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16 January 2007

Devon Book 72

Exeter Working Papers in British Book Trade History; 12
A history of the book in Devon, by Ian Maxted
72: Booksellers since World War 2

Bookselling in Exeter since World War 2 has increasingly reflected the dominance of the major chains. The railway bookstalls of W.H.Smith and Son had been present in Exeter from the 1850s and in the 1952 they ventured into the city centre with premises at 233 High Street. The opening ceremony in the newly rebuilt city centre was performed by Col. H.M.Llewellyn, the captain of the British Olympic equestrian team and drew a large crowd which had to be held back by police. The Exeter shop was the 371st to be opened by the firm and boasted doors made of armour plate glass and a nursery rhyme frieze designed by A.S.Court in the children's section. It included a commercial lending library stocked with fiction and non-fiction (E&E 4 Dec 1952). In 1976 Smiths moved to extensive premises in the newly reconstructed Guildhall Shopping Centre and the when the premises there had a refit in 1987 it cost no less than £750,000 (E&E 7 Aug 1987). Smith's wholesale department, which supplied newsagents and stationers in the area with newpspaers and periodicals received from London every night, had begun operations in Exeter in 1907 and transferred its premises from Gandy Street to Western Way in 1964. It was at that time one of 44 such wholesale houses in the country with a staff training room. Smith's was the only significant chain bookseller with a presence in Exeter until the 1960s and for many years books had only formed a part of a business which also maintained an extensive range of newspaper and periodicals, stationery, toys and, in later years, music. The SPCK has had a bookshop presence in Exeter since the 1930s after having a series of local agents stretching back for two centuries, but this is a special case since it is a religious rather than a general bookshop. However this situation was about to change and the arrival of the chains was facilitated by the decline of traditional booksellers in Exeter.

In January 1969 J.F.Blakey, who was born in Exeter and had been active in the book trade in there for 27 years, opened a new bookshop at 147 Sidwell Street which replaced a smaller shop which he had set up in 1966. It had a stock of 20,000 books but was able to call on far more than this as it had the backing of George's the long-standing Bristol bookshop with a stock of 250,000 volumes (E&E 31 Jan 1969). This enabled Blakey to expand his business into new premises at a time when, as he stated at the official opening, this was against current trends. Perhaps he founded his optimism also on his expressed "personal interest in customer requirements". The opening on 31 January was attended by over 100 people with representatives from publishing, the academic worlds and the City and County libraries. The opening ceremony was performed by the Newton Abbot publisher David St. John Thomas (WMN 1 Feb 1969).

By 1980 George's had taken over the business in its own name and was for several years the leading Exeter bookseller. On 4 February 1980 George's took over from Wheatons the Exeter agency for the 8,500 publications each year which then emanated from the government Stationery Office. At the end of 1984 it opened a second premises further down Sidwell Street at 167-168. However George's was not to survive long, largely because the Bristol firm was itself in difficulties. Fagins took over the premises at 167 Sidwell Street in 1989 and soon aroused interest with a display of banned books to draw attention to Salman Rushdie's novel Satanic verses (E&E 27 Mar 1989). More controversial was a display promoting gay literature which was dismantled after an attack by a prominent Exeter moral crusader Dr Adrian Rogers. "I hope the people of Exeter won't forget that Fagins has promoted this sort of behaviour and will stay away" he pontificated, but it was the poor location and the effect of Dillons opening nearby rather than his remarks which caused its closure in 1990. The other stores operated by the group in the region were unaffected (E&E 10 Jul 1989, 18 May 1990).

The resulting gap was filled by other firms which formed part of chains. Chapter and Verse had been established in the post-war shopping centre at 8 Princesshay since 1985 but it too was in the hands of the receiver in 1991. It also owned shops in Bristol, Cardiff, Portsmouth and Bedford and had overstretched itself in its expansion programme. In Exeter it was probably not helped by the arrival of two new chains. In the late 1980s Sherrat and Hughes had arrived at 48-49 High Street and in November 1990 it had amalgamated with Waterstones, who operated some 80 branches across the country. Waterstones extended the premises through to the Cathedral Close and commented at the time of the demise of Chapter and Verse "As a company we have been tightening our belts a bit ... but the sales here are good" (E&E 13 May 1991). The other chain bookseller in Exeter also commented "We are doing fine as well. We are up on last year and it's building up or the summer as we'd expect." Dillons had been opened by the bibulous television cook Keith Floyd in November 1989 in new premises in post-modern red brick on the site of a demolished cinema at 252 High Street, the opposite end of the main shopping street to Waterstones. It was the first shop in the chain to open with full computer technology. "The Norrie guide to Devon and Cornwall", which appeared in the Bookseller on 2 July 1993 visited both chains. At that time Dillons had 8,000 square feet of floor space on two floors with 1,415 linear meters of shelving and employed 17 full-time staff and five part-time while Waterstones had 6,600 square feet of floor space on three floors after its extension through to the Cathedral Close and employed eleven full-timers and five part-time staff. These chain bookstores have the advantages of sharing the facilities of a larger company, but they sneeze when the parent company catches a cold. This has already been seen in the cases of George's and Chapter and Verse. Waterstones was owned by W.H.Smith, becoming independent during the 1990s, but in 1998 it was acquired by Dillons. With both the major bookshops in Exeter in the same hands there was a fear that one of them might disappear.

