Boots Booklovers Library

Early days
The first circulating libraries in the UK were formed during the mid-eighteenth century and allowed books to be borrowed for a specified loan period after payment of a subscription. Several libraries were attached to shops, notably W. H. Smith and Harrods.

The Boots Book Lending service was established in 1898 at the instigation of Florence Boot, initially in the small number of shops which had a stationery department. The early libraries were small and filled with second hand stock. The first Head Librarian was appointed in 1900.

Boots for Booklovers

By 1903, when there were 300 Boots stores across the country, 143 had a Booklovers’ Library, with 6 libraries in London and 8 in Nottingham. Members could take out a book at any one of the library branches and return it to any other. Membership cost from 10/6 a year for one volume up to 42/- for six and 7/- for each additional volume. Alternatively a borrower could take a book for half a crown (2/6) returnable deposit and a penny or two pence a week.

Library catalogues were issued and these stressed the library’s reputation for the circulation of clean books and the beautifully fitted libraries. The libraries were placed on the first floor or at the back of the branch, thus drawing the customer through as many departments as possible on their way. Libraries in the larger stores such as those in Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Brighton, were fitted with wooden bookshelves, window seats, chairs, tables and sofas and even notepaper and fresh flowers.

Picture taken inside Boots booklovers library

The librarian’s job was to know the book stock and advise readers to ensure that they never left the library dissatisfied or empty-handed. There were a variety of services available. ‘A’ subscribers could leave a booklist for books or suitable alternatives to be reserved for them on their next visit. There were also special ‘On Demand’ subscriptions, holiday and juvenile subscriptions, a postal service, and special arrangements for country members.

Golden Years
The interwar years saw the heyday of the library. By 1920 there were 500,000 subscribers and by 1938 books were being exchanged at the rate of 35 million each year, with light romance and whodunits being the most popular. During the Second World War the number of subscribers increased to a million. Boots were buying books at the rate of 1,250,000 a year, which gave the company considerable influence in the publishing world. Striking modern libraries were designed for stores such as Plymouth and Southampton, which had been destroyed by wartime bombing and rebuilt in the 1950s.

Picture taken inside Boots booklovers library

The Final Chapter
By the 1960s subscription libraries became less popular, possibly because of the lower cost of paperbacks, the growing investment in public libraries and other sources of entertainment. There were also commercial pressures influencing the use of sales space in stores. In 1961 W. H. Smith closed their libraries and Boots took over their subscribers. In 1965 the announcement was made that the Boots Booklovers’ Libraries, now with only 121 branches and 140,000 subscribers, were to close. The last branches closed in February 1966.

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