Let’s talk about buying books in London for a minute.
The most popular book retailer in the UK is undoubtedly Waterstones, and major cities typically have at least one very large shop. The Waterstones in Brighton is five floors tall, whereas the Waterstones store in Piccadilly is allegedly the largest in Europe with six floors. And it really is a magnificent trip for any book lover, it takes hours to check out the shelves that stretch out for miles (literally) and it’s a nice treat for a day out. It’s also on the same street as Hatchards, London’s oldest bookshop, which is also run by Waterstones.
And don’t get me wrong – I loved Waterstones, and still do but to a more critical extent.
I am the kind of person that checks the closest Waterstones on a day out, and the only reason I ever go to town is for the tiny Waterstones store we have.
But their response to coronavirus in March made me take a step back and re-evaluate my adoration of the retail chain. Prior to the lockdown some businesses had taken certain measures for the virus such as only having takeout food and drink options, and some chains like Cineworld even closed their doors. As Waterstones clearly makes enough profit by being the UK’s biggest book retailer and encourages a sense of camaraderie between their management, booksellers, and customers (book lovers united against the world!), I held the naïve belief that they would do something similar. However, not only did they not close their stores until they were forced to by the lockdown, but their booksellers took to social media to complain about the lack of hand sanitisers, gloves, and social distancing measures in the shops. The official Waterstones account on Instagram deleted posts about the safety measures they were allegedly enforcing after an influx of complaints by their booksellers in the comments who felt let down by management.
How can I support a chain that blatantly doesn’t care about their workers? It made me think about my book consumerism and what I want my book buying habits to look like in the future. As a strong reader, I undoubtedly have a lot of spending power, and it’s time I put it to better use
I find being conscious of book consumerism to be even more important when we’re talking about Amazon. A multi-billion-dollar company that cannot keep their violation of worker’s rights and substandard working conditions quiet, and is notoriously known for driving independent bookshops out of business. Not only does Amazon have cheaper prices than Waterstones (and independent bookstores that sometimes can have slightly higher prices), it also has much faster delivery with their Prime membership, so it’s easy to understand why people continue to purchase books from them. Personally, I stay clear of them on the book front.
So say you want to support someone else – where do you start? Here are some alternatives from texts ranging from textbooks to standard new fiction.
- I doubt this is new but Queen Mary’s bookshop – John Smith’s – is the best for textbooks and syllabus texts. Available on Mile End campus and online, this is the place for anyone who wants a fresh copy of a text. They vouch for having cheaper prices than both Amazon and Waterstone’s and they almost always have cheaper options. A copy from Amazon might also be second hand, and editions can sometimes vary so you might end up with the wrong edition. For those reasons, I personally recommend John Smith’s, and on their website they even have reading lists divided by subject, so you don’t have to spend time looking for each item individually
- If you don’t mind a second hand copy and want cheap books online – World of Books. They are the UK’s biggest second hand retailer, selling books cheaper than usual on their website and with free UK delivery. They also recycle all their paper waste within the UK, and their plastic waste from their DVDs, CDs, and games. They are a cheap, environment friendly option. Just be mindful of whether you’re purchasing the right edition!
- Charity bookstores/stores. The UK is full of charity shops with book sections, and there are also charity shops dedicated to just bookselling, such as the British Red Cross bookstore in Palmers Green. They’re not as stable in terms of stock because they sell whatever they can get their hands on, but you can always find a treat when browsing! Hardbacks usually sell for £2.50 and a worn down copy can even go for as low as £1 or 50p!
- Independent bookstores! Londoners are fortunate to live in a city full of them, and some specialise to certain types of books. Because they’re independent, they have less workers and their staff are closely knit so they think twice about putting their co-workers at risk. This is why they took safety measures much faster than Waterstones and many went as far as doing bike deliveries to their local book buyers during the lockdown, which shows how far they’ll go for their customers. You’re not only supporting an independent business, but they also have some of the most dedicated and enthusiastic booksellers one can findl. Another thing about independent bookstores is that stores like Waterstones only sell certain editions of a text, whereas indie stores can have multiple editions from many publishers, so you get more variety.
Here are some to check out:
Persephone’s Books: specifically selling out of print female writers!
Gay’s The Word: specialising in LGBTQ+ and queer literature.
Brick Lane bookshop: sells all types of books and you can buy through their website, they deliver by post anywhere in the UK.
Housmans bookshop: selling new and second hand copies of progressive politics books.
London Review bookshop: great bookshop and they also sell cakes and hot drinks!
Pages of Hackney: inclusive literature and they got some media attention for their bike deliveries during the lockdown!