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.