How bookstores have changed through the ages

How bookstores have changed through the ages
Avicenna instrumental in opening the first book stalls

Book selling has been around for centuries. Libraries were founded as far back as 300 BC and this produced Greek sellers. Towards the end of the Roman Empire it was a fashionable item to possess a library and Roman booksellers carried on a successful trade. This momentum was continued as Christianity spread its wings across the continents. There was a great need for gospels and there were often booksellers stationed on the outside of cathedrals. In Oxford in 1373 a statute was passed banning book sellers as it was felt that it was wrong to take away from Oxford books of great value.

Students of Islam studying scriptures were important for the spread of book dealers, copiers and bookshops in the Muslim world. From Baghdad to Damascus academics, such as Avicenna made advancements in science writing up their findings in books. Avicenna, hailing from a village near Bukhara in present day Uzbekistan, specialised in studying medicine and one occasion actually opened his own book stall to celebrate finally understanding the Metaphysics of Aristotle.

In Europe book selling first became popular in France after Johannes Gutenberg had started the printing revolution with the production of printing press in 1439. Although Gutenberg was German, it was in France that the oldest known bookstore, the Librairie Nouvelle d’Orleans, was opened in 1545. Between 1810 until 1870 Napoleon created a system where bookstores had to be licensed swearing an oath of loyalty to the regime. The curtailment of the free press in the United Kingdom under the leadership of various monarchs led to few bookstores being opened and this led to the Low Countries leading the way in the 16th and 17th centuries. The main London sites for book selling was Paternoster Row and St Pauls Churchyard. During the Great Fire of London in 1666 the sellers put their books in the vaults of the church and they were destroyed.

A Harry Potter book release party in Waterstones Edinburgh

The oldest book shop in London is Hatchards which started business in Piccadilly in 1797. It is actually not the oldest bookshop in Britain as that title goes to the book shop of Cambridge University where the original shop started business in 1587. In the 20th century the Foyle brothers, William and Gilbert, opened their first bookstall in Peckham in 2004. They opened their Charing Cross store in 1906 and this is now their flagship store amongst the seven Foyles Stores in the UK. However, Waterstones is the largest bookstore in the UK with 275 branches with its flagship store being its Piccadilly branch. The company employs 3500 staff and has an average of 30,000 books in each branch.

It has not been all plain sailing for the bookstores as the competition from e-books has seen more customers buy electronically than normal books. In 2016, the Waterstones announced it had made a profit for the first time since 2011. In order to regain customers’ power was given back to the individual store managers. They were given control to order the books their stores would sell, as what might sell well in central London might not sell in the West Country. The aim of the company has been to get the large stores behaving like small stores. The Waterstones has also diversified and even has its own café W brand and sells its own stationery. It even sells the Amazon’s kindle and also holds parties for the release of certain books.

Recent times gas seen a renaissance of the small book shops and their individual touch is seen as vital in being selling books. Bookstores like the Café Books shop cannot rely solely on selling books in order to make a profit. Diversification is certainly needed and a relationship with the local community is vital if success is to be achieved