop you might find in a Beatrix Potter book, with browsing rabbits. Why bother choosing a great stock when you can provide a great environment? “This is such a lovely shop,” customers (not!) will swoon over their cup of tea, “I just adore it here!” But the purpose of a bookshop is not to make its patrons sigh with pleasure, but to make them buy books.
I agree with him; there’s nothing wrong with a pleasant environment, but in practice “it is largely my experience that the more beautiful the shop, the less tempting the books.” Give me dusty, narrow aisles hard to navigate because of apparently random piles of books, and I’m a happy man. I can sit in a comfortable chair when I get back home. (Thanks, Paul!)
Also, Sashura sent me a link to a BBC Radio 4 show called Wordaholics (“Comedy panel game all about words, hosted by Gyles Brandreth”); I haven’t actually managed to listen to it yet, but I pass along the link for those who might be interested.