The Last Bookshop and guerrilla bookselling

For this week’s bookstore feature I’m talking about a little shop located right here in Bristol. It’s called The Last Bookshop and although it’s only been opened a few weeks it’s already causing a stir.

Let’s start with the name: The Last Bookshop. Reportedly, owners Jake Pumphrey and Nick Walsh chose the name as “a tongue-in-cheek rebuke to those who thought books would become obsolete with the rise of the internet.” Fittingly, their logo is a book in flames. And painted underneath that rather rebellious symbol is a sign, the only price tag in the entire store: All Books £2.

On my first visit I waited until another browser voiced my question for me. “Are all the books really only £2?” one baffled madam asked the girl at the till. She looked up from her book with a mischievous  smile. It was clearly a question she got a lot.

“That’s right, £2 on everything in the shop.”

The shop itself is only small; one open room with a smaller room in the background, where a bank safe may once have been kept. While the books are organized in sections — History, Fiction, Art, Travel, Children, etc — it becomes clear upon perusal that nothing is alphabetized and, what’s more, there are no shelves in the foreground displaying New Releases, Best Sellers or prize-winning new fiction. At first this can be daunting. How are you expected to find your favorite author? A book of quality? The answer to this question is the lynchpin of their philosophy: You browse.

This is how it works. The Last Bookshop buys “remainder” stock from large bookstores, like Waterstone’s or Borders. The shop attendants then sort through it, only choosing books of quality both in content and appearance. Then everything is put on the shelves and sold for £2. New stock comes at least once a week, so fans of thrift-store shopping would appreciate the need to come back often and early to lay claim to the literary jewels.

The books that make it to their shelves are those which traditional bookstores were unable to sell. This doesn’t mean they’re not good books. Rather they were extras in a very large bookstore, which is selling to fewer and fewer customers these days. You’re not likely to find new editions of popular books, new releases, best sellers or prize winners at The Last Bookshop, but what you will find are a lot of quality books that you wouldn’t normally notice in a large bookstore, because they were possibly hiding behind the Best Seller display shelves.

The Bristol branch of The Last Bookshop has an especially good collection of history, fiction and art books, with a full range of classics and poetry to keep your average college student and bookworm happy. When I’ve been there, I’ve seen titles by PG Wodehouse, Ernest Hemingway, Steven King, Alexander McCall Smith, William Burroughs, Evelyn Waugh, Norman Mailer, Ann Patchet, Tobias Wolff and Yann Martel. I’ve also been impressed by the number of novels by foreign authors, such as Nii Ayikwei Parkes and Faiza Guène.

But more than the variety of books, I’m intrigued by the philosophy behind the shop. What are the implications of selling books in this way? In effect, it has the feeling of giving overlooked books a second chance. Without the weight of having won literary prizes and the accreditations of newspaper reviewers (or rather, in the case of many of these books, they have, but they’ve been forgotten), the books in this store are sold purely on the merit of their writing… and, perhaps, their book cover design.

Isn’t that a more respectful way of selling literature? Is it somehow purer than the current method that relies on media hype and achieving the book industry’s equivalent of street cred?

It’s easy to see why Mr. Pumphrey views himself as “a guerrilla bookseller”. Going to The Last Bookshop is like stumbling upon an underground counterculture movement. In essence, guerrilla booksellers like Mr. Pumphrey are defying the way books are traditionally sold in traditional bookstores. Is this the new way forward? Small, cheap and honest?

Things to ponder this weekend.

  1. Bobbi said:

    I wish I could browse this bookstores shelves. Good for them in keeping the small book stores alive! Great post!

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