A few days away in the dark heart of the industrial midlands – it was Anne’s idea. Let’s go somewhere we have never stayed before – Birmingham! Birmingham? Birmingham? Yes – Birmingham! They are building a wonderful new library there.
And indeed they are – and in fact it’s already built, all set to open in a few weeks. A golden-capped tower of learning, which decorates the skyline in pulsing and ever-changing colours at night. Set to become the largest public library in the country. A rather impressive new feature in a fiercely ambitious programme of urban regeneration. The Big City Plan is designed to engineer Birmingham out of its post-war trauma – a programme to transform it from the “godless, concrete, urban hell” it had become at the hands of the planners into an elegant post-modern urban living space – one of the world’s top twenty most liveable cities within twenty years.
You have to applaud the ambition – and given the will and the city’s long tradition of engineering solutions, there is no overwhelming reason why not. A start has already been made in reclaiming the network of canals. From dereliction to smart life-style destination – as we discovered as we had a very pleasant supper overlooking a transformed canal basin not far from the city centre. I do have a slight fear that it is too much about life-style and not about life-substance, but I wish it all well.
Musing on style rather than substance, I obviously went in search of books and bookshops. Two immense branches of Waterstone’s within yards of our hotel, so no shortage of readers in Birmingham, but for antiquarian, rare, fine (or even just decent second-hand) the prospect was not so good. I did find one shop (aided by Mike Goodenough’s redoubtable TheBookGuide.co.uk – I should have believed the reviews), but a system apparently of sealing all hardbacks in polythene bags and then stacking them on top of each other (rather shelving them side by side) rather defeated me. Did I want to spend twenty minutes standing on a chair shuffling books around just to get at one that I probably didn’t want anyway? Probably not.
There were other shops – but yet again I should have read the reviews more carefully. I don’t want to libel anyone – so let’s leave it at that. A total of two books and a map bought for little money – but you know those purchases you make just so as to feel you haven’t wasted your time in going? All three items looked interesting, but all three problematic to catalogue, and not quite what they appeared to be.
All rather disappointing on that front. The Birmingham Big City Plan is to incorporate both the Jewellery Quarter and the historic Gun Quarter (the latter may need some rebranding). Too much to ask that if we genuinely want it to be one of the world’s most liveable cities, then we have a Book Quarter as well? No shortage of historic connections with the book-trade, of course – over 3,000 members of the book-trade listed in Birmingham prior to 1851 on the British Book Trade Index, which, as it happens, is based at the University of Birmingham. Surely a city as large and ambitious as this, as packed with academic institutions as this, as richly endowed with traditions of printing, art and design as this, can squeeze in a local equivalent of Cecil Court somewhere.
I’ve lived in Birmingham since 2001 and consider it to be my home. It’s a beautiful place with beautiful people and has lots of superb architecture, but I do think that it is missing lots of the smaller interesting and unique shops that can be found in cities like Manchester.
Really enjoyed your post!
No proper secondhand bookshops in central Manchester either, Suzie. It’s a national malady and, with a few exceptions ( London, York, Edinburgh spring to mind ), most major towns and cities are in the same boat. Given that there’s no shortage of skilled secondhand booksellers my conclusion is that it’s largely a result of absurd rents ( still pretty much based on what chainstores can pay ) and the even more absurd business rates ( a Westminster tax that all political parties know is a scandal but they can’t imagine the budget without it ). This doesn’t just apply to bookshops, of course. Prosperous places have lots of empty shops. The ‘better’ secondhand bookshops that do survive are frequently ones where the owner, or their parents or a previous proprietor, had the presence of mind to purchase the freehold.
Thank you both for your comments. Steve is of course right about rent and rates, but the real problem is a failure of imagination and a lack of joined-up thinking on the part of local authorities. All local councils pay lip-service to the notion of maintaining a diverse and attractive retail sector: it makes their towns and cities more attractive to live in, to work in, to visit and spend time in. Yet they somehow never seem to pass this message on to their colleagues. Rating departments continue to regard their remit as one of wiping out all small and independent businesses. Parking departments likewise. Renting departments (because local councils are often landlords too) likewise. Why not reverse-rates for little local shops that are genuinely an amenity, genuinely add to the culture of a city – shops that the whole area would poorer off without? Plenty of small empty shops that the big chains won’t look at to experiment with.