Saturday, 11 November 2017

Boots Booklovers’ Library

In David Lean’s 1945 film Brief Encounter, the character Laura is pictured in what looks like a public library; there’s a ‘holiday reads’ section, a smiling librarian, and a desk surrounded by shelves of books. Laura narrates:  “I changed my book at Boots. Miss Lewis had at last managed to get the new *Kate O’Brien for me. I believe she’d kept it hidden under the counter for two days.”

*Kate O’Brien explored gay themes in her writing and she spearheaded a challenge to the Irish Censorship Act.
From here Laura walks seamlessly into a chemist’s in a move that wouldn’t have surprised viewers at the time, many of whom would have recognised that she was in a branch of Boots. Brief Encounter is reflecting the opening scene in Noel Coward’s Still Life (the play on which the film is based) in which he states that an attractive woman ‘is reading a Boots library book at which she occasionally smiles.’

You might not be aware but between 1899 and 1966 Boots ran a circulating library: Books and Boots were known bedfellows. Within John Betjeman’s poem ‘In Westminster Abbey’ are the lines:
‘Think of what our Nation stands for,
Books from Boots' and country lanes,
Free speech, free passes, class distinction,
Democracy and proper drains.’

So how did a Nottingham enterprise became the largest library of its type in the world, lending 38 million books a year?
Let’s start at the beginning. Nottingham’s Sarah Boot of Woolpack Lane in the Lace Market was keen on natural remedies or ‘medical botany’. Her Methodist son, John, was drawn to these treatments as a means of providing affordable healthcare to the poor. To this end he opened a shop on Goose Gate in Hockley, uncatchily known as the British and American Botanic Establishment. Back in the mid-19th Century the shop provided homemade remedies and private consultations.
The store's is now home to The Larder restaurant and a branch of Oxfam

 John Boot’s own health suffered and he died in 1860 leaving a young family. His only son Jesse, aged 10 at the time, revived the business (with the help of his mother and friends) and Boots grew. Work-related stress now began taking its toll on Jesse’s health, so much so that he considered selling up. While on a forced holiday - his sister insisted he take a break - in Jersey, Jesse met Florence Rowe, the daughter of a book seller. She was 12 years his junior and the life and soul of any party. Opposites attracted and Jesse returned to Nottingham a year later with his Mrs Boot (today, a branch of Boots sits on the site of the Rowe family’s bookshop in St Helier’s).

Florence Boot, nee Rowe, she'd probably be known today as FloBo.  
Florence quickly became a key member of the business influencing its direction. Even when their children came along she took them to work with her, placing a cot in the corner of the office. It was Florence that came up with the idea of the stores having a book department and, later, libraries. Wanting to boost poor literacy levels amongst the working class she installing a revolving bookcase in the smaller Goose Gate store. Boots first proper library followed in the building/store on Pelham Street that’s now Zara. This shop was the first Boots that was more of a department store, or as they called them, a ‘Wonderstore’, with a café, hairdressers and gift department.

Unlike the many subscription libraries that were around at the time, Boots libraries, known as Booklovers’ Libraries, were well-stocked with fiction, even titles they’d rather not stock. In 1905 Jesse Boot acknowledged:  “Whilst we do not intend to dictate to our readers as to either the quality or the range of their reading…we afford for the perusal of all literature, including some books that, personally, we regret to see published…”

Harrods, WHSmith and The Times all had similar libraries but by the turn of the 1900s the Boots Booklovers’ Library was the largest of its type in the world. In the big stores the libraries were upstairs, with the stairs at the back, making readers pass through the merchandise. Rivals often had their libraries in basements. Boots libraries had views. They also had a much more organised distribution system uniquely offering an inter-store exchange of books.

Mercer Stretch was their first Head Librarian, a prestigious position which commanded the same salary as the Head Pharmacist and General Manager. F R Richardson, head librarian from 1911 to 1941, had previously selected books for Queen Victoria. Any work within the libraries was a desirable role. The ‘First Literary Course’ provided librarians with an understanding of the publishing trade and knowledge of bestsellers, on which they were tested. Whilst all the chief librarians were men, all the shop floor librarians were women. The juniors would be required to dust the books every morning, a task that taught where each title was placed. By the age of 21 the workers were often moved to other stores, sent ‘on relief’. It was said that working at a Boots library helped a woman’s social standing and marriage prospects. As the women had to leave work when they got married some were reluctant to wed, with reports of long engagements. As 70% of the libraries’ members were also women, they provided an important social hub and, unlike in many public libraries, talking was acceptable.

There were many marketing campaigns for the libraries.
Boots had three types of membership. Their most expensive subscription being ‘On-Demand’, entitling readers to borrow any volume in circulation which, by the 1930s, meant any book from any branch, delivered within 3 days of ordering. Snob-appeal existed with this more expensive membership. The Class A books were at eye level, with the Class B ones requiring bending or tip-toeing for perusal. There were special rates for book groups and educational societies, with schools taking advantage of the offers (and yes, they also stocked children’s books).

All members received a token and date of renewal. This could be attached to the borrowed book through a hole in the spine, the token then acting as a bookmark. Red labels were displayed on potentially offensive books which, once returned, were placed below the counter (as in Brief Encounter). All the other books wore green labels.

The libraries presence gave Boots a status that helped them gain trust for other services.  Many years later Amazon adopted the same strategy, knowing that an association with items as enriching and respected as books would help sell other products.

Inside the Pelham Street 'Wonderstore'
Once inside a Boots library there was no sense that you were inside a chemist’s. The architect Percy Richard Morley Horder, who specialised in English country houses (and was responsible for the Trent Building in the University of Nottingham), was hired to design the departments, and they were adorned with rugs, sofas, plants and flowers.

The libraries ran as loss leaders but managed to break even most years. At the height of their popularity a staggering 38 million books were exchanged in one year via hundreds of Boots stores. With overseas subscribers and foreign travellers taking books with them the famous green label was found all over the world. During the Second World War the number of subscribers increased to a million and books were being bought for the libraries at the rate of 1,250,000 a year. Boots had real buying power and some publishers pandered to them. If a new title was not chosen by Boots it would most likely suffer.

One publisher that turned the tables on Boots was Penguin who became, in part, responsible for the demise of the library departments. People liked to ‘own’ books and affordable Penguin paperbacks made this possible. And the publisher was canny enough not to make their books suitable for hardcovers. Libraries needed a way to make their books protected against the damage of rereading. TV was another nail in the coffin, as were improvements in public libraries with fiction much more accessible.

WHSmith’s libraries closed in 1961, The Times’ a year later. Boots held on a little longer, selling off 800,000 second hand books in one year and by 1965 the end was nigh. The book departments began moving into the libraries and in 1966 the Booklovers’ Libraries closed. Social lives suffered.

For 67 years, Boots libraries had brought books to the people, and it all began here in Nottingham.

There’s a book about the story of Boots Booklovers Library by Jackie Winter, entitled ‘Lipsticks and Library Books’.

You might prefer to discover more about the Boots Booklovers’ Libraries on November 22nd, 2017 as part of the national Being Human festival.

The free event: Losing yourself in a book – the ‘Boots Booklovers Library’ is at Five Leaves Bookshop, Nottingham.

There will be a discussion led by Dr Nickianne Moody of Liverpool John Moores University and Sophie Clapp Head Archivist at Boots, on November 22, 6:00 pm - 7:00 pm. Light refreshments included

Please book your place via

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