The Bookshops of Harborough

Christine's Bookcabin, Market Harborough

My dream for years now has been to open a second-hand bookshop. I love books: I love the look of them, the feel of them and the smell of them, and the older they are, the deeper my love goes. An old yellowing paperback with an inscription by a previous owner inside it is almost a holy relic for me.

But you need money to start a business; and usually a mortgage to obtain a bank loan. Increasingly, books don't seem like a viable business proposition either. Acquaintances who know about my book obsession, and my dream, tell me with a sort of glee that no one reads anymore. 

This is the sort of thing people who don't read themselves tend to say, or people who like to ring their hands about the decay of civilised values in the technological age. The world still reads. But they can buy a greater variety of books at a cheaper price on Amazon. I use that indie-gobbling corporate giant myself, although in my case it's because I have no alternative most of the time, living in Northampton. Here we only have a Waterstone's. I go in occasionally, but I rarely find anything I want to read--at least not for the money I have in my pocket.

The town of Market Harborough, which is literally one footfall over the county line into Leicestershire, turns all the current wisdom about book shopping habits on its head. The last population estimate was 22,000--Northampton dwarfs it at approximately 219,000--and yet Market Harborough has five bookshops (that I could find) to Northampton's one. 

Age UK bookshop, Market Harborough

Two of Harborough's bookshops are run by charities. But they're not the usual high street charity shops where you can also buy clothes, jewellery and picture frames (much as I love those places). In Market Harborough there are Age UK and Oxfam shops dedicated to books, along with film and music, and whenever I'm there they both do healthy business. 

Oxfam Bookstore, Market Harborough, with Michelle

The books are high quality books too. Yesterday I bought Diana Souhami's 'The Trials of Radclyffe Hall', 'The Good Bohemian: The Letters of Ida John', and 'Journey Around My Room: The Autobiography of Louise Bogan' for a little more than ten pounds. There were many other books I could have bought too, but I had to leave a few quid for lunch in the Sugar Loaf pub up the street (where, by the way, I had the best veggie burger and chips I'd eaten in months).

I've wondered before why this gorgeous little town has more places for book lovers to indulge their passion than places ten times its size. Is it the closeness of a big university? Perhaps, but Harborough also has more bookshops than Leicester, as far as I know; and Northampton has a good university--it should be, the author of this blog is one of its graduates. Is it Harborough's socio-economic make-up? or just tradition? 

Whatever the answer is, I go there as often as I can, and buy as many books as I can find that pique my curiosity. Amazon provides a great service, even if it has a reputation for treating its employees appallingly. Nothing, however, beats the experience of browsing shelves in a bookshop, running your gaze along rows and rows of spines imprinted with some names you know and others you don't, meeting the eyes of other people who've come in for the same reason, looking at the books in their arms and guessing who they are by what they read. I want to support good bookshops and keep the social side of book consumption alive, or even help it to grow again.

It's hard enough to watch councils across the country taking away the libraries that gave us our love of books in the first place.