Bawled out in the Bookshop

Yesterday my kids and I were bawled out in a bookshop. The bookshop in question is a small cramped outpost (not as roomy as the pic above) of what is probably the largest chain of bookstores left in Australia. We visit it fairly regularly. Its range of books is middling to fair, and we regularly make purchases there as it is one of the few limited options we have left for bookshop browsing.

Upon entering the store I had an inkling of a a regime change. A rather imposing sign had been stuck on the wall near the classics section. "No food or drink to be consumed in this store. We are trying to protect our books from becoming soiled." 
Fair enough, I thought, making a mental note not to bring takeaway coffee inside the store anymore.

"Good morning, how may I help you?" A bustling woman I had not seen before in the corporate colours, greeted me. I smiled and replied that I was happy to browse.

I led Archie to the picture book section where he grabbed a stool sitting near by to reach the Thomas the Tank Engine books displayed tantalisingly on the top shelf. Jesse and Ellie already had their noses in books from the young fiction section and Mim was roaming. A young sales assistant hovered. "Can I help you find anything?" She questioned. "No thanks," I replied. "We're just browsing."

I moved over to the children's classics and another assistant materialised. 
"Are you looking for anything in particular?" She enquired politely. The question caused me to stop and consider. No I wasn't.  Oh but maybe Jesse was looking for a particular title. "Jesse, did you need help finding anything? " I asked, across the aisle. "No thanks, I'm fine."
"We're fine" I assured the girl. 
Wow, they were really on top of customer service today. 

I made my way towards the middle of the store, heading for Decorating and Craft. On the way I quickly scanned the History section and Adult Fiction. The end shelves often hold discounted stock, but I didn't see anything great. Still, you never know what you might find.

I was just admiring a Mollie Makes Craft book when the senior lady who had greeted me upon entering the store appeared with my seven and thee-year-old beside her. I looked up a little surprised. 
"These children should not be on their own. They were throwing books". Her disapproving gaze swept over me and back to the criminals children.
"What?!" I exclaimed, looking with appalled disbelief at Mim. Wondering why I hadn't heard the noise of my kids turning feral only a shelf or two away. 
"Were you throwing books?" Even as I said it I couldn't quite believe it. It's just not the sort of thing my kids would do. Still, there's always a first time I vaguely thought. Mim looked stricken.
"Arch dropped a Thomas book and I was picking it up" she whispered. I could hardly hear her as the woman had not stopped talking. "This is not a library," she continued. "These children are too young and should not be unaccompanied in our store." Her speech finished, she walked away. 
I stood there stunned. I opened my mouth and then shut it again. 
"I want to look at the Thomas books!" Arch insisted as, on automatic pilot, I hastily buckled him into his stroller. "Well you can't!" I muttered as we lurched towards the door. 

Collapsing on to the bench outside I looked back in to the store where my husband was blissfully browsing the aisle next to where I had just been. He hadn't heard any of it. I bit my lip and willed him to look up. 

Jesse and Ellie appeared. 
"The lady told us to stop reading the books. She said it's not a library" Ellie looked at me quizzically. 
"How about you go get Dad?" I said as I watched the shop lady and her assistants smile and chat with an elderly couple who were purchasing books at the counter. 

Jonathan appeared. "Sorry. I didn't know you were out here." His smile faded as he looked at our faces. "What?" 
We left. 

In the car on the way home I stared out of the window and tried to objectively analyse why I felt so upset. Yes it's mortifying to be told your children are misbehaving. It's also upsetting to realise that the accusation is untrue. I felt bad for not standing up for my kids. While knowing book throwing was unlikely, my kids aren't perfect. It could have happened. So I'd been slow to respond. Browsing the bookstore is something we've always encouraged. Now I questioned it. 
Were we wrong?

I thought about how our family still laments the demise of the BORDERS book chain. Borders totally got the whole browsing thing. They even encouraged it! From wide open spaces, to comfy lounges and the in-house coffee shop (oh, and the toilets) - the whole scene was geared to make you want to stay. Heck, on rainy days we almost stayed all day!! 
There were beanbags in the kids section and stars painted on the night sky ceiling. There were story times and stuffed toys. My kids used to loll there for hours. 
Jonathan could always be found in the photography, gardening, history or war sections. And I flitted between the decorating and design books (Martha Stewart galore!), classics, contemporary fiction and the magazines (best international range ever). Oh and I also loved the quirky stationery.

It wasn't just a bookshop, it was a destination. We didn't always buy. But we did find lots of wonderful books there we never saw anywhere else. Yes, it was often expensive. But it was the place where we got our fill of reading and fun and imagination. 

Then it went bankrupt.
Maybe all that browsing lead to bankruptcy?

I understand that a book shop is not a library. I also get that the stock is for sale and that we are not always intending to buy what we enjoy looking at. But then again, we do buy some things. So how do you decide what is browsing with intent and what isn't?

Oh look, here's Archie at the library.

Surely a main argument for why we still need bookshops is browsing. It's how we peruse new titles and discover others we didn't know existed. It's about picking up a cover because we've been beguiled by the picture on the front, or captured by the words on the back. Or maybe it's the feel of the paper, the smell of the pages or the font. It's when you spy an authors name you recognise or become intrigued by one you don't. 
It's the tactile and sensory experience that e-books can not provide. (I may have written about this before, once or twice..)

Bookshops ignore this at their peril. I understand the no food rule and get that they are not a library. But if they treat the reader as simply a consumer who should not tarry within their  hallowed confines, we'll go online and stay there. We'll make do with the lack of browsing, because we can sit on the bench outside and surf the net on our phone and purchase the books cheaper and with free delivery.

But my kids love books and I'd hate them to lose interest thanks to the struggling local bookstore. 
Wouldn't you?

The girls meeting one of their favourite authors Jacqueline Harvey at a book launch last year - at the fabulous Children's Bookshop in Beecroft. They definitely encourage browsing there.


  1. That's so sad Sarah! Stick to Beecroft by the sounds of it, Meryl x


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