This train station vendor of books – I refuse to call them booksellers – is a queer creature. Essentially news agents, they provide bleary-eyed commuters with their daily paper and weekly NME, Grazia or Take A Break and weary travellers with limp, underfilled sandwiches only marginally less overpriced than those for sale on the trains.
The WH Smith branch in which I find myself this bright Thursday morning has a large book section taking up just under half of the small train station concourse store. Their stock-in-trade is bestsellers – books with NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE emblazoned over the Hollywood-perfect cover photo. Gaudy yellow easy-peel stickers advertise three for £10 deals on every other title. TV tie-ins and pocket-sized dictionaries dominate the reference section, travel guides and pop psychology the non-fiction section.
Children’s titles are consigned to a corner. The shelves are messy and confused. Books in on the adult shelves are organised by genre and then alphabetically, with at one copy of most titles displayed cover-on, the better to entice the casual purchaser. Not so in the children’s section. There is no sense that I can see in the arrangement; tall and thin science and maths workbooks sit beside vampire romance fiction for the 11-16 crowd, written hastily to ride on the coat tails Stephenie Meyer’s odious Twilight series. CBeebies tie-ins jostle beside My First Encyclopaedia and Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging (NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE). A Latin translation of A Bear Called Paddington, ordered by some over-eager assistant buyer, languishes dustily at the back.
Here we get to the point (if there is one) of this post. Because WH Smith is dealing with limited space and impulse buyers it is an uninspiring, depressing place to buy books. WH Smith’s railway consessions are not designed for planned purchases. They are designed for impulse buyers and pestered parents. It is for this reason that it is a perfect window into the world of cool, as defined by the under-16 market. This is a profit machine. WH Smith do not sell what we will not buy in our droves.
The supernatural Twilight inspired novel is clearly a popular genre, and one in which series fiction abounds. There is Rachel Caine’s Morganville Vampires series, of which the tenth volume is to be published in May of this year; the House of Night series written by mother and daughter team P.C. and Kristin Cast that spells vampire with a y; Rachel Mead’s Vampire Academy trilogy and countless others. They have uniformly black covers, titles embossed in swirly, romantic fonts. Clearly this is a phenomenon I should look more closely into.
I am heartened to see that the classics are still popular. Goodnight Mr Tom is there, its spine bent by a furtive reader. So are CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia novels. Jaqueline Wilson is featured heavily, her multi-coloured covers incongruous among the swathes of black. War stories such as Robert Cormier’s Heroes too are a common feature of these higgledy-piggledy shelves, as are Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid graphic novels.
For younger readers it seems that Charlie and Lola is de rigeur, standing out amongst a sea of modern classics: The Gruffalo, The Tiger who Came to Tea, Dear Zoo, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and the saccharine sweet Guess How Much I Love You vying for attention on the lower shelves.
There is little room for variation. Under 5s, it seems, want jolly illustrations, pre-adolescents school stories and confirmation from perceived losers, and teens are all about the blood sucking and thinly veiled sexuality of pulpy, vampy romance. Of these age groups it is the teens who are most likely to have autonomy in their purchases, making this deeply unscientific and off-the-cuff survey most reliable in its results for that market.
Twilight has come under heavy criticism for its promotion of abstinence and misogynistic climate, which makes me wonder if the rest of the genre toes the same line. Again, further research is needed.
Many of the titles that aim themselves at 7-11 year olds are from established authors – Jaqueline Wilson and her noughties counterpart Louise Rennison dominate, and books gendered female far outweigh books gendered male. Our children are mainly reading what we read, it seems, though since it is largely us that are buying these books this is not particularly surprising. The same applies to the picturebooks. Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler‘s glorious picturebooks Room on the Broom, Zog and A Squash and a Squeeze are given most room, hardly surprising for a generation of carers that grew up with them.
A small branch of WH Smith on a railway station concourse is a depressing place indeed. It is profit driven and impersonal. The children’s books they sell are maximum revenue products. They are also high quality, well written publications. Our children are more discerning than we give them credit for.