Words & Photography Kirk Truman
“We have been primarily an academic shop from the start…”
Walking the streets of Bloomsbury, it’s impossible not to be reminded of the long relationship London’s literary village has had with the written word. The independent bookshop is still a much loved and common sight in Bloomsbury, from Skoob Books, once to be found on Sicilian Avenue and now hidden away beneath the iconic Brunswick Centre, to LGBT bookshop Gay’s the Word, which greets you on Marchmont Street. You can follow a trail of bookshops across Bloomsbury, reflecting the area’s long association with the literary world. While the growth of the digital world has seen many of London’s bookshops closing their doors (there have been casualties here in Bloomsbury), Marchmont Street’s Judd Books continues to fly the flag, selling a wide range of second hand and bargain books from its Marchmont Street shop.
Judd Books was founded in 1992 by Nigel Kemp and Alexander Donaldson, and was originally just around the corner on Judd Street – hence the name. When the shop moved to it new home on Marchmont Street, the Judd Books moniker went with it. Once a butcher’s shop, the Marchmont Street site first opened as Judd Two Books, only becoming Judd Books proper when the old Judd Street shop shut for good. Marchmont Street is a traditional London thoroughfare, once home to a fishmonger’s, a baker’s and other traditional trades. While these have all left the street, Judd Books carries on, alongside a traditional launderette, a number of well-known pubs and other bookshops.
The shop sells a wide range of publications, from art, photography and literature on the ground floor, to history, philosophy and classical studies in the basement. “We have been primarily an academic shop from the start. We carefully choose our remainders and returns so that our customers can easily find good books without having to plough through lots of irrelevant titles,” says Nigel. “We have particularly strong sections on art and have been fortunate in acquiring two working libraries from retired academics.”
The printed book has often been described as a dying medium in recent years, under constant threat from the supposed convenience of digital equivalents. Judd Books, though, takes a different – and longer – view. During the near quarter century that the shop has been trading, the whole book market has changed several times. “For a hundred years, there was the net book agreement where publishers dictated the price of a book, which booksellers had to follow if they were to continue to receive supplies – this ended in 1990,” Nigel tells me. “The large chains hoped to benefit by undercutting the small bookshops and taking over their business. What happened was it let in the supermarkets, who were soon undercutting everyone for the bestsellers until Amazon arrived.”
Each published book has its own ISBN (a unique number only relating to that book), and the ISBN was soon at the centre of books being sold online. It was now possible to have a database of all publications in circulation. “This allowed them to use their computer skills to list every book. This meant that the astonishing amount of books in print could all be accessed directly by the public, not just by members of the book trade,” says Nigel. “In the beginning, Amazon only sold new books. But soon they saw the opportunity to dominate the second-hand market using the same tools. They make much more from selling other people’s second-hand books than their own,” he confides. “And then came the Kindle. Many said it was the end of the book… All these events have wreaked havoc on bookshops, both new and second-hand. At least for the time being.” Between 2005 and 2013, according to the Booksellers Association, bookshops selling new books declined from 1,535 to 937; the decline of second-hand bookshops was even steeper.
Despite the growth of online retailers and the birth of the Kindle and other devices, the digital age hasn’t been all bad news, Nigel explains, and something positive has emerged from the digital revolution. “One thing the Internet has done with second-hand books is to show which books are very common and which books are scarce,” he says. “Many books can no longer be put economically on the shelves in the shop, so we put them outside in trays.” Traditionally, bookshops would also have had glass cases or ‘back rooms’ where the most valuable and fragile books were displayed. “Today, we put these on the Internet, together with very obscure books which we can offer to a much wider audience,” he says.
As a publisher, I believe in print, and in its strong sense of identity. Books and magazines are like people; they’re individuals, and over time they age and mature. So do bookshops – and we should cherish them. If they were to disappear from our high streets altogether in the decades to come, it would be a real tragedy. Whatever the shelf life of print as a medium in the future, I am confident that Judd Books is here to ride out the changes until the end. I’ve visited bookshops all over London, but there’s something quintessentially British and authentic about Judd Books that takes you back to Bloomsbury past – a time when the Kindle would have been science fiction and Amazon unthinkable. So, look away from your screen, put down your mobile device, and pick up a book: look at the cover, turn the pages, sniff the paper – you might be inspired to go and discover your local bookshop and help keep the wonderful medium of the printed page alive…