I haven’t really missed regular haircuts or shopping for clothes, but a great privation for me over the past year has been not being able to browse in a book shop. The rest of the group of people queueing outside Hatchards on Monday morning appear to feel the same. We are like rabbits waiting for the greengrocer’s to open.
There is a light drizzle and so the staff eventually let us in a few minutes before the official opening time of 9.30, while the buzz of last-minute hoovering can still be heard in the background.
It is wonderful to be able to browse among books again – especially in Hatchards, which claims to be the UK’s oldest bookshop. It was founded in 1797 by John Hatchard, who sold books from a barrow outside the present site.
Until a year ago, the longest Hatchards had ever been closed was for three days during the Blitz, when the church next door was bombed. But Covid-19 has proved more troublesome than the Luftwaffe. Like most retail outlets, the shop has had to endure a spasmodic series of closures over the past year, and when it opened its doors on Monday it was for the first time in nearly four months. It is no wonder staff and customers are greeting each other like long-lost friends.
The first book to go through the till is a signed copy of Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, Klara and the Sun. Stefanie Zeitler, 29, had been looking for one online, she tells me, but they are sold out in the usual outlets, so she has walked the two miles from Bayswater to get one here.
A visit to Hatchards is so peaceful and inspiring that it feels more like meditation than shopping, and there is a real sense of history too. “I remember it was my first day and I was doing my health and safety paperwork, and I looked up and realised I was sitting underneath a framed telegram from Queen Victoria,” says senior bookseller Sophie Crawford. “That was the moment I thought, wow, I’m in a special place. And I love the black and white photograph on the first floor of a boy on a Hatchards delivery bike in Victorian London.”
There is also a table here that allegedly once belonged to Oscar Wilde, and at which today’s authors sit when they’re signing books. I take a look at it and it works its insinuous magic on me, as a few minutes later I spot a paperback of Matthew Sturgis’s biography of Oscar Wilde and feel compelled to buy it.
Other customers are appreciating the pleasure of being in a real shop after months of virtual trudging through the sites of online booksellers. One of the first customers is Leonora from Bermondsey, who spends over half an hour in the shop with her two-year-old daughter, Elsa.
“We have been waiting for this day,” Leonora tells me. “It’s not the same shopping online. Because she can see the books and touch them, she gets so much more excited. And I really like the shop because there’s a lovely atmosphere. It’s a traditional bookshop that focuses on books rather than trying to draw people in by concentrating on other things.” Elsa’s haul is a Peppa Pig book and Tiddler by Julia Donaldson.
I ask the shop’s general manager Francis Cleverdon, a bookseller for 50 years, how the first day is going. “Just in the last hour, it’s been such a pleasure talking to people again. I had forgotten what fun it is running up and down the stairs finding people the books that they want, or the books they didn’t know they wanted.” The ratio so far has been about two thirds familiar customers making a planned visit to a third happening on the shop by chance – which is about the usual mixture. He is waiting to see how much the lack of international travel, and the fact that the usually bursting nearby hotels are empty, will affect business.
Working at a 225-odd year-old bookshop helps you to take the long view, however, and Cleverdon is sure the shop will endure, just as it has survived numerous wars and more pressing existential threats such as the advent of radio, television and Amazon.
One piece of luck is that Hatchards was already in the process of setting up a website to sell its stock when the pandemic struck – “as one of my colleagues phrased it, we were dipping a toe, or perhaps a fountain pen, into the 21st Century, which is a very Hatchards way of looking at things,” says Sophie Crawford.
“We’ve managed to get away without losing any staff, and indeed have taken a certain number on with special skills that can be used on the website,” says Cleverdon. “So with the website sales on one side and the furlough scheme on the other, which was a real boon [at the start of the pandemic], we could just about keep our heads above water”.
The shop has also kept up its subscription service, run by Crawford: the idea is that the Hatchards booksellers have an initial consultation with a customer and then choose a book to send them every month that should appeal to their taste.” We’ve had people buying subscriptions for everyone in their family, to help support the shop,” she says. “I’ve noticed in lockdown, too, we’re getting a lot more people saying, I’ll try anything, try me with something new, I’ve got time to try and find out what I like and what I don’t like. We then get them to read something we love.”
What else has been popular? “We’ve sold a hell of a lot of Dickens,” says Cleverdon. “And perhaps a little bit less holiday reading, fewer easy reads – maybe a few more hefty works, whether that’s in size or ambition.
Cleverdon loves talking about the history of the shop – he is particularly pleased that Hatchards possesses a letter from the 1st Duke of Wellington – “a classic customer letter, from the Peninsula, complaining that he ordered books two weeks ago and they haven’t turned up” – and also says that Hatchards can claim to have inspired Northanger Abbey, as it was here that Jane Austen bought the copy of The Castle of Otranto that led her to write it.
He sees the importance of moving with the times, however. “The website is pretty damn good. It’s not quite Hatchards-y enough yet, but it will get there.” What does Hatchards-y mean? “It’s to do with tone. It needs to be informed, sensible and not vulgar – it’s an old-fashioned word, but: gentlemanly. Which can be seen as derogatory, but there’s a certain style and gentleness we aim for. And a joie de vivre and a jolliness.”
What’s been the secret of Hatchards’ success? “All the way through it’s had pretty damn good staff – for the most part – who either know things or are enthusiastic to find them out. Being backed by Waterstones is handy now, because we can steal their staff.
“I think the size is a clever size, it’s not an absolutely enormous barn, it’s small enough that we have to choose a bit but we don’t have to choose too much, so we have a comparatively wide stock. And we have three Royal Warrants, which is great for publicity but more importantly for keeping us up to the mark, making us feel we should try to be as good as we can be.”
Although Cleverdon won’t be drawn on details, it’s safe to assume that one of the Warrants was issued by the late Duke of Edinburgh. “We’ve been selling books to him since the Fifties, until very recently. An extraordinarily eclectic range of reading that one might not have thought. He read and read and read.”
Now Cleverdon is keen for bookshop events, author readings and the like – among the biggest weapons in the bookshop arsenal as they battle to draw customers away from Amazon – to start up again. He is buoyant about the future: “One thing we’ve learnt this past year is how much people like Hatchards. We’ve had letters and phone calls and people banging on the door, all so positive and forgiving and telling us how they’re looking forward to us being here again.”
One such customer is Patricia Falconer, 75, who tells the staff how grateful she is that the shop has re-opened. “I don’t have any access to the Internet, so I rely on bookshops, and I’ve been waiting for this one to open again. I don’t think the government should have shut the book shops, people need them.”
She has had to make do with re-reading the books she already owns. “I read Proust, would you believe. It’s very long. He’s very good, actually.” She comes away with three new hardbacks, including Dostoevsky in Love by Alex Christofi. What is it about Hatchards in particular that she likes? “The staff are so helpful, and they know such a lot about books.”
Talking to Patricia is a reminder of how to some people bookshops are not just a pleasure but a necessity – as, in a different way, was my talk with a man who needed a book in a hurry for his wife’s very imminent birthday. (He asked not to be named.) There was a hugely positive buzz to this re-opening that made it feel like a very special occasion – but I hope that’s the last re-opening Hatchards has to do for the next 200 years or so.