In David Lean’s 1945 film ‘Brief Encounter’, the character Laura is seen in what looks like a public library, with a ‘holiday reads’ section, a smiling librarian and a desk surrounded by shelves of books. “I changed my book at Boots,” says Laura before walking through what viewers would have recognised as a branch of Boots. This scene reflects the opening of Noel Coward’s ‘Still Life’ (the play on which ‘Brief Encounter’ is based) in which an attractive woman “is reading a Boots library book at which she occasionally smiles.”
Between 1899 and 1966 Boots and Books were known bedfellows thanks to their popular circulating library which lent 38 million books in one year. It may seem strange now but Boots provided a great service to our country’s readers.
John Betjeman’s poem ‘In Westminster Abbey’ contains the lines:
‘Think of what our Nation stands for,
Books from Boots’ and country lanes,
Free speech, free passes, class distinction,
Democracy and proper drains.’
The Boots library system, the largest of its type in the world, has its roots in Nottingham.
On Woolpack Lane in the Lace Market lived Sarah Boot, a keen user of natural remedies or ‘medical botany’. Her Methodist son John was drawn to these treatments as a means of providing affordable healthcare to the poor. To this end he opened a shop on nearby Goose Gate in Hockley and called it ‘The British and American Botanic Establishment’. As early as the mid-19th Century the shop was providing homemade remedies and private consultations.
Whilst treating others John Boot’s own health suffered and he died in 1860 leaving behind a young family. His only son Jesse, aged 10 at the time, revived the business (with the help of his mother and friends) and ‘Boots’ grew. Now a man, work-related stress was taking its toll on Jesse’s health, so much so that he considered selling up. His sister insisted that he take a holiday and, reluctantly, Jesse headed to Jersey where he met the daughter of a book seller. Her name was Florence Rowe. Twelve years his junior, the vibrant Florence and the more restrained Jesse fell in love. A year later, despite opposition from Florence’s mother, they married and returned to work in Nottingham.
Florence Boot quickly became a key member of the business. After the Boots had children, Florence would place a cot in the corner of the office so that she could take them to work with her. Noticing poor literacy levels amongst the working class, she wanted to help and installed a revolving bookcase in the small store on Goose Gate. Florence then came up with the idea of the Boots stores having a book department. A library followed in the store on Pelham Street, now Zara. This shop was an early – if not the first – ‘Wonderstore’, more of a department store, with a café, hairdressers and gift shop.
Harrods, WHSmith and The Times all had similar libraries but by the turn of the 1900s the Boots Booklovers’ Library was the largest of its type in the world. London had six stores with libraries. Nottingham had eight. In the bigger stores the libraries were upstairs at the rear, forcing readers to pass the merchandise. Rivals often had their libraries in basements. Boots libraries had views. They also had a much more organised distribution system uniquely offering an inter-store exchange of books.
Unlike other subscription libraries that were around at the time, Boots Booklovers’ Libraries were well-stocked with fiction, even titles they’d rather not stock. In 1905 Jesse Boot acknowledged: “Whilst we do not intend to dictate to our readers as to either the quality or the range of their reading…we afford for the perusal of all literature, including some books that, personally, we regret to see published…”
Once inside a Boots library there was no sense that you were inside a chemist’s. The architect Percy Richard Morley Horder, who specialised in English country houses – and was responsible for the Trent Building in the University of Nottingham – was hired to design the departments, and they were adorned with rugs, sofas, plants and flowers. Mercer Stretch was appointed Boots’ first Head Librarian, a prestigious position that commanded the same salary as the Head Pharmacist and General Manager. He expanded the system, overseeing hundreds of libraries with nearly half of all Boots’ stores having one. Stretch was followed by F R Richardson, head librarian from 1911 to 1941, who had previously selected books for Queen Victoria.
Any work within the libraries was desirable. The ‘First Literary Course’ provided librarians with an understanding of the publishing trade and a knowledge of bestsellers on which they were tested. Whilst all the chief librarians were men, all the shop floor librarians were women. The juniors would be required to dust the books every morning, a task that taught them where each title was placed. By the age of 21 the workers were often moved to other stores, sent ‘on relief’. It was said that working at a Boots library helped a woman’s social standing and marriage prospects. As women had to leave work when they got married some were reluctant to wed and there were reports of long engagements. 70% of the libraries’ members were women, the libraries providing an important social hub. Talking, unlike in many public libraries, was acceptable.
By 1920 there were over half a million ‘booklovers’ and 3,500 requests each day. They had three types of membership. Their most expensive subscription being ‘On-Demand’, entitling readers to borrow any volume in circulation which, by the 1930s, meant any book from any branch, delivered within three days of ordering using the country’s railway network. Snob-appeal existed with this more expensive membership. The Class A books were at eye level, with the Class B ones requiring bending or tip-toeing for perusal. There were special rates for book groups and educational societies, with schools taking advantage of the offers (yes, they also stocked children’s books) and there were no fines for late returns. Worn books were sold to the public.
All members received a token and date of renewal. This could be attached to the borrowed book through a hole in the spine, the token then acting as a bookmark. Red labels were displayed on potentially offensive books which, once returned, were placed below the counter. All the other books wore green labels. A catalogue was produced featuring enticing blurbs and cannily advertising other Boots’ products. Amazon adopted a similar strategy knowing that an association with items as enriching and respected as books would help their brand and future sales.
The libraries ran as loss leaders but managed to break even most years. At the height of their popularity a staggering 38 million books were exchanged in one year. With overseas subscribers and foreign travellers taking books with them the famous green label was found all over the world.
During the Second World War the number of subscribers increased to a million with detective novels proving most popular. One poster stated: ‘One Blackout Benefit! More time for READING!’ Books were being bought for the libraries at the rate of 1,250,000 a year. Boots had real buying power and some publishers pandered to them. If a new title was not chosen by Boots it would most likely suffer for it.
One publisher that turned the tables on Boots was Penguin who became, in part, responsible for the demise of the library departments. People liked to ‘own’ books and affordable Penguin paperbacks made this possible. Penguin’s paperbacks also proved difficult for libraries to stock as they were hard to protect against wear and tear. TV was another nail in the coffin, as were improvements in public libraries with fiction becoming much more accessible.
WH Smith’s libraries closed in 1961, The Times’ a year later. Boots took on many of their subscribers managing to hold on a little longer – selling off 800,000 second hand books in one year – but by 1965 the end was nigh. Book departments began taking over the library sections and in 1966 the Booklovers’ Libraries closed.
For 67 years, Boots libraries had brought books to the people, and it all began here in Nottingham. Today, a branch of Boots sits on the site of the Rowe family’s bookshop in St Helier, Jersey. In Nottingham, the City Council has started work a new central library that aims to become the best children’s library in England. Our Flo-Bo would have approved.
There’s a book about the story of Boots Booklovers’ Library by Jackie Winter, entitled ‘Lipsticks and Library Books’.