Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Monday 23 December 2019

Farewell Wantage Novel Library, Berkshire/Oxfordshire

Looking through some photos I took last summer I found these, from Wantage, Berkshire.* It's an attractive town, which makes much of its associations with King Alfred (and why not? He'd be my candidate for the best English monarch). The church was locked, but there is a large secondhand bookshop (not really WAD, however).** While walking around I spotted this shop in Newbury Street, the Wantage Novel Library.

Circulating libraries (so called because the books circulate from fee-paying reader to reader rather than remaining with one owner) are older than public libraries, having their origins in the 18th century. Probably the best known, Boots Book-Lovers' Library, was founded in 1898 and survived until 1966. Their chief raison d'etre was the public's hunger for popular, genre novels, which presumably wasn't being met by the public libraries (the custodians of which probably thought that only higher-browed works of literature should be on their shelves). 

Public libraries aren't so snooty nowadays, and books are less popular as a form of entertainment, and so circulating libraries have all but disappeared. I don't know when the Wantage Novel Library loaned its last novel. (I do know that in Sheffield in 1977 there was still a circulating library specialising in romances, such as Mills and Boon, because I went into it under the misapprehension that it was a regular secondhand bookshop. I don't know who was the more puzzled, me, or the proprietor when he witnessed someone notably unlike his usual clientele walk in.) I'd guess that it hasn't fulfilled its stated function for many decades; it remained a going concern until 2017, but sold gemstones and minerals, sweets, cigarettes, stamps (I assume collectable stamps rather than ones to put on letters) and books. 

It has existed since 1936 (when circulating libraries were just about at their zenith), and was bought for £5000 (about £154,000 today) in 1951 by John Burgiss. He died in 2019, aged 89, having run his library/shop for sixty-six years. He also conducted the Wantage church choir and played the organ. I doff my hat to him.

I got there just too late. Had I visited Wantage before April 2017 I could have gone in and examined the goods and goodies on display. Had I been there just months, or perhaps even weeks, before my visit in June 2019 I would at least have found the window display intact. There are plenty of pictures online (see here, for example) of the shopfront as it was, looking so unappealing, verging on deliberately off-putting, that any reasonable person would immediately have been irresistibly drawn to enter to see what it was all about. It looks as if it hadn't been touched since Mr Burgiss bought it.

Just one small display window remained intact when I was there, visible on the left in the picture at the top. This seems to have been overlooked when the shop was cleared out.

If the main window looked like a relic from the 50s, this side window is a bit more modern. I'd say it was last updated as recently as c.1970. It's literally a window into another era. I'm very sad that I never got a chance to go through the door where I would, I fervently believe, have had Mr Benn-like adventures.

Further reading: Story from the Oxford Mail about the fate of the shop's contents, and in particular how some Victorian glass plate negatives owned by Burgiss have been saved for the town's museum.

The blog Paul Robinson's Amazing Books' post about the shop.

Philip Wilkinson's blog English Buildings about the shop, and especially the lettering on the fascia.

* Oxfordshire since the boundary changes of 1974. I give preference to Berkshire as most of the more authoritative guidebooks - in particular Pevsner - use the old counties, and because Wantage has been in Oxfordshire for less than half a century, whereas it was (and still is, by some reckonings) in Berkshire for a lot more than a thousand years.

** Older frequenters of secondhand bookshop will recognise this abbreviation from the famous/notorious Driff''s: The Guide to all the Antiquarian and Secondhand Bookshops, meaning 'Worth A Detour'. Driff, whose real name seems to have been Xavier Driffield, wrote and published a frank (that is, often scabrously rude) guide to Britain's secondhand bookshops in the 80s and 90s. It went through five of six editions, and was, pre-interweb, an essential book to own if you were interested in old books. The Book Guide website serves much the same purpose nowadays, though not so entertainingly (and without making so many enemies).


  1. Do you know who owns the property now and what their plans are for it?

  2. Sorry, I don't. I've not been back since that visit. Googling it gives you: Property Commercial Property For Sale | › property-details › 6557485-commer...
    7 Jan 2020 - ADDRESSThe Wantage Novel Library, 16 Newbury Street, Wantage, Oxfordshire, OX12 8DA. TYPERetail. TENUREFor Sale Freehold.
    But following the link takes you to a property page with no reference to the library. Maybe it's been sold since 7 Jan as a shop.

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  4. Thank you for the update, very nice site.. lord of the mysteries

  5. I have lived in Wantage for a good few years and can tell you now that the shop hasn't functioned in many ways for the last 40+ years.

    The main window nevery had any real display and would have the odd faded empty sweey=t box tray on he shelf. Nothing else.

    While wanatge changed and tried to adapt, this place did not, and newbury street isn't a street you would progress far once you get the church street and you can cut through the car part down church street to the Sports Center in Portsway or cut through Victoria Gallet missing off Newbury stree completly.

    As of writing, the front is now completely boarded it to preserve the building.

    1. Thanks for this extra information.

    2. I came across this shop about 10 years ago and optimistically went inside. There was a woman in her late forties behind the counter which had a few bags of crisps and sweets on it and off to the left was a shelf on the wall with a few ex-library books on it. I pulled out a few that I wanted to buy (they were romances by the Irish author Rachel Sweet Macnamara) and was charged 10p each. I asked if she had any more and was told there were about 20 boxes of books but they weren't for sale as no one wanted them. Thinking of the rarities that could be in those boxes (Gent from Bear Creek, Buckskin Brigade, etc.) I tried to tell her that I was interested and might buy them all but she just shrugged me off. A follow-up letter reiterating my interest went unanswered. I would guess that they probably ended up in a skip.

    3. Many thanks for this fascinating glimpse of the shop as a (just about) going concern. I wish I'd managed to visit it then.