Heffers: The great Cambridge bookseller since 1876, reads the massive banner in the centre of what is essentially a city of books. A bibliopolis? With its large size, wide selection and more commercial feel, this bookshop is a departure from the quaint, quiet independents I normally haunt in Cambridge, but it has its benefits. So bear with me. They can’t all be quirky and cute.
Heffers has been providing Cambridge with the literature its students and residents no doubt gobble up for 137 years and has only recently been bought by Blackwell’s. Unfortunately this means that the place has lost a bit of its individuality and come to look a bit more like your average Blackwell’s or Waterstone’s. But that’s okay. As a literature student I can testify that sometimes creaky floors and yellowed pages just don’t give the selection you need. And that’s okay too. Both types of bookshops have their benefits and I thoroughly believe that we need both.
We need places to explore, to wander, to seek and occasionally (though it’s not the most important part) to actually find. Ideally, we’d live in a world where we have enough variety that you can pick and choose, supporting the best local independent for the cause, moving around freely when what you need out of your bookshop is slightly different. Making new friends, but keeping the old, as they say. Why the internet age is so vehemently opposed to giving us choice is a mystery to me, except to suggest (conspiratorially) that maybe they like dictating what we can and can’t find. I know that that sounds insane, but think about it. Shouldn’t we be insulted that our intelligence is made so little of that big companies have the audacity to recommend books we may like, to limit our choices to one maketplace, to monopolise our book-buying, book-reading, book-reviewing and book-sharing experiences by eliminating all the competition?
Cambridge, on the other hand, is a city that seems to have it right. Its narrow cobbled streets house every point on the spectrum, from Waterstone’s at one end, The Angel Bookshop somewhere in the middle and The Haunted Bookshop at the extreme other end. Heffers is just another point on the spectrum; a place you can feel good about patronising because it’s a bricks and mortar bookshop and still technically an independent, but which has all the convenience of the big chains.
But that’s not to say it hasn’t retained some of its own individuality. It is a far more specialised bookshop and has a fantastic range of academic books, for which I have no doubt the students at Cambridge are very grateful. It goes beyond just English students though and has music, art, history, politics and economics sections that stock more than the bestsellers and offer choice, variety and a high quality selection. It also has an entire section filled with prints, ranging from classic pieces of art to posters of Che Guevara to decorate any pretentious first year student’s walls. Furthermore, unlike a chain, it also has a small secondhand books section in the basement, providing even more options for skint students and tightly-budgeted families.
The layout of the books is also infinitely more appealing than an ordinary chain bookshop. These little windows cut into the middle of shelves not only add a bit of fun and playfulness to the shop, but encourage all those trite but nonetheless accurate sentiments about books being windows on the world. The size of the shop, its selection and its quiet, serious atmosphere make it perfect for Cambridge. It caters to frazzled undergraduates who desperately need a certain book, as niche or obscure as it may be, while still providing a relaxed environment where any resident or visiting bibliophile could quite happily spend the whole day.
I think it’s appropriate to end this fun little Cambridge mini-series with Heffers. One of my favourite things about the city of Cambridge is that it’s full not only of books, stories and poetry, but of a range of brilliant independent bookshops. It is a place that gives back something we’ve been missing these past couple of years: choice.
Because why should a giant company or an impersonal website decide what we read? Surely books should be the way we express not our conformity, but our originality, or individuality. Surely they should be the way we show not our laziness, but our adventurous side, our free and independent minds, our unique imaginations and our personalities. In Cambridge, book lovers have it made. They can have an adventure amongst yellowed, tea-stained, dog-eared pages and creaky attic stairs, or they can get in and out with the book they’ve been needing. Heffers may not be my favourite bookshop in the world, but I’m glad it’s there, proving that we actually don’t need worldwide monopolies dictating everything in order to still have convenience and ease. It shows that we don’t need to bow to the big fish to get the obscure titles or out-of-print classics we love. All we really need are a couple of dedicated booksellers.