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Why less can be more in a bookshop

I have a confession that will make most authors' lib people - you know, the ones who unfriend you on Facebook if you confess to buying anything from Amazon - quake in their sandals: I find independent bookshops intimidating.

I don't like their often dark, claustrophobia inducing interiors, and I don't like being talked to by staff. (Please note, Mary Portas, who regularly advises that good customer services involves welcoming customers and trying to help them. I don't want to be chatted to by a stranger. I'd rather help myself. If I want assistance I will ask for it. If your staff approach me, I will leave without making a purchase.)

So it was with some nervousness that I entered the Mad Hatter Bookshop in the pretty (or to put it another way, Cotswold tourist trappy) location of Burford, surprisingly close to my no-one-could-call-it-tourist-trappy home of Swindon. But I'm glad I did. I was even glad to be welcomed as I came in, though I admit if other shop owners said 'You're Brian Clegg, aren't you?' I would be happier with the concept, Ms Portas please note.

The reason I was particularly glad was that I discovered the real advantage a shop like this can have over Waterstones. (And, no, I don't mean the advantage of selling hats.) A largish Waterstones falls uncomfortably between two stools. It can't complete with an online store on stock. So if I want a specific book, half the time it's not there and I'm much better off going online. But, on the other hand, the Waterstones is too big to browse eclectically, so the customer tends to limit herself to the categories she always visits. And that's a real pity.

I think most of us have experienced the fun of browsing through the bookshelves of a friend with interesting tastes, discovering all sorts of unexpected pleasures. Looking through the shelves at Mad Hatter was very much like that.  It was small enough that I could sensibly look through the entire stock, including subjects I'd never normally think of sampling. Even the fiction section wasn't big enough to be overwhelming. It had exactly that same feel of looking through the large collection belonging to a friend who has a very wide range of tastes. And that meant far more opportunity to discover something new and interesting.

I'm not saying that I have totally got over my nervousness of indie shops, particularly the ones that feature crystals or alternative therapies in the windows. But I will certainly be inclined to take the plunge more often.

You can find Mad Hatter on Burford's steeply sloping High Street, on the right as you look up the hill.


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