Olden Life What was Boots Booklovers Li­brary? by Michael Bar­ber


Think of what our na­tion stands for, Books from Boots and coun­try lanes … John Bet­je­man ‘ BOOKS FROM Boots’? In 1940, when Bet­je­man wrote this, his au­di­ence would have got it in one. But I bet most of their grand­chil­dren would be puz­zled, be­cause it’s fifty years since the largest cir­cu­lat­ing li­brary in the world shut up shop, flood­ing the sec­ond­hand mar­ket with a mul­ti­tude of books bear­ing the li­brary’s dis­tinc­tive green shield sticker. Though I had long since ceased to use the li­brary my­self I re­mem­ber feel­ing sad, not least on be­half of my mother, who would now have to traipse up a steep hill to the lo­cal pub­lic li­brary for her weekly ra­tion of Jean Plaidy and No­rah Lofts.

But surely doc­tors were not in the habit of pre­scrib­ing a good book for their pa­tients, so how come Boots the Chemist be­came a li­brary as well? It was thanks largely to Florence Boot (1863–1952), the en­ter­pris­ing wife of Jesse Boot, the son of the firm’s founder. Florence wanted Boots to di­ver­sify: it was not enough, she thought, to sell reme­dies for aches and pains. The daugh­ter of a sta­tioner and book­seller, she was con­vinced that their cus­tomers, many from the newly lit­er­ate work­ing classes, were keen to im­prove them­selves. And in those days that meant read­ing books.

Cun­ningly, Boots’ li­braries were usu­ally sit­u­ated at the back of the shop or on the first floor, thus en­sur­ing that bor­row­ers had to walk through ev­ery other depart­ment first. Once they got there they found them­selves in a com- pletely dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ment, which had more in com­mon with a coun­try house sit­ting room or even a West End club than a chemist’s. By the time I be­came a sub­scriber the so­fas and pot­ted palms had gone, but un­like pub­lic li­braries they were cosy, and you could also bor­row a book at one branch and re­turn it to an­other any­where, a unique fa­cil­ity.

Florence Boot and her hus­band were Methodists and to be­gin with the books they stocked were of ‘a healthy and whole­some na­ture’. But af­ter the first war they were obliged to be­come less gov­ernessy, though the li­brar­i­ans, mostly young un­mar­ried women, were cau­tioned to be care­ful with their rec­om­men­da­tions. A book that might of­fend, like D H Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, was kept un­der the counter and marked with a red shield rather the cus­tom­ary green one. Mean­while, the clien­tele had moved up­mar­ket. At the be­gin­ning of Noël Coward’s short play Still Lives, on which the film Brief En­counter was based, Laura Jes­son, the gen­teel sub­ur­ban hero­ine, is de­scribed as ‘read­ing a Boots li­brary book, at which she oc­ca­sion­ally smiles’.

By 1940 the li­brary had more than a mil­lion sub­scribers like Mrs Jes­son at its 450 branches, pay­ing be­tween 45 shillings a year and nine shillings and six­pence, the dif­fer­ence dic­tated by how long they were pre­pared to wait for a new book. There was also a postal ser­vice for coun­try mem­bers. Clearly Boots was a ma­jor force in the book trade, buy­ing 1.25 mil­lion copies a year. But did it have much say, al­beit at one re­move, in what was pub­lished? This is a topic for academe. But it’s surely sig­nif­i­cant that a savvy writer of lurid thrillers like Den­nis Wheat­ley made a point of schmooz­ing its buy­ers.

Dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, for much of which the coun­try was un­der siege and pa­per was ra­tioned, peo­ple’s hunger for books in­ten­si­fied and Boots cashed in. But by the Fifties that hunger had abated, par­tic­u­larly among young peo­ple. For many of them, as Philip Larkin put it, books were ‘a load of crap’. Tele­vi­sion was an­other threat, as were cheap pa­per­backs. And not be­fore time pub­lic li­braries were be­com­ing user-friendly. Con­fronted by a steady drop in sub­scribers, the man­age­ment of Boots de­cided that the li­braries were a lux­ury they could no longer af­ford, and by Fe­bru­ary 1966 the last shelf had been cleared.

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