The "Norrie guide" found that Plymouth had a "more varied and healthy contingent of independent booksellers" than Exeter, nevertheless Norrie felt that Exeter had the better bookshops. Ron Johns, the owner of the University Bookseller in Plymouth said "There were three literary people buying books in Plymouth in 1974 when I started. Two of them have died. Plymothians are not book buyers. The buyers are imported people, teachers and students." While the manager of Waterstones in Plymouth claimed the whole of Cornwall as his catchment area, for his counterpart in Exeter all Devon was his territory, while Dillons saw their catchment area extending into Somerset and Dorset.

The "Norrie guide" also visited W.H.Smith in Exeter, which had about 4,500 square feet in its book department and the University Bookshop, situated on the main University Campus, just opposite the University Library. In the 1960s and 1970s the university's bookshop had been run by SPCK in Devonshire House but in 1993 it was run by Blackwells and the manager also oversaw small satellite shops in the School of Education at St Luke's campus and the Rolle Campus of the University of Plymouth, based in Exmouth. The University Bookshop took over as agent for the Stationery Office's publications.

There are other specialist booksellers in Exeter at the turn of the millennium. Megabyte Computer Books caters for the cutting edge of information technology - or for those who wish to escape into a virtual world of computer games. Those who wish to escape from the modern world in a more meditative way are catered for by Evolution, described as a mind, spirit, body bookshop, in Fore Street.

At the other extreme are the purveyors of bargain books, frequently specially manufactured remainders. For the past quarter of a century there has always been at least one of these in Exeter, its shelves stacked with multiple copies of coffee-table books with glossy illustrations on such topics as antique guns, the world's wierdest mysteries, cooking with a wok and great goals of the World Cup. The County Bookshop in the High Street survived for a number of years but others come and go, as ephemeral as much of what they sell.

Apart from in bookshops, books are on sale in a variety of outlets, including newsagents and more general stores such as Boots and Woolworths, and tourist attractions, such as the National Trust shop, the Cathedral and the Tourist Information Centre also purvey varying amounts of literature. The extent to which books were available from sources other than booksellers, stationers and printers in past centuries is difficult to ascertain, so this aspect of the dissemination of the written word certainly requires mention in any current survey, however superficial.

But what was the type of readership that the main bookshops in Exeter was serving? A cursory examination of the weekly lists of "top books" as reported by George's bookshop in the Exeter weekly news during 1984 starts the year with striking lack of originality with George Orwell's 1984 high on the paperback lists in January and February. The influence of publications linked to television series is very evident with The living planet by David Attenborough, Delia Smith's complete cookery course and Ken Hom's Chinese cookery, all BBC publications, appearing regularly among the top ten. Humour was also popular with The secret diary of Adrian Mol by Sue Townsend and, toward the end of the year the same author's The growing pains of Adrian Mole selling well. Reference books feature on occasion: Whitaker's almanack in December and the Guinness book of records in November, also the Pocket Oxford dictionary and, reflecting the consuming interest in Britain's two national sports, Wisden's cricketers' almanack in May and Rothman's football yearbook in September. Sport is also represented with a book on the successful ice skaters Torvill and Dean by John Hennessy. There is quite a range of fiction with titles by Salman Rushdie (Shame), Umberto Eco (The name of the rose), J.R.R.Tolkein (Book of lost tales) Len Deighton (Berlin game), Jack Higgins (Exocet), Shirley Conran (Lace) and Lucy Irvine (Castaway) among many others. The absence of classic writers like Dickens, Austen and Hardy in the lists examined can probably be explained by the absence from the television screens of any serialisation at that time. Most weeks there is a local interest title somewhere in the top ten. Examples are Bishop Blackall School, Exeter, 1877-1983 by M.L.E.Hadden, Discovering Exeter, 3: Heavitree, published by the Exeter Civic Society, An Exeter boyhood, by Frank Retter, The Exeter canal by K.R.Clew, Dartmoor letterboxes by Anne Swinscow and Real ale in Devon, by CAMRA. Local publishers figure with Webb and Bower's The country diary companion by Josephine Poole, and the local writer R.F.Delderfield is represented by Diana. The general impression is of a city obsessed with health, sport, cookery and gardening, devouring thrillers and titillating novels.

This page last updated 12 Mar 2001
© Ian Maxted, 2001.