Thursday 11 May 2017

Another Kind of Library

I'm reading another Elizabeth Jenkins novel, Brightness - of which, no doubt, more in due course. A copy of this elusive item turned up on, I think, eBay at a reasonable price, and when it arrived I was delighted to discover that it bore the green shield of the Boots Booklovers Library (overprinted with a dark cross to identify it as withdrawn from stock).
 I am just old enough to have faint vestigial memories of the days when Boots - and W.H. Smith - ran commercial circulating libraries from many of their high-street premises. The libraries were in decline by then, but in the early years of the 20th century and on through the interwar period, they were a major presence, a huge influence - not necessarily for the better - on the nation's reading habits and on the commercial decision-making of the publishing industry.
 The Boots library had a business model that was bound to appeal to the English middle-class (and would-be middle-class) public. It offered a Class A subscription (relatively expensive and with various extras) and a Class B subscription (relatively inexpensive with no frills), thereby providing each group of subscribers with another group to look down on or look up to - perfect. There was even an On Demand subscription - more expensive then Class A - for the truly aspirational. What's more, Boots provided tasteful, even elegant surroundings for its library users, lending tone to what might otherwise have been a vulgar pharmaceutical bazaar.
 It was the perfect package, but it was doomed to fail, along with the other commercial circulating libraries, as public lending libraries took off in the postwar period and became acceptable even to the middle classes. The last Boots Booklovers Library closed in 1966 - just three years after Brightness was published.

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