Sir John Betjeman wrote, “Think of what our Nation stands for, / Books from Boots’ and country lanes, / Free speech, free passes, class distinction, / Democracy and proper drains.” It is one of the poet’s many unexpectedly precise evocations of midcentury English life.
On Twitter, Anne Louise Avery wrote an interesting history of the lending libraries at Boots pharmacies during the first half of the twentieth century:
I remember asking my mother, who grew up in the 30s & 40s, about the Boots library, and she said, of course, that’s where we all got our weekly novels. At the time, Boots was as much associated with reading as it was with Calamine lotion and Friars Balsam & Syrup of Figs.
The “Boots Book-Lovers’ Library” was a circulating library which began in 1898, as one of the innovations applied to the family business by Jesse Boot’s brilliant, socially-conscious wife Florence.
Often taking her children to work with her, a cot squeezed into the corner of her office, Florence wanted to boost literacy levels amongst the poor and working class, enabling cheap, widespread access to books.
She began by installing a small revolving bookcase in the Nottingham Boots in Goose Gate, then established a proper library in the Pelham Street branch of the city.
There were 3 types of membership, priced from 3d. All members received a token & date of renewal, which could be attached to the borrowed book through the distinctive hole in the spine, the token then acting as a bookmark…
By the 1940s, there were over a million subscribers, 38 million books were exchanged in one year. The libraries were cosy, welcoming, with rugs and fresh flowers and trained librarians to help.
The Boots Booklovers Library closed in 1966 following the passage of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, which provided for council-funded local libraries.