It strikes me as a bit unbalanced that one city should have such an abundance of independent bookstores, while many are lacking even one. But there you have it. Bath is such a city. The incredible thing is, Bath’s bookstores seem not simply to exist but to thrive, and that phenomenon requires a bit of poking and prodding if we’re to understand it — and recreate it.
Topping and Company Booksellers along with Mr. B’s Book Emporium and the High Street chain Waterstone’s make up the triumvirate of Bath’s book empire. Where one might expect rivalry there seems only to be healthy coexistence. Speaking with Lucinda from Mr. B’s last week, I asked how this could be. There’s simply not that much clientele overlap, she indicated. Not between Mr. B’s and Topping, and not even really with Waterstone’s. Each bookstore’s aesthetic, the variety of their stock, and the atmosphere created by the staff all confirm that they are each catering to a different type of reader. The astounding thing to this bookstore blogger is that Bath has enough committed book lovers to support all three. Indeed it was not uncommon when I was studying in Bath to hear students and faculty discuss where they shopped for books. Everyone fell into a camp — Topping, Mr. B’s or Waterstone’s — and we enjoyed discussing the merits and demerits of each one. Most people still visited all three regularly, but ultimately remained loyal to the one favorite. Topping is a more stretched out version of the traditional English bookstore you might picture tucked into a wall in Covent Garden. It’s wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling books, set into caramel wood flooring with matching oak shelves. It’s a bookstore for the Radio 4 listener, the tweed and Argyle wearer, the Boroughs reading hipster. While other bookstores might be greeted with the bestsellers of the hour, in Topping you are unabashedly greeted by an imposing collection of History and hardback nonfiction. But don’t let this Berlin wall of books intimidate the leisurely fiction reader. Keep on walking and you’ll see they’re just as serious about their Cooking, Humor, Religion/Spirituality, Children’s Literature, Arts, and of course, Literary Fiction as the next bookstore. Keep walking still further, up the stairs now and into the back room, and enter Topping’s attic room full of gorgeous coffee table Art books, music anthologies and extensive Poetry section.
One thing I love about Topping is how they seem to seek out only the most beautiful editions of a book and present it as merchandise that has both intrinsic and real monetary value. It’s a design geek’s heaven, with an entire wall devoted to special artsy editions of classic essays and short stories. There’s a certain luxury feel to the books sold at Topping, wrapped as many of them are in cellophane and bound with a branded paper wrapper. Those hand written staff reviews certainly help add to the feeling that this collection of books has been lovingly hand curated, and I love even better that I get to take one home if I buy the book. Topping is another one that recognizes the sales value of offering customers a free cup of coffee (and in a dainty porcelain cup no less). They understand the importance of making shopping an event, and speaking of which, they, like Mr. B’s, take their author events very seriously. It’s a sweet deal, actually. The price of each event ticket goes toward a reserved copy of the book being discussed on the evening … plus wine and some nibbles and, oh yeah, getting to actually meet and listen to your favorite author. Topping realizes customers aren’t going to come in and support them with their wallets unless they believe they’re being sold a valuable product. Their business model goes completely against the Amazon one that says books are inherently cheap and worthless, and so you must sell them for pennies. At Topping, books of a certain calibre enhance the quality of ones life, much like buying organic and Fair Trade groceries over cheap GMOs. Some might say they’re a luxury, an unnecessary expense, but the fact is, you’re better off for it.
Have you been to any of Bath’s bookstores before? I’d love to know what you thought. And if not, have you visited any stand-out bookstores lately? Fill me in, please!