© 2017 The Harpenden Society
Many people in Harpenden were dismayed some five years ago when the town’s only independent bookshop, Bookstack in Bowers Parade, closed its doors. Though relatively few of us would describe ourselves as bibliophiles – defined as those who collect or are fond of books – most of us enjoy a ‘good read’ and have shelves of favourite volumes.
Reasons given for Bookstack’s demise included the seemingly unstoppable growth of on-line retailing, most obviously by that fearsome behemoth Amazon, which made it possible, without moving from your computer screen, to purchase a book and have it delivered to your door, often by the following day. Whereas in a traditional bookshop, it had to be ordered from a publisher or wholesaler, followed by an indeterminate wait for it to be ready for collection.
Adding insult to injury for those small book retailers was the advent of the e-book, exemplified by Amazon’s Kindle, enabling a book to be read on the screen of an easily portable electronic device. It is estimated that over 600 independent bookshops across the UK closed in the last decade.
But the e-book revolution seems now to have run out of steam, and traditional bookshops are fighting back. The battle has been, and continues to be, led by the Waterstones chain, notwithstanding the fact that its branch in George Street, Luton, closed three or four years ago.
Waterstones’ established bookstores, like those in St Peter’s Street, St Albans and the Galleria at Hatfield, are large outlets holding many thousands of titles, giving customers an extensive browsing choice. As a large company it is able to negotiate sufficiently attractive supply agreements with book publishers to match, in many instances, the likes of Amazon on price competitiveness and availability.
All of which has allowed Waterstones to embark on a new marketing venture, opening three smaller shops in selected town sites – including Harpenden Books, which opened in April at 48 High Street, prominently located opposite Sainsbury’s on the edge of Church Green.
Its manager Ines Freitas says the venture is proving an unqualified success. ‘Footfall’ – the retailer term for numbers coming through the door – is well up to expectations. She further explains that Waterstones’ decision to sublimate its corporate brand name, in favour of what is a local business title, was part of a conscious effort to integrate the bookshop more closely with the Harpenden community.
As part of that process, some 15 book-reading groups in and around the town have registered with Harpenden Books, to receive regular information about newly-published titles – as many as 150 a week on fiction alone. Members of those book groups also enjoy a 10% discount on purchases.
Walking into the shop, one is immediately aware of the imaginative way the books are displayed, mainly ‘front cover outwards’, conducive to hassle-free browsing, helped by strategic lighting. Parents, whether accompanied by their offspring or not, are drawn to the bright and colourful childrens book section occupying the rear half of the ground floor.
Aficionados of science fiction, poetry, natural history and other specialist subjects are catered for by an extensive selection of books on the first floor.
Harpenden Books’ arrival is a refreshing rebuttal of the often-heard observation that every premises in the High Street and Station Road is becoming a women’s fashion outlet, an estate agent’s or a place to eat or drink coffee.
Despite its recent overall – and controversial – refurbishment as a ‘gastro pub’, the Harpenden Arms, on the southern corner of the High Street and Station Road, remains one of the town’s most recognisable and long-established landmarks.
Built in 1870, two years after the arrival of the Midland Railway, on a site formerly occupied by some dilapidated cottages, it opened as the Railway Hotel, under the ownership of one James Mardall. The following year he bought Harpenden’s Peacock brewery, one of two breweries situated close to each other in the High Street, on sites occupied today by High Street Methodist Church and W H Smith.
In architectural terms the hotel – worthy of that description at the time in offering accommodation – is a ‘brick and stucco’ building with ‘classical pilasters and other ornamentation’, together with a ‘brick cornice and hipped slate roof’.
With its associated livery stables in Stakers Lane (renamed Station Road in 1892), the hotel, under a landlord with the unusual name Mavor, was described in the 1890 Kelly's Directory as ‘A family and commercial hotel and posting house. Balls, wedding breakfasts etc well catered for’. Horses from the livery stable were hired out for hunting and hacking, for weddings and even for hauling the village fire engine.
In the 1920s, local builder Jarvis built an extension. The Railway Hotel is not to be confused with the Railway Inn (most recently renamed ‘Gautier Bistro at the Amble Inn’) a mile and a half away, which served Harpenden East station on the Dunstable to Hatfield Great Northern (latterly LNER) line.
Acknowledgement: the website of Harpenden Local History Society
Top: Harpenden Arms at the turn of the 20th Century and Above: how it looked before the latest controversial ‘refurbishment’. Below: Newly refurbished.