The new iconography of feminine purity: Our Lady of the Seven Salads, She of the Immaculate Complexion

On the high streets of small towns, the success stories are Primark, Greggs, Wilko, Poundland and variety shops like Tiger. Card and gift emporiums are ubiquitous. In this unpropitious climate, Waterstones is holding out with almost 300 shops, recovering – according to the figures – from near failure four years ago. The owner, Alexander Mamut, has invested over £50 million. James Daunt was brought in to give the shops more character and relax central control: booksellers can decide which books to promote and tailor their own displays.

But it isn’t all about the books. Agreements with Costa and Paperchase, and the introduction of their own cafes in larger stores, are designed to make the shops more alluring. Gifts now seem to take up as much space as books, at least on the tables, where the prettiest paperbacks are distributed among Orla Kiely pots and enamel cups. There are horticultural tables, literary themed gifts (Penguin does a good line in pencil cases and tote bags), sewing kits and appliqué sets next to the craft books. Pets are reliably popular – see Dog Bingo – and natural history in the guise of faux-antique prints of fish and butterflies on notebooks and crockery. Something is working, because digital sales are down and those of paper and glue books are up, but the ephemera isn’t only disguising the books, it’s disguising the rise of the non-book book.

The Waterstones I went to on Easter Saturday was busy and cramped. Classics and new fiction were well represented on the ground floor. Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City had a table to itself, and Elena Ferrante’sMy Brilliant Friend was prominently displayed (neither writer’s other books were stocked). Upstairs it was a fight through the fancy goods and non-book products, piled high and heaped and scattered, to reach the scuffed shelves. People are still reading proper history in paperback: Hobsbawm, Judt, Snyder, Blanning and Clark made a sound showing. In Philosophy, Verso dominated with Gros, Groys, Feenberg, Berger, Bull, Žižek et al. A few Routledge spines stuck out between the works of Peter Cave – The Big Think Book, How to Outwit Aristotle – and a shelf of Alain de Botton. Women historians and philosophers didn’t get much shelf space, but Social Sciences included the complete works of Caitlin Moran and various other shades of femi-lite, most of them with hot pink covers (including Hot Feminist).

In Literary Criticism, with the possible exception of Orwell’s Why I Write, there wasn’t a single book that would feature on an undergraduate reading list. Instead there were gift books and bog books, light-hearted grammars, etymological entertainments and assorted compendia. Standing face out were Stephen Fry’s Planet Word, To the Letter, Gwynne’s Grammar, New Words for Old, Bill Bryson on Shakespeare, Eats, Shoots and Leaves (which surely started half of this), The Horologican, Creative Writing for Dummies and 102 Things to Do in Summer – topics include ‘raid a dumpster’ and ‘wang a welly’ – which might have been there by accident. Then again, who knows: in another Waterstones, I saw The Intellectuals and the Masses under A for Austen (its subtitle is ‘Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia’).

Nature writing continues its inexorable spread, with shepherds, birds, birdsong and coastlines prominent. H is for Hawk must still be selling well, and a new edition of The Goshawk sat next to it, but they didn’t have The Peregrine. For every H is for Hawk there are at least seven spin-offs. There were more design histories and big music books than art books, and most of them were catalogues; there wasn’t much art history or theory. Gardening may well have been the most comprehensive category, covering not only the practical (Grow Vegetables, Allotments, The Thrifty Gardener) but also the decorative (The Gardeners Garden, Shakespeare's Garden, Oxford College Gardens) and historical/critical: Onwards and Upwards in the Garden, The Brother Gardeners, Gardens of the English Working Class.

Cooking books entice and threaten in equal measure – How Not to Die, Keep It Real, Get the Glow, The Sweet Poison Quit Plan – making celebrities out of clean-living young women or, rather, providing something monetisable for a generation of Instagram lifestyle gurus. The covers are uniformly white with snapshots of the true subject – the blogger – caressing something nutritious. They look like a new iconography of feminine purity: Our Lady of the Seven Salads, Mater Dolorosy-cheeks, She of the Immaculate Complexion. The banking crisis claimed a small shelf of books, not half the size of the colouring books table; these pop up elsewhere too, especially in Spirituality and Belief, where Colour Yourself Calm and the Tranquillity Colouring Book were dotted between compassion, mindfulness and the road less travelled.

The Booksellerannounced recently that it would begin previewing non-book products – gifts and stationery – for the first time. It pointed out that the stationery market and bookselling have long been closely aligned and it’s true that I can’t think of a bookshop that doesn’t at least sell cards. The Bookseller has mentions of Fancy Goods in their editorials going back to 1870s, when playing cards and journals were easing the margins of struggling bookshops, though the net book agreement made life easier for much of the 20th century.

More books are being sold now than before the policy’s demise in 1995, when the bigger chains (including Waterstones) began to flex their bulk muscle and offer discounts, but many bookshops have closed – at least 500 independents – and others, like Dillons and Books etc, have been folded into larger conglomerates. Physical books are selling better partly because publishers can still control their ebook prices, and set them high on purpose. The Waterstones deals and discounts aren’t as big and brash as they once were, the range in the larger shops is good and in the smaller towns they must be doing what they need to do.

But physical books aren’t the same as real books. You can’t read Hamlet, or Bloom or Kermode for that matter, if a bookshop only has Bill Bryson, let alone discover the books coming out from Pushkin, Capuchin, Serpent’s Tail, And Other Stories, Zero, Fitzcarraldo and Persephone, or from American and European presses. One of the few advantages bookshops have over Amazon and other online retailers is the opportunity they provide to stumble across something you never knew you were looking for. Books can function as gift objects, lifestyle signifiers, thematic attributes; they can be non-book products too, word-based diversions, colour-me distractions, bucket-lists, how-tos, extensions of celebrity brands. Putting something between two covers doesn’t make it a book, and putting them on shelves doesn’t make a bookshop.

Read more in the London Review of Books

Deborah Friedell: Amazon's Irresistible Rise · 5 December 2013

John Sutherland: The Great Net Book Agreement Disaster · 19 October 1995

Colin Robinson: Publishing's Demise · 26 February 2009

Peter Campbell: London Lettering · 12 December 2002