A view from the counter

I work in the bookshop at The National Archives. You didn’t know we had a bookshop? Shame on you. It really is an undiscovered gem, well worth a visit in its own right. But of course I would say that. I love it. Tucked in the corner just off reception and opposite the coffee bar, the bookshop is a little treasure trove.

The National Archives' Bookshop

The National Archives' bookshop

We specialise in books on all matters British-historical, including the history of some things which never happened. But alongside the books we have cards, maps, bookmarks, mugs and keyrings, to say nothing of essentials for visitors, like batteries (they always run out just when you need them), notebooks and, of course, pencils. Ah pencils, our first sale in the morning is inevitably a pencil and the day is punctuated with a stream of people who left their pencils at home, who foolishly took their eyes off their pencil in the reading room (there be magpies about up there) or whose treasured lucky pencil has a rubber on the end condemning them to persona non grata status. All of these people find their way to us seeking pencils. We sold 6,537 pencils last year alone.

Many working in The National Archives are cocooned in their own little area breathing in the sacred air of arcane knowledge, removing fingerprints or yellowing tape left by the long dead, but here in the bookshop we have an overview. We meet everyone: the staff, the researchers, the new visitor bewildered by the anti-eraser rule, and the grandfather-chaser who has just discovered just why no one spoke about Auntie Mabel. The mad, the bad, the dangerous to know – they all come to the bookshop, particularly when the moon is full. They all have their stories, often interesting, sometimes amazing and sometimes with a little too much information. We know the secret reading habits of members of staff – don’t worry, we will never tell, the till is akin to the confessional.

This week we are supporting Independent Booksellers Week with a range of activities and discounts hoping to bring even more visitors to the bookshop. Bookshops are important; neglect us at your peril. Buy now from the online giants, seduced by the cheap prices and home delivery and before you know it there will be no bookshops. Bookshops are great for The National Archives' bookshopappointments (there is always something to read whilst you wait) and to meet people (a better class of pick-up joint) but, most of all, to buy books. Booksellers can recommend things you would like based on your tastes, not just a keyword algorithm. You can pick up books whose covers catch your eye; e-books have lousy jackets. You can browse a few pages before you part with your cash and discover if this is just a repackaging of one you have read before or if a favoured author has slipped sadly off-form. If there were no bookshops with groaning shelves of gaily-jacketed titles the corporate sausage machine would take over, they will sell only big names and guaranteed winners and we will all be the poorer.

So support your local bookshops. To paraphrase Mae West (surely a great reader) come up and see us sometime. Mike loves maps and can show you a map of your street in 1897, Chris has a boy’s enthusiasm for cut-away diagrams of aircraft and ships and infinite patience and I have a romantic attachment to the fiction of the Great War and can be quite helpful, if you catch me on a good day. But most of all,  we all love books and we are happy to share that love.

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6 comments

  1. Jill Ball (GeniAus) says:

    Love your bookshop – it is a treasure trove.

    Only problem for travellers from Australia is the baggage weight limit we have for our flight home.

    I have bought a pencil, a notebook and some light (weight) books.

  2. Simon Fowler says:

    Its great bookshop for military history and genealogy (possibly the best genealogy bookshop in Britain)

  3. Derek Thomas says:

    A splendid, entertaining piece of writing! Thank you.

  4. Alex Fletcher says:

    Excellent indy bookshop, it is good to see a public resource like the NA having its own shop tailored to its own lot of users and I suppose customers.

    Also like the fact it has some intelligent and independent book choices rather than being just offered whatever celebrity travelogue amazon or whatever chain are currently trying to shift.

    Nice line in bargains too (confesses the cheapskate). Bad for we weak-willed types.

  5. Paul Milner says:

    Sally, you piqued my interest. Are pencils the No.1 seller in the shop? If not, what beat it? What’s next on the list and at how many sold? I agree with Simon a great store, but as Jill comments you have to watch the weight (for me traveling back to the USA). But I always find something of interest that I don’t already have in my library.

  6. Sally Hughes says:

    Hi -thanks Paul-yes pencils are number one by a very considerable margin. After that it really does depend on the day. When a new book is published this can shoot up sales for a period. For example the new edition of Genelaogits Internet came out a couple of weeks ago and we have sold 500 copies of that already but this will slow down again soon. Overall our best selling sections are predictably Family History (somehow My Ancestor Was A Merchant Seaman is a perennial favourite, I guess it is true what they say about sailors) and then First World War.

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