Where have all the bookshops gone?

Photo nabbed from the Birmingham Post.

Photo nabbed from the Birmingham Post.

Ever since I’ve lived in Birmingham, I’ve loved the fact that there’s two massive Waterstones, and I do so love a Waterstones. They were divided by about 200 metres of shopping street – one, inhabiting a grade II listed grand wedding cake of a building with a huge high ceiling and gilt-covered curlicues (which used to be a bank) and a tall, imposing, many-floored 1930s building.

I don’t go to the city centre as much as I used to (there was I time I went wandering aimlessly around town every Saturday, drifting in and out of cafés and bookshops in a haze of cliché), so it was rather alarming for me to find out that the Waterstones-in-the-1930s-building was shut.

Cold dread clutched my heart, until I squinted at the hoarding outside and read that they were merely tarting it up, and it would be open again soon. Phew! So off I went to the elaborate edifice at the other end of the street.

But of course, it worried me. It worried me from the moment that the Waterstones on the campus of the University of Birmingham closed. I mean, if you can’t keep a bookshop open on a university campus where you have a captive audience of people who not only want to but must buy books, then… how do you keep two enormous bookshops open in the same city centre, standing almost side-by-side? Of course, there’s an historical accident for Birmingham having two such massive bookshops in such close proximity – the one inhabiting the former bank used to be (I think) a Dillons, which Waterstones bought out.

Borders came and went – a brilliant selection of obscure magazines and very nice stationery alongside books and CDs – but still the two behemoth Waterstoneses stood either end of the street. Come, visit our six floors of books with book garden for author-readings (I met Will Self there – it was scary) and come, visit our grade II-listed Palace of Books! They whispered from either end of the street and, unable to resist, I’d often visit both in one day.

Now – because there’s plainly not enough shops in Birmingham already (this is called sarcasm) New Street station was redeveloped with a posh shopping centre above it, called Grand Central. You know it’s posh because there’s a John Lewis and a Cath Kidston, and also – a Foyles bookstore! MORE BOOKS! And with Christmas rapidly approaching, I decided to do a three-bookstore trip (after lunch with the lovely ladies of the Romantic Novelists’ Association). Both Waterstoneses, and Foyles, all in one afternoon. If I couldn’t furnish my entire family, and everyone in my street, with the ideal book, then really, just cancel Christmas already.

So I rock up to the grade II listed Waterstones, and that cold dread clutched at my heart once again. Only this time, when I screwed up my eyes to read the hoardings outside it, I realised that the padlock on its wrought iron gates would never open for a bookshop again. Because it’s shut. Permanently. Oh, I knew it would happen one day, but I lived in happy denial that it should ever come to pass – it’s gone! The beautiful sweeping staircase, the chandeliers, that beautiful Palace of Reading is no more. I stood and gaped, and saw others come to stand and gape too. We commiserated. We were in shock. That gorgeous shop….

But I was right by the ramp leading up to Grand Central. Waterstones might have shut one of its Birmingham stores, but there was Foyles! Foyles would save the day! Everyone talks about the London Foyles on Twitter, so it must be good! I would go to Foyles and everything would be ok.

I wove my way through the milling populace (they were milling very slowly, which was quite annoying) and finally worked my way over to Foyles. I plunged. I wandered about. I was dismayed at how small it was, and by the resultant not-particularly-wide-ranging selection of books. I stood by the graphic novels and a teenager said loudly “THIS SHOP IS SO COOL!” and I thought, “Is it?” (They should’ve had By Grand Central Station I Sat Down & Wept in the window – I couldn’t see it. I felt like weeping myself, to be honest).

After leaving Foyles, I thought of going to Pylones and Tiger (very glad to see these shops in Brum at last) but Christmas shopping and the Christmas market have arrived and I decided not to visit town again on a Saturday until at least February. I went to the last remaining Waterstones, the refurbed 1930s six-floor book-skyscraper and, although it was annoying that the signage was almost non-existent (with six floors you really need to be clear about what’s on which floor) there was a massive selection of books. I found an obscure tome on the battle techniques of the Normans for my brother, and a book about an early 19th century admiral for my dad – neither of which books were in Foyles.

My faith was sort of restored, but I can’t get over the twin disappointments – of the gorgeous New Street Waterstones now being lost to us forever (I hear it’ll become an Apple Store), and that Foyles is so small it’s almost not worth bothering with. Sad times… sad times indeed. And I feel as if I’m partly to blame; I am, I know I am